Angling for access 

Fishy business continues on Montana rivers

For anglers, stream access debates are becoming as perennial as the lilac bloom, and with the passing of the third Saturday in May and the official opening of fishing season in Montana, the issue is once again rising to the surface.

May marks the one-year anniversary of news reports that media giant James Cox Kennedy, chairman of Atlanta-based Cox Enterprises Inc., vice president of the charitable Cox Foundation and Madison County landowner, wouldn’t be making any donations in the state until Montanans become more amenable to out-of-state landowners and their private-water fantasies.

“Many Montana residents are making it known that they are not happy with nonresident landowners in their state,” stated a letter from the Cox Foundation, in response to a request from the University of Montana for donations to help fund a $3 million auditorium in the school’s new Journalism School building. “In addition, stream and river access issues are also being raised. Until these issues are resolved and our presence in the state is more appreciated, we have decided not to make any further contributions in Montana.”

Kennedy’s 3,200-acre Trailsend Ranch encompasses Ruby River frontage between Twin Bridges and Sheridan in Madison County, and remains at center of one of the most bitter public access disputes in the state (a lawsuit filed by the Public Lands-Water Access Association over access to the Ruby at county bridge rights-of-way is still pending). Last year the Cox Foundation’s rejection letter threw gas on the heated battle between sportsmen who demand access to Montana rivers under the state’s 1985 stream access law and private landowners who want to restrict such access.

By late summer, the sound of irritated anglers had gone the way of the stream flows. But this month, as if taking a cue from spring runoff, the conflict has once again been flushed into the consciousness of stream-accessing Montanans.

It started when District Judge Ted Mizner ruled that the Bitterroot’s Mitchell Slough—which flows through land owned by such noteworthy out-of-staters as 1980s rock star Huey Lewis and investment mogul Charles Schwab—is not a natural body of water, thus not subject to the state’s stream access law, and thus not open to the public. The Bitterroot River Protection Association and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks are still considering whether to appeal.

Just days before that decision came down, the Associated Press reported yet another sportsman/landowner conflict, this time down in the Big Hole, where fishing guide Brent Taylor says he’s lost access to his favorite fishing hole on the Beaverhead.

“You pretty much have to rip your waders to get through there,” Taylor told the AP after discovering newly strung barbed wire and “no trespassing” signs posted along the railroad tracks he once used to walk to his favorite spot.

“Stream access, in general, is always an issue,” says Matt Potter, co-owner of Missoula’s Kingfisher Fly Shop. “There are more people on the river than ever before.”

With public access to wade-fishing on Montana’s rivers already limited, Potter says anglers will continue to concentrate on waterways that are easy to get to as the region’s population grows.

Concentration of river traffic is one of the reasons area fly shops are circulating petitions to block a controversial 36-lot subdivision near the mouth of Rock Creek, a world-class trout stream that flows into the Clark Fork River east of Missoula. Salem, Ore., developer Michael Barnes began work late last month, drawing the ire of neighbors, fishermen and the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) in the process. In the first week of May, the DEQ delivered a violation notice of the state’s open cut mining act. Then, on May 16, in response to a suit filed by the Rock Creek Protective Association, a Missoula judge ordered Barnes to stop operating heavy equipment and discharging water from a newly excavated pond into the Clark Fork.

David Baker, manager for Grizzly Hackle in downtown Missoula, says developments like the one proposed for the mouth of Rock Creek could have long-term impacts on the fishing in that area that go beyond the immediate environmental impact of constructing a 36-lot subdivision on the banks of Rock Creek.

“It’s an internationally known river, it’s not just a Montana gem,” Baker says. “Who’s to say that of those 36 homes…half of the homeowners won’t be fishermen? They’re going to be on a blue-ribbon stream, they’re going to want to have boats, and they’re going to want to get up there and float it.”

Baker’s concerned that increased traffic on Rock Creek could eventually lead to float restrictions like those found on the Smith River, where only nine float parties are allowed on the river each day during the typical April through July 4 float season, and permits are issued in February via a lottery system.

“It’s not going to be far behind, and not everybody is going to be able to fish it at some point,” Baker predicts.

Christopher Entz of the Missoulian Angler says close to 100 anglers have come into the shop looking to sign the petition.

“We’ve filled up about four pages and we’ve only had it in here a week,” he says.

But spring fishermen aren’t consumed with worry over stream access issues. There’s still plenty of world-class fly-fishing available in Western Montana, and with above-average snowpack in the mountains as we head into April, this summer is shaping up to be a banner fishing season in the Clark Fork River basin.

“Providing the runoff comes at a normal pace, we should be fishing right into the middle of August, like a normal year,” says Potter.

The nearly week-long stretch of 90-plus-degree weather earlier this month melted a considerable amount of that snowpack, swelling rivers with turbid, fast-moving water and halting fishing on most rivers over opening weekend. But according to Ray Nickless, hydrologist for the National Weather Service, that’s good news after years of disappointing late-season fishing opportunities. So far, early indications are that Missoula-area anglers have reason to be optimistic.

“Stream flows are much healthier this year than we have seen in a number of years,” says Nickless.

While anglers wait patiently for the season’s big runoff to subside, they’re busy tying bugs, scouting new honey holes and keeping an eye on the stream access news.

“But the way I look at it, every year is a good fishing year for me,” adds Nickless, himself a fisherman. “If the rivers are not doing great I just go up to a mountain lake. I can always find good fishing in Montana.”

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