The Big Hole and other Montana Trout Rivers Are Even More Messed Up than We Thought…

We’ve been reading the stories in recent years: Big Hole River trout numbers declining.  Now the river is described as “in peril” with the trout-per-mile count the lowest it has ever been since data was first collected in 1969.  And it isn’t just brown trout.  There are fewer rainbows now too.  And it isn’t just the Big Hole.  The Ruby is down.  The Beaverhead is down.
While the finger pointing is well under way (ranchers blame angler pressure, anglers blame ranchers for sucking too much water out of the river, and everyone blames bad snowpack years), the angling community needs to take an honest look in the mirror, and figure out what to do next.
Because the truth is that angler days have doubled since 2008 going from 60,000 to 120,000.  Meanwhile trout numbers have plummeted. The Big Hole used to sport 3,500 fish per mile; now it’s less than 1,000.  That’s really hard to consider a coincidence.
So you can call it that, and you can call it bad luck.  Blame it on a fungus. Do what you will, but the truth is that anglers are kicking the shit out of the fish. And if we don’t get smart about how to manage pressure for sustainability, the situation will self regulate when nobody wants to come fish parts of Montana because the fishing is a mere shell of what it once was.
Let’s try not to let that happen.


  1. Ron Hansen on

    Look no further than this being another victim of social media and the need of some to do whatever they want, whenever they want, where ever they want as it pertains to fly fishing. Got to stack up the likes and reach ……… but don’t give a shit about the fish or resource. This is happening all over the West and is not unique to Montana. The sport is going to die because of this need to be seen and the resources (fish and rivers) health being forgot about.

  2. Why doesn’t MT do what it has in the past and just raise non-resident licenses (again)?

    That’s a rhetorical statement. (Please do not reply or comment)

    Seriously, the sport has been at a crossroad for the last 5-years. There are too many anglers all trying to use the same, finite resource.

    The COVID pandemic didn’t help matters, either, as it only served to add more people to the sport.

    Here’s a novel idea (also rhetorical), cancel the YELLOWSTONE series — stop filming or depicting MT in movies. Stop MT state legislature from advertising.

    Now here’s a legit suggestion.

    Discontinue managing said waters with reduced trout populations as Brown, Rainbow, or Brook trout fisheries and return them to their native trout species. Yes, rotenone the hell out of everything in MT with non-native fish, and reintroduce Cutthroat (e.g. Westslope, Yellowstone, etc.).

    Second suggestion. Create a draw system like what is done for hunting. Try to limit and manage the amount of usage per day on said rivers.

    Montana is a great state, with wonderful resources — unfortunately it’s overdone itself with advertising and promoting it’s fly fishing opportunities AND it’s just too popular.

    Okay — now for the sacred cow. Limit the number of guides on these waters. The state could provide monetary incentives for guides to take their clients to other waters while the overused ones are given time to recover?

    The reality is, there is no proven or sure way to address and solve the problem(s) that both benefit and plague MT’s rivers and the amount of usage they receive. If there was, it would’ve already been done.

    • I’ve fished one Montana’s premier tail water rivers for the past 20 years. I’ve never harvested a fish or had one die. I’m from Texas so obviously purchase a non-resident fishing license every year. I can assure you, the fish count on the river I love to fish has gone down as well, but it is due to the miss management of water flows during critical times of the year as it relates to the spawn. Please don’t blanket your comment as all non-resident fishermen are to blame. I respect the resource and always try to leave the river better.

    • charlie cleveland on

      I served on a Madison River Committee tasked with working with all representatives of folks fishing or profiting from the river. There was no consensus about what the problem was and how to solve it. Limiting the number of out of state anglers, doing a rest and rotation system, you name it it was discussed and rejected.

      There was absolutely no compromise from the guides, outfitters, or businesses that house, feed and gas up cars or any side line recreational business.

      It was concluded that no compromise could be made to lessen the impact of the huge number of anglers on the Madison and the result was that FWP and other committees kicked the can down the road to the Montana Legislature to “fix”

      Money money money talks.

  3. Since (I assume) a large percentage of out of state fishermen are hiring guides, maybe the number of permits should be regulated. Maybe have some kind of a rotation program for guides so they all will get a chance to
    book trips but only on limited days that are assigned to him/her. Just a thought

  4. Wayne Kaim on

    My opinion is guides are the greatest reason more people are impacting the rivers. A few weeks ago I saw guides on the Missouri walking their boats back upstream while their clients sat in the drift boat seats awaiting another chance to re-fish a productive stretch on the river. Guide after guide did this multiple times, which was partially done I’d bet to get a better tip. I’d say limit the guides and and if there are too many guides displaced out of their jobs then let them do something else for a living, but don’t ruin our rivers just because you think being a river bum is a cool lifestyle. Let those clients buy their own boats or wade fish like a true sportsmen . Rivers are not a damn theme park ,they are a resource that cannot take unlimited fishing pressure. On top of that many of those outfitters recognize how the rivers are being hurt, so they guide MT in the summer then head down to South America for the winter for unspoiled fishing with the cash they made raping our rivers.

  5. Does montana have catch and release sections of river? We have special regulations in PA and I’m thinking we have some of the most pressured rivers in north America. Little juniata, penns, spring, but all of these have a ton of wild fish in them.

    The question is do people keep fish out there? Most people fishing the above streams in pa even when the river is not labeled as catch and release, still put the fish back.

    Have studies been done on the habitat, average water temp, water quality? That would really tell if the ranchers are to blame.

  6. All of the above comments are good ones.

    Game commission agencies are not going to look away from revenue. These agencies credo is to protect and conserve. Instead they grow fish and pollute the waters with those fish. Conservation agencies get money from selling angling licenses and guide licenses. The politicians
    are pressured by the local tourism industry to have people visit the state and there is hell to pay if that does not occur. A rotation system for anglers and guides would be helpful but local people need money. The politicos want as much money coming into the state without interference from people who want to conserve the natural resources. Land developers want to sell trout stream second homes to residents and non residents alike. Now everyone can have trout stream frontage property – one problem, where’s the trout?
    Land developers want money, angling guides want money, politicians want votes and anglers want fish. Sounds like everyone profits except the environment.

  7. We broke it NOW LETS FIXIT!!
    We are all to blame. Anglers,outfitters,floaters,FWP.
    Need to get the idea out of your heads to poison fish and put cutthroat in the Bighole river system. Work together to biologically find the cause of fish kill. One reason is the fish poisoning in the Bighole Valley from wisdom to Millcreek. Last poisoning mistake was French creek project. Doolittle creek and all other streams in this area is not helping. Poision goes into Bighole. Enough said,FWP messed up! As far as anglers, to much fishing pressure on river especially in summer months, under hoot owl hours.
    And in August when cfs are very low and water Temps are high. Need to limit fishing pressure to help problem,while FWP Biologists can figure the source. Now outfitters you need to reduce your fishing hours and we all need work together. If this means total closure of sections, and possible whole river until research work in done.
    I have fished the Bighole for 62 years. Montana true resident. Droughts have hurt this issue,with over use of river. Let’s work together, we created the problem, time to save the Best river in montana.

  8. mark pastoris on

    Not an easy fix, but fisherman and outfitters need to start self-regulating or one of two things are inevitable: systems are going to collapse from too much pressure or the government is going to step in. Since our politicians only react to things after its too late and humans are greedy the outcome is going to be devastating if the key interested parties don’t come up with a solution.

    This region needs a fishing/conservation organization to get organized and bring the stakeholders together. Outfitters have the most to lose in the short-term. Form the Big Hole River Foundation, raise some funds, hire a biologist and start using the data to educate all stakeholders.

  9. I am an out-of-stater who has fished Montana’s trout streams for 30 years, usually in August and September. Last year, 2022, was the worst year I have ever had in Montana. I fished the Bighorn, Yellowstone south of Livingston and the Missouri below Holter Dam. I caught four trout in 10 days of fishing. I caught 1 on the Bighorn (after 2 days of fishing), none on the Yellowstone after four days of hard fishing, and 3 on a tributary of the Upper Missouri. I did not catch any on the Missouri itself. I was stunned and saddened by the dismal results. I was also amazed at the algae blooms on the Upper Missouri and Bighorn. I think agriculture is responsible for a fair bit of the problem. I remember when Holter Reservoir was crystal clear. Now you can’t swim in it because of algae warnings. Nitrates are probably killing not only aquatic vegetation, but also the aquatic insects. What has happened to the Yellowstone is just shocking. I also find the guides and fly shops in Montana to be shameless in their promotion of “Montana’s premier trout streams,” when they know that the fishery across the state – and especially the Missouri and Yellowstone fisheries are teetering on collapse.

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