The gasp reflex 

Barriers define the state of the state's fisheries

Fifty anglers in a wood-paneled room gasp at a picture of a two-foot bull trout caught beneath Milltown Dam. They lean back in their theater-style chairs on the second floor of the Elk’s Lodge and admire the image projected on a screen in front of them by state fisheries biologist Dave Schmetterling.

Half an hour later, the anglers gasp again. This time the image is of a westslope cutthroat leaping out of the Clark Fork River into a culvert at the outlet of Marshall Creek. The culvert ends several feet above the river and the foot-long fish is invisible in the outpouring cascade of water until Ladd Knotek, another state fisheries biologist, points to its shadowy form.

The anglers, almost all of them members of the West Slope Chapter of the nation-wide advocacy group Trout Unlimited, are gathered for a State of the Fisheries meeting in early January. Instead of discussing good books about fishing, as the group did at its last monthly meeting in December, they are here to consider the bigger picture of how waterways, anglers, and fish come together to make a fishery.

This isn’t the first time the chapter has hosted such a meeting. Similar events have been held sporadically in the past, says president Ruth Reineking, but from now on the chapter would like to make it annual in hopes that doing so will attract new members and keep her group in good communication with fisheries biologists like Schmetterling and Knotek.

Since this is an audience of anglers, it makes sense that they’d gasp at a picture of a bull trout large enough to sag between the hands of the man holding it. Bull trout are a threatened species and it’s illegal to catch them on purpose. This is a fish these anglers cannot get their hands on until and unless the population recovers. Until then it’s dream, but don’t cast.

The bull trout gasp comes for a second reason as well. This fish is one of dozens who migrate upstream and “pile up” in the deep pool beneath the dam, says Schmetterling. Because he conducts research on Milltown Dam and the confluence of the Blackfoot and Clark Fork, many of the anglers are already familiar with him.

The idea of an unforeseen congregation of massive bull trout has these anglers salivating for full recovery. The major hurdle is Milltown Dam, since bull trout migrate upstream to spawn. If the bull trout in the picture represents one reason Scheltering’s agency advocates for removal of the dam, then the gasp from the audience is an audible echo of that recommendation.

Bull trout are not the only species of fish that congregate at Milltown Dam. The warmer, slower waters in the reservoir above the dam, for instance, provide good breeding and feeding habitat for northern pike, a nonnative species that preys on young migrating trout headed downstream.

So Pat Saffel, who is the state’s regional fisheries manager, can only respond affirmatively when posed the simple question from the audience: Would breaching the dam, or providing a passage around the dam, improve the local trout fishery?

“Yes, particularly for the Blackfoot and Rock Creek,” Saffel says. “The Clark Fork has, we believe, a metals problem that needs to be dealt with first. But the dam blocks tens of thousands of fish each year. Just letting those fish pass freely would itself be beneficial.”

The cutthroat gasp comes not only from an angler’s appreciation for the sheer athleticism of the leap, but for the actual gap between the river and the culvert. Cutthroat trout, another fish with low native populations, migrate to spawn as well, but barriers like culverts can keep them from moving upstream.

Knotek—also a familiar face to many local anglers since he studies the Clark Fork fishery below the dam—says Fish Creek near Alberton, for instance, has 70 road crossings. Not all culverts present vertical challenges like Marshall Creek, but many others concentrate stream flow into a narrow channel without obstacles to slow it down. Knotek says that can accelerate the water beyond the swimming power of fish.

Irrigation can present a barrier too. Knotek says streams without enough water for swimming may as well be closed to fish too. Along with culverts, that makes the list of possible barriers long and plentiful: ranches, farms, Interstate 90, the railroad, and so on.

“The majority of the smaller tributaries [of the Clark Fork River near Missoula] have barriers, whether due to transportation crossings or dewatering,” Knotek says. “Even Grant Creek has a barrier at Broadway and Rattlesnake Creek has the Mountain Water Dam.”

And barriers create problems for more than spawning. In the summer, bull trout and cutthroat alike need to escape from the warm waters of the Clark Fork River to the cool waters of its tributaries. Knotek says barriers can prevent that movement, or, as happens with bull trout, force the fish to “stack up” in pools, which in turn promotes illegal fishing.

Across the state, not all barriers are considered harmful. Knotek says that in eastern Montana, for instance, the same barriers that trap cutthroat into small lengths of upstream habitat also protect them from hybridization with the rainbow trout that stay downstream.

Nonetheless, Knotek says the “major problem” in the Clark Fork River is fish passage, and removing barriers will be “key” to the recovery of bull trout and cutthroat. Anything less would run counter to the state’s reputation.

“Montana is renowned in that we have wild trout fisheries and native fisheries,” Knotek says. “We don’t stock streams here. We depend on those tributaries being connected to the river.”

Luckily, the state of the fisheries near Missoula includes more than just barriers to the recovery of bull trout and cutthroats. It also includes the covetous gasps of anglers who would like to see those barriers removed.

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