Osprey Outfitters Guide Service and Fly Shop

Osprey Outfitters Guide Service and Fly Shop
Osprey Outfitters Guide Service and Fly Shop

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Monday, May 9, 2011

The War on Brown Trout

I know, I know, it has been a long time since I have posted a blog.  I apologize but it has been a crazy and very busy spring.  I guided more days this skwala season than any other.  To everyone who came out, I thank you for making it my best early season yet.  There were some really good days of fishing this spring, despite the crazy weather.  There were some big fish landed, and as always, some very big fish that got away; that's fishn'.   Before I go into battle stories of guiding and fishing, I would like to rant about an issue that has recently surfaced.

20" Beaverhead River brown; Approx age 18 years
Apparently, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) thinks there are too many big fish in the Montana's streams and rivers.  They are proposing increasing the kill limits on brown trout for the 2012 season.  Of course, I can't find out exactly how many brown trout will be allowed to be killed each day.  Before I go into my rant I want to give you some facts on how FWP has mismanaged some of our local fisheries.  I'm not trying to demonize FWP, they do some great work.  However, they have dropped the ball on several occasions and like any governmental agency they need citizen oversight and input.

  • In 1984 FWP introduced mysis shrimp into Flathead Lake to "increase food supply" for the Kokanee salmon.  However, the salmon eat plankton.  Mysis shrimp also eat plankton and have out-completed the salmon.  The salmon fishery has all but vanished!
  • In 1985 FWP decided there were too many large RAINBOWS in the Big Horn River and increased the harvest limits.  The very next year the damage was evident and the Big Horn turned into a brown trout fishery.  Since then, rainbow populations have recovered but more large brown trout prevail due to FWP's war on rainbows.  Ironic, isn't it?
  • In the late 1980's Rock Creek made an unprecedented comeback and boasted over 4,000 fish per mile.  FWP immediately increased the kill limits on Rock Creek and in just a few short years the fish population crashes to less than 2,000 per mile.
  • In late summer of 2008 the Bitterroot River water temperature levels were spiking well over 70° just below Hannon Memorial.  Several outfitters/guides noticed a die-off of whitefish and large cutthroat trout (the native fish FWP is trying to protect) and contacted the local FWP fisheries biologist.  His comment was that the water couldn't be that warm because the USGS online sites were reporting cooler temperatures.  It turned out that the USGS gauge was broken and after several weeks water was finally released out of Painted Rocks dam, thereby cooling off the river.

Les Vance with  a 22" brown trout; Approx. age 20 years old

FWP insists that brown trout are now out-competing the Westslope cutthroat and bull trout.  Because of this they want to increase the kill numbers on brown trout WITHOUT any size restrictions.  Currently, you are only allowed to kill 3 fish per day and only 1 can exceed 14 inches.  This is because once fish start reaching 14 inches they become sexually mature and you will start killing the breeding stock.  No fish with a slash under its jaw, aka a cutthroat, may be killed.  One of my main objections to the new proposal is a zero slot limit.  Large brown trout (over 20 inches) are very old fish.  Unlike cutthroat and rainbows, who only live 7-8 years at a maximum, brown trout can live up to 25-27 years.  A 24 inch brown trout can be between 20-23 years old, depending on year round food sources and fishing pressure.  Given the long life-cycle of the brown trout, how long do you think it will take before the brown trout numbers crash?

Matt Hayes with a 19.5" brown; Approx. age 18 years

As of 2009 tourism revenue totaled $3 BILLION and for the first time in history exceeded all other industries in Montana, including minerals.  It has been estimated that the outfitting industry in Montana was worth $140 million in 2009.  This number is a little misleading and does not take in account all the other businesses that benefit, i.e. gas stations, restaurants, retail shops, lodging, grocery stores, bars/casinos, etc.  I would guess that the true number would be close to a billion dollars.  When I guide anglers, they seem to get most excited when they catch a big brown trout.  It is no secret that people come to Montana for the chance to catch a large, wild brown trout.  Yes, they want to catch other fish but a large brown is the creme de la creme.   I can't tell you how many times someone has said, "All I want today is a brown trout over 20 inches."  Almost all of the more memorable fish in the last 11 years of guiding came from clients catching large brown trout.  If FWP has their way, these days will soon be over.  

20" Blackfoot Loch Levin brown trout (very rare); Approx age 18-20 years

Now let's focus on some scientific facts.  It is proven that brown trout are the most disease resistant of all the trout.  They can block whirling disease on a cellular level.  They reinforce their cellular walls, which doesn't allow the whirling disease parasite through.  Furthermore, brown trout are the least susceptible to water quality issues.  They can live in highly polluted water.  There is a reason the Upper Clark Fork and below the Warm Springs tailing ponds (outside of Butte) are predominate brown trout fisheries.  Brown trout can also live in waters that have extreme temperature fluctuations.  They are the ONLY trout that can live where the water temperatures exceed 70ยบ for extended periods of time.  In the days when we are worried about the effects of whirling disease and climate change, remind me why we want to kill the one fish that could save our fisheries?! 

Freddy Bensch w/a 23" brown; Aprrox age over 20 yrs
So why the sudden push to start a war on brown trout?  Unfortunately this is not a new war; just a new phase.  In 1997, FWP proposed a change to the fishing regulations for the 1998-1999 season (which passed but has since been modified).  The regulations that were adopted stated that on the Westfork you could kill "up to 3 rainbow or brown trout with NO SIZE LIMIT".  Now, over a decade later, they are staging a new front to an old war.  The Montana chapter of Trout Unlimited has been in FWP's pocket (literally and figuratively) for decades.  One of their collective goals is to restore native fish to Montana's fisheries.  This, on the surface, sounds like a noble cause.  However, all Montana fisheries are currently managed for wild fish stocks; including the non-native browns and rainbows.  I am sure the lobbyists for Montana Trout Unlimited are making a big push to change the current kill limits on brown trout.  The simple reason people spend hundreds of millions of dollars a year to fish Montana's world famous trout streams is for the opportunity to catch WILD rainbows, browns and cutthroats.  When you think of the more famous trout rivers in Montana places like the Madison, Big Hole, Big Horn, Beaverhead, Missouri and Yellowstone come to mind.  What is the major draw for these rivers?  It's for the opportunity to catch world-class rainbow and brown trout.  There have been a countless number of songs, stories and poems written about these rivers and the large trout that inhabit them.  On rivers like the Big Hole, which is mostly a brown trout fishery, the negative impact will be devastating.

So what can you do?  GET INVOLVED!!! The "official" comment period for FWP's proposal ended on April 22nd.  However, I highly encourage anyone and everyone to either send a letter to FWP Fisheries Bureau PO Box 200701 Helena, MT 59620-0701 or email them a letter http://www.fwp.mt.gov/ and click on the Fishing Page.  I would expect FWP to hold some public hearings before any changes are adopted, but you never know.  The more pressure on FWP the better.  I would also highly encourage you to write letters to the Montana chapter of Trout Unlimited.  I also have a petition going in the shop for those who wish to sign their opposition to the War on Brown Trout.