This time of year Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks fisheries biologists are eager to get back out on Montana's rivers and see how the state's fish are doing.
"We've monitored one section of the Jefferson River for nine years. We've done a lot of work to improve fish habitat in the area, and that makes it even more exciting to get back and see how the fish are doing," said Ron Spoon, FWP Region 3 fisheries biologist.
Monitoring fish generally involves electrofishing, a mild shocking process that stuns the fish just enough to get them to the surface, where biologists can estimate the number of fish, examine them for hooking scars, potential parasites, size, and the variety of fish species present—all common indicators of how the fish are doing.
Spoon said FWP has just started surveying the Willow Springs, Parsons Slough and the Waterloo sections of the Jefferson where spawning habitat has been improved in the past few years and he likes what he is seeing so far.
"FWP and Trout Unlimited worked together to plan this project, apply for the funds, and monitor the results. Future Fisheries Improvement Program and TU funds allowed us to restore the quality of the spawning and nursery-type habitat to produce more young fish for the river. We're now beginning to see positive results in sections near restored tributaries despite the past several years of drought," Spoon said.
In addition to the habitat restoration work, local water users formed the Jefferson River Watershed Council in 2001, joining with organizations such as TU, to develop the Jefferson River Drought Plan. The plan specifies water flows that trigger specific actions to restore water to the fishery and when the river will be partially or fully closed to fishing to protect the fishery.
To hear Spoon talk about his work it is clear the Jefferson is more than a river to him, it is like an old friend and it connects him to other people in the area that feel the same way about the river.
It is clear he loves his work.
"Yes. But March and April on the water can often be brutal—it always reminds me this is not fun, it is work," he said. "Every spring I wonder if I'm still in good enough shape to do the job."
Spoon said the waders the fisheries biologists and technicians wear keep their bodies warm enough, but their hands get really cold after a day of handling up to 500 fish in 35 degree water.
When asked if the experience has made him a better angler his response was "sometimes, maybe."
"We definitely know where the fish are, but we may not have the patience to successfully attract them to our bait," he said. "After handling thousands of fish every spring, many of us do something entirely different for the summer."
The fact is, everyday angling may be a little disappointing after seeing the big fish that populate Montana's waters.
"It is a privilege to do this work," Spoon said. "But as a result, you can't help but take it personally when a stream goes dry due to drought, or to feel encouraged when a river with problems starts to improve."