Small streams close to fishing November 30 in central and western Montana. That's the law, though it's hard to find anyone who recalls when that became so.
A check of fishing regulations past reveals a 1916 law that said fish may be caught at any time. Sweet. The same year, however, daily limits were put on game fish: no more than 25 pounds of game fish or more than 10 fish smaller than 6 inches per day.
Then a 1928 law specified the closure of all public waters from March 15 to May 20, except for the Missouri, Yellowstone and Kootenai rivers. That law must have been put in place to protect spring spawners like rainbow trout.
By 1956 small streams were closed from November 30 till the last Sunday in May. Eventually the opening date was changed to the current third Saturday in May.
Mostly, however, that's stuff for historians to debate while the rest of us fish.
More important is why close those small streams the end of November? It's not like legions of anglers are tramping into the mountains through snow and cold to wet a line.
Tradition is the, well, traditional answer.
Brown and brook trout are the predominate fall spawning fish in these parts. Not native, they were brought to Montana in the late 1800's and early 1900's. So small streams were probably closed to allow them to spawn unmolested and protect their incubating eggs.
Although most fall spawning activity ends by early December, the eggs in the nests, called redds, will incubate until spring. Then spring spawners like rainbow trout are protected until the third Saturday in May.
That's not just Montana, by the way. Other western mountain states with trout streams have similar regulations.
Eastern Montana, as defined by the state's eastern fishing district, does not close small streams to fishing. That's because it's generally devoid of small mountain streams. Eastern Montana has phenomenal trout fishing in streams and rivers, ponds and reservoirs. But there are few small streams that serve as spawning habitat for larger water bodies.
In addition to closing small streams to protect spawners and incubating eggs, there is the idea of giving those fish a rest. Winter and cold make for demanding conditions even for cold-blooded animals like stream-dwelling salmonids.
As water temperatures drop closer to 32 degrees, trout become more lethargic and look for wintering areas near the stream bottom or in a deep pool. If an angler knows where to find that pool, he can make a pretty good dent in a local trout population.
Also in winter trout can be injured or die from ice jams or anchor ice – stream bottom ice that grows upward to the surface – both of which can divert water out of the stream and leave trout literally high and dry.
In the mid-1990's ice jams on the Smith River in north central Montana pushed fish out of the riverbed and into temporary pools where they could not survive.
So, with November 30 fast approaching the dedicated angler must choose among fishing larger rivers, hoping for ice to form to go ice fishing, or repairing fishing tackle and waiting till next spring.