by Michael Howell
The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) tracks both the number of fish of different species in each stretch of the river and the number of people trying to catch them by floating down the river in boats. The agency actually has some data on waders and scenic tours, but those numbers are difficult to gather, while boaters with fishing rods can easily be caught on properly placed cameras. Regional Fisheries Manager Pat Saffel and local FWP fisheries biologist Jason Lindstrom both gave summary updates on the status of the Bitterroot River Fishery south of Hamilton last week to at a meeting hosted by Bitterroot Trout Unlimited.
Saffel gave a five-year review of the commercial and non-commercial floating in 2020 and on partial data for 2021 on the upper stretches of the Bitterroot River from Painted Rocks Reservoir to Hamilton. The report covered activity on a stretch of the river from the Wally Crawford FAS to Hannon FAS and on four stretches of the West Fork from the confluence up to Painted Rocks Reservoir.
Saffel said it was hard to catch waders on camera and hard to distinguish scenic floaters from fishermen sometimes, but the numbers on commercial and non-commercial boats are robust. He cautioned that due to the COVID-19 outbreak, 2020 numbers are an “anomaly.” He said the number of commercial floaters was way down in 2020 but at the same time the numbers of non-commercial floaters was up. The 1343 total number of floaters in 2020 was a significant drop from 2019. In 2021, 3256 boats were counted. Saffel figured that it shows the pandemic really suppressed commercial activity in 2020 while it stoked public non-commercial use.
“People went and bought boats,” said Saffel. He said the 2021 numbers indicate that the commercial use has returned to pre-pandemic levels while the ramped up public use has remained.
Safffel said no matter how you figure it, floating is the most dominant form of commercial use compared to wading or scenic tours. On the whole, he said, the overall use by the public is about the same as commercial. The figures also indicate, as Doctor Trout (BTU member and meeting host Marshall Bloom) noted, that use by waders went down in high water and up significantly in low water times, while boating was shown to be the opposite, higher during high water and lower in times of low water.
Estimates in 2016 show that non-commercial use on the West Fork including Section 2 was 10-15 percent of the total use. In 2018, the estimate of non-commercial use was 39 percent. In 2019, the camera count showed non-commercial use at 42 percent This camera picked up a total of 990 boats, 57 wade anglers, 18 swimmers and 7 other types of craft.
FWP biologist Jason Lindstrom gave the group a review of population statistics for Westslope Cutthroat, Rainbow, Brown and Bull trout on various stretches of the river. He presented both the numbers found in actual counts as well as the average over the whole Period of Count (average POR) which stretches from the mid-1980s to today. Only fish over 7 inches in length were counted.
Lindstrom said that on the West Fork up around Conner, the Westslope Cutthroat trout appeared to be above the average for the POR. The Rainbows appear to be holding steady over the last few decades. Brown trout numbers are up from the 80s and 90s but still pretty low. There are only a few Bull trout. He said it was a declining trend for Bull trout across the whole basin due to warming water conditions.
“The Bull trout are not doing great,” he said.
Around the Hannon FAS the reach was dominated by Rainbows, but the numbers were down a little bit from the average for the POR. There were not a lot of Browns, but the numbers appear to be stable. The Westslope Cutthroat numbers also appeared to be stable hovering mostly above the 30 per mile estimation.
Lindstrom said that a new section of the West Fork has been included in the counts this year from the dam down to the river. He said the counts indicate that Rainbows and Browns are more predominant above the Nez Perce junction than below. He said the Brown trout densities were greater than anywhere else on the forest. Cutthroat were a minor component, he said. There were very few Bull trout or Brook trout.
Lindstrom said that the 2021 drought was one of the worst on record for the Bitterroot, but the river didn’t suffer as much as in some past droughts because of a couple of big rain events during the summer. But the water levels dropped rapidly after the last storms in August and went about as low as in other drought years in the end.
Lindstrom said the agency responded to calls about fish mortality and went to take a look on a stretch of the upper river and found quite a few dead fish. He said after reviewing the record of high temperature days and the records of fish mortality, it has led the group considering recommendations over the use of Hoot Owl restrictions to think of lowering the temperature that triggers implementation of the restrictions.
The trigger is currently set at three days in a row of water temperature over 75 degrees. But records show fish mortality occurring at lower temperatures. This has led the group to consider recommending a trigger temperature of 3 days over 66 degrees water temperature.
No changes will be made in the current Hoot Owl restrictions, however, until after the agency takes public comment on any proposed changes and holds public meetings before the FWP Commission.