A Unique Solution?

A Unique Solution?

The rules governing angler floats on the Beaverhead and Big Hole Rivers seem to be working well. But are they appropriate for the growing number of Montana rivers experiencing similar user conflicts? By Tom Dickson.

This story is featured in Montana Outdoors July–August 2015 issue

In 1999 the Beaverhead and Big Hole became unlike any other trout rivers in Montana. New rules regulated float fishing by outfitters and nonresidents on some stretches on certain days, giving resident anglers a section of river to fish on their own with less crowding. At the same time, the rules closed the door on any new fishing outfitters, reducing competition for existing outfitting businesses.

“[The rules] are the best thing that’s happened to these rivers in my lifetime,” says Steve Luebeck, a Butte resident and Trout Unlimited member who 16 years ago helped get the restrictions enacted. “The local guy can now fish without having to compete with commercial users.”

Justin Hartmin, owner of Tight Line Adventures in Dillon, says that the closed stretches can inconvenience outfitters. “But we have so much water around there that if we can’t fish one stretch one day because of the rules, there are still plenty of others to fish,” he says. “They’ve allowed us to explore and learn other stretches of water and let our clients see things they otherwise wouldn’t.”

Though not all local outfitters take such a sunny approach to the regulations, it appears that most have learned to live with the two rivers’ unique access restrictions. “By now everyone has accepted the rules,” says Robin Cunningham, executive director of the Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana. “We still question the need to single out nonresidents, but at this point no one sees the basic rules going away.”

Born out of conflict
The Beaverhead and Big Hole rules were created in response to rapidly increasing angling pressure on both rivers during the late 1990s. “Some days on the Big Hole during the salmonfly hatch you’d see a dozen boats in a single 300-yard stretch,” says Luebeck.

Not everyone was convinced that a solution was necessary. Several outfitters stated publicly that the crowding problem was exaggerated.

Still, so many people thought that the number of commercial operators and out-of-state anglers needed to be curbed that in 1999 the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission took action. The commission closed, on a rotating schedule, certain sections of the rivers to float fishing by nonresidents and outfitters. The stretches were kept open for resident and nonresident waders and resident noncommercial floaters only.

In addition, the commission put a moratorium on new Beaverhead and Big Hole outfitters and capped the number of client days during the peak season for all existing outfitters to their “historical use.”

The new rules marked the first time Montana had singled out nonresident anglers. That hit a nerve. A Los Angeles Times columnist wrote that Montana had “thrown up roadblocks to outsiders.” Word that the state had supposedly turned its back on out-of-state anglers spread quickly. Some outfitters and motels said bookings declined during the early 2000s, though drought, recession, and the travel scare after 9/11 no doubt contributed.

Starting in 2005, the FWP Commission decided to review the rules every five years. Public support for the regulations during the review processes has been overwhelmingly positive. Based on public suggestions, the commission has modified the rules, notably to provide economic opportunities for new, smaller outfitters. All the rules will be reviewed again in fall 2015.

Most outfitters say they’ve learned to live with the rules, yet some are still unhappy with the restrictions. Frank Stanchfield and his wife Edith have owned Troutfitters in Wise River since 1983. “The rules were meant to reduce crowding, and that’s not happening,” he says. “When you close some sections to outfitters, that just makes other sections more crowded.”

If visitors to the Beaverhead or Big Hole still hear some grumbling over the rules, it won’t be from local anglers. Most are happy to know that a section of both rivers is set aside for Montana residents. “My son and I plan our trips for the stretches where the outfitters don’t go, so we don’t run into the competitive pressure and can fish in peace,” says Luebeck. And most visiting out-of-state anglers have learned that only small portions of the rivers are closed to nonresident float fishing on certain days of the week, and that they can wade fish anywhere the rivers are open to residents. After a decline during the early 2000s, the percentage of nonresident angling days on both rivers has returned to late-1990s levels (roughly 60 percent for the Beaverhead and about 50 percent for the Big Hole).

Outfitters have integrated the rules into their businesses. Some even take pride in the unique solution to river crowding devised by local anglers and businesess.

“I try to leave my clients with the understanding that this is a public resource where anglers and outfitters have learned to work together, to compromise, to each give a little for the greater good,” Hartmin says. “Maybe they can take that back to their own state as a model for how diverse river users can learn to get along.”Bear bullet


Tom Dickson is editor of Montana Outdoors.