KALISPELL - Rivers and streams in Northwest Montana are experiencing severe drought conditions due to below-average winter snowpack, early runoff, and above-average hot, dry summer conditions.
The combination of low water levels and high-water temperatures adds stress to native trout populations that could lead to devastating ecological impacts.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) is asking anglers to take precautions before mandatory fishing restrictions are put in place.
“We’ve always had good, cold water in the Flathead, until now it hasn’t been a worry," said FWP spokesman Dillon Tabish.
Rivers and streams in Northwest Montana are running at or near historic lows.
Flows in the Flathead River are roughly one-third of average for this time of year.
Tabish noted, “2 p.m. to midnight that’s the hottest part of the day, that’s when those streamflows really peak in temperature and that’s when those fish are really stressed out right now."
He added that anglers should avoid fishing during the hottest parts of the day and self-regulate while on the water.
“That’s keeping fish in water as long as possible, not playing with them on the line for very long, just trying to do anything you can to limit the exertion those fish are going to have out of the water, even in the water just because we don’t want to see any short-term or long-term impacts to our fisheries.”
If the Flathead River continues to drop, Tabish said a Hoot Owl restriction may be enforced, which prohibits fishing between 2 p.m. and midnight on drought-impacted waters.
“We’ve never had Hoot Owl restrictions on the Flathead River system, so we’ve really been fortunate that we’ve always had clean, cold water up here and this year is the exception, unfortunately.”
AJ Coulter owns AJ Coulter Outfitting in Whitefish and has been fishing on the Flathead River for more than 30 years.
He’s never seen the river this low in late July, he’s only offering guided fishing trips in the morning hours.
“I mean I got into this because it’s my passion and I’m concerned about the resource, so I’m not going to beat on the resource by fishing when I shouldn’t be fishing,” said Coulter.
He hopes other anglers follow in his footsteps and avoid fishing during the hottest parts of the day.
“This is a resource that we would like to keep going, so hopefully people respect things and do what they know is right.”
FWP said anglers can minimize stress to fish by:
- Landing the fish quickly.
- Keeping the fish in water as much as possible, limit or even avoid taking photos.
- Removing the hook gently. Using artificial lures with single barbless hooks can make hook removal faster and easier.
- Remembering single-pointed hooks are required in the Flathead drainage upstream of Teakettle Fishing Access Site on the mainstem Flathead River.
- Letting the fish recover so it can swim away.
If high temperatures and extremely low flows persist, anglers may want to consider fishing areas with less stressful temperatures and conditions, such as larger lakes or reservoirs, or higher elevation waterbodies.