Gone Fishing? 

The state steps in to give Montana anglers their day on the water

File this under “strange but true:” The Big Hole is so crowded that the state has been forced to step in and mitigate the social conflicts that have arisen in one of western Montana’s most remote regions. But it’s not the Big Hole Valley—The Land of 10,000 Haystacks—that is drawing people; rather, it’s the river that runs through it.

The Big Hole River, Montana’s premier blue ribbon trout stream, the river christened “Wisdom” nearly 200 years ago by Lewis and Clark after one of President Thomas Jefferson’s attributes, has been a favorite angling stream for generations of Montanans. Now, out-of-staters have found the Big Hole River as well. In fact, so many non-resident anglers are clogging both the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers that the state Fish and Game Commission is considering setting aside one day a week for Montanans to fish their own rivers without having to battle the daily Avon hatch of tourists and guides—and may declare entire stretches off-limits to commercial fishing guides.

How did things get to the point that the state had to step in between locals and tourists? “Boy, that’s a long story,” says Pat Flowers, regional supervisor for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. In 1999, the Montana Legislature, responding to growing complaints that too many out-of-state anglers were fishing and floating the Big Hole and Beaverhead rivers, passed House Bill 626, giving the state Fish and Game Commission the authority to manage “social conflicts.” Two citizens advisory groups were formed—one for each river.

Since late 1999, the committees worked on river management plans, eventually coming up with a strategy that, remarkably, everyone seemed to agree on. Everyone but the Fish and Game Commission, that is.

What the citizens committees came up with was a plan to freeze the number of licensed guides and outfitters.

“The whole package would have solved the problem of crowding,” says Steve Lubeck, a member of the Big Hole River citizens committee, who lives in Anaconda.

But the Fish and Game Commission didn’t like the idea of a moratorium. Says Flowers: “It stepped over the line.” A freeze on new guides and outfitters may have eventually led to a permit system. Licensed outfitters who retired or decided to go out of business could have then have sold their permits to the next guide eager to set up his or her own river guiding business. The state would then have found itself in the position of creating private rights to a public resource, says Flowers.

Last December, state fish and game officials offered an alternative to the moratorium. During the late May-to-Labor Day fishing season, certain stretches of both rivers would be closed entirely to commercial anglers. And every Saturday would be designated “Citizens’ Day,” along some sections of the rivers.

On the Big Hole River, a total of 90 miles would be set aside for Montana residents and wade anglers accompanied by guides.

Commercial floating would be allowed on 66 miles of river. All commercial floaters would be limited to launching two boats a day at or between designated fishing access sites. On the Beaverhead River, slightly more than 63 miles would be open to float outfitting. Nearly 16 miles would be closed to float outfitting, but wade anglers accompanied by paid guides or outfitters would be allowed.

The Fish and Game Commission is taking public comment on the plan until Feb. 2. If adopted, the rules would be in effect from May 2, 2001 to May 1, 2003.

Lubeck is disappointed with the proposal and believes the commission was more concerned about the rights of guides and outfitters than with rights of Montanans to enjoy untrammeled access to their own rivers. But Flowers says it’s unrealistic for locals to think they can keep the rivers all to themselves.

In the past decade, Lubeck says, commercial fishing on the Big Hole River has jumped 281 percent, from 13,000 non-resident angler days in 1989 to 50,000 in 1997. Though he says state fish and game officials “acted honorably” by coming up with the draft proposal, “it’s not very popular in southwest Montana.” But the citizens committees have no desire to harm the commercial fishing business in Montana, and will probably not try to sway the commission back to the moratorium idea, he says.

Bitterroot outfitter Jack Mauer, who takes his clients fishing on the Big Hole regularly, calls the proposal a “double-edged sword.” But, he adds, “I think that something had to be done. It’s a small, delicate river susceptible to low flows and you hate to see it over-used at low water. But I have mixed feelings. I’d like to have the freedom to fish [any stretch of] the Big Hole.”

Like Lubeck, Mauer doesn’t like the fact that the proposal doesn’t limit the number of guides. Commercial floating will still be allowed to grow on both rivers, but, if the proposal is adopted, business could increase on limited stretches—thereby exacerbating the problem. “I don’t think it’s a good plan to manage the Big Hole,” Mauer says.

Flowers says coming up with a good management plan has been difficult, and given Montanans’ deep love for their rivers and streams, emotional as well.

“There’s no question traffic has increased over the years,” he says. “And quality of fishing is really a personal issue.” Overcrowding is subjective and difficult to assess; what may be oppressively crowded to a lifelong resident of the Big Hole Valley may be wide-open splendor for a visitor from Los Angeles.

“It’s a real emotional issue on all sides,” says Flowers. “I don’t know what the answer is, but for [locals] to have it all to themselves is not realistic.”

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