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Southern Montana’s Bighorn River is justly famous as one of the greatest trout fisheries in the West, indeed as one of the holiest shrines of fly fishing anywhere. Today, however, the Bighorn is also becoming famous for something else – some of the most overcrowded and conflict-ridden fishing conditions of any river.
Stories abound on the Bighorn of dory armadas racing for the best holes, boat groups hogging choice locations, outfitters refusing to leave good holes until their next boat comes downriver, one boat plowing through the water of another, rampant disregard for wade fishermen, vulgar exchanges and even fist fights over whose rights are being mangled by whom. In one frequently heard anecdote, boats from one outfit even use radios to pinch off or crowd out competitors. Some longtime Bighorn hands simply won’t fish there anymore.
Personal fishing space is subjective, of course, and "crowding" is a matter of perception. One angler may see the situation as disgusting congestion, while another, more used to such conditions, may not be bothered at all. But even discounting for exaggerated rumor-mongering, there is clearly something wrong on the Bighorn. In point of fact, a recent survey by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (MFW&P) showed the great majority of anglers here saw crowding as a problem, and felt some kind of action was needed to reduce it.
So who’s responsible for this? More often than not, the finger is pointed at local guides and outfitters, widely criticized for "…thinking they own the river." With their obvious desires to make money and for their clients to catch more fish, they are easy to accuse of greed for running too many trips and spiteful sabotage against their competitors. But after careful investigation I’ve concluded that for the most part, the professional guides are taking an unfair rap. Truth is, this is a complex situation of circumstances largely beyond their control.
Begin with the fact that the Bighorn is an artificial tailwater and the fish here unnaturally abundant. The Bighorn has grown in popularity not just because it’s so great, but also because you can do well here when other rivers are too difficult, either from high water runoff or low water drought. Tailwaters simply get more pressure. Additionally, more and more people own their own boats, not just dories and johnboats but Otters, Tote-n-Floats and the whole array of smaller inflatables, attracted to the Bighorn because there’s no whitewater and it’s easy to float. What’s more, rental boats are readily available here for about $75 per day. The stage is thus set for conflicts between guided professional boats and non-guided amateur boats, which account for most of the problems.
According to MFW&P research, this is indeed a boat-dominated river, with some 78 percent of anglers surveyed floating it and only 22 percent bank fishing. Of the floaters, 36 percent are guided boats, 41 percent are personal craft and 23 percent are rentals. The overwhelming majority of boats are therefore steered by private individuals, often with limited boating experience. On such a big river, an average of 75 boats a day, seldom exceeding 100, ought not to create so much conflict. The fact that they do bears out my contention that ignorant and/or incompetent private boaters are the principal source of friction.
MFW&P, with limited policing powers, has asked anglers in its surveys how river-users would like to address the problem. Should the number of guided trips be capped? Should personal or rental boats be restricted or prohibited? Should there be staggered launch windows to reduce the flotilla effect? Not many respondents were enthusiastic about increasing the heavy hand of government or restricting personal liberties to enjoy this bountiful river. By far the majority of those surveyed, some 80 percent, felt the solution should come from greater emphasis on angler education and boating etiquette.
To its credit, MFW&P has been working in that direction for some time. They have produced a useful pamphlet called "Ethics, Etiquette and the River Recreationist," and are presently in the process of developing a Bighorn Management Plan, incorporating the input of land stakeholders. A group of local guides called The Bighorn River Alliance has likewise produced a brochure on boat handling, releasing fish and general river etiquette. The Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana (FOAM) and the state Board of Outfitters also deserve credit for trying to respond to the situation constructively by suggesting, among other things, that boats should be more closely regulated and required to indicate their logos and license numbers clearly.
Importantly, all these proposals for concrete regulatory action have been shot down for two years running by the state legislature, which is reluctant to put restraints on the treasured Montana tradition of free-wheeling independence. Perhaps the next time around will be different. In the meantime, the only hope for improvement is continued voluntary effort by everyone involved.
When you think about it, it really doesn’t make much sense for the pros to foster conflicts since their reputations and customer satisfaction could be negatively affected. In point of fact, the Bighorn shops generally train their guides to keep their mouths shut and steer around potential conflicts. Those renting boats are also getting more cautious about screening out obvious beginners who might create conflicts reflecting back on them; this would improve in a hurry if boater ID’s were clearly displayed and mandatory as FOAM has proposed. But that still leaves the problem of private boat owners, who some feel should be required to take a boating safety and etiquette course (i.e., get a "driver’s license") before being allowed on the river.
The pros are not totally without culpability, however. No one wants to name them, but fair observers acknowledge there are a few Bighorn guides who consistently seem to be involved in these scrapes. If you are coming to the Bighorn, ask probing questions and check references. You’ll find out who they are. Avoid them yourself and tell others to avoid them as well. Even more important, report any misbehavior you witness to The Angling Report. Publisher Don Causey has vowed to nail offending guides by name in these pages.
One problem to be aware of is some guides’ adherence to a rigid catch-and-release ideology. These guides’ tendency to jump down other people’s throats for killing fish creates the most frequent guide-instigated problem on the river. Their position on the issue is not only legally but biologically wrong.
Although rainbows are protected on the Bighorn, the regs properly allow the taking of five browns a day. According to Ken Frazer, MFW&P management biologist for the Bighorn, there is no reason to be concerned about angler-caused mortality. "Of the 72,000 fish reported caught here in our most recent full-year survey," he says, "only 1,300 – two percent – were killed. Natural mortality on the Bighorn can range anywhere from 40 to 70 percent per year, depending on changing flow conditions and other environmental factors. Angler harvest is insignificant. In fact, from a trophy standpoint, we need more harvest on this river. Smaller browns out-compete bigger fish for the river’s small insects and cause extremely high mortality of the big browns."
In other words, anglers and guides both have to realize that some harvest of browns, where allowed, is not only okay but desirable, if they want to see more trophy-sized fish on the Bighorn. This is true on many other Western rivers too, especially those affected by whirling disease (so far the Bighorn itself is not). Even if some guides can’t bring themselves to kill fish, they should at least quit expressing hostility toward others who do so quite justifiably.
Finally, there are two other steps that informed anglers can take to avoid the Bighorn boat wars. One is to see past the conventional wisdom that the Bighorn is too big to wade-fish and requires a boat. This is not only nonsense but downright counterproductive. For one thing, Montana’s enlightened stream-access law gives anglers the right to fish anywhere within the high-water mark. Furthermore, the Bighorn is configured such that long stretches along its banks are only three feet deep and imminently wadeable, even when the central river is ripping by at 7,000 cfs. Fish stack up in these sections and can be surprisingly easy to catch within a few feet of shore.
When passing through the area one evening last April, I caught more fish with midge clusters along the bank than many boaters I talked to caught all day. Next morning, nymphing sowbugs and red midge larvae below the dam put-in, boat after boat went cannonballing downstream while I moseyed along the bank catching fish after fish with 15-foot casts – perhaps 30 in three hours. Inexplicably, the boaters usually ignored this stretch, and except for one guy listlessly chunking hardware, I had the whole riverside to myself. The boat mania here is entirely misplaced.
The other conventional (and erroneous) Bighorn mindset is that the trout are limited to stretches between the first two takeout points at 3-Mile and 12-Mile, where most boat traffic is concentrated. In fact, MFW&P shocking surveys show there are almost as many fish at Mallard’s Landing, 10 miles further downstream, as there are up near the dam. Indeed, there are at least a few trout in the Bighorn all the way to its confluence with the Yellowstone. If you really want to get away from the crowds, simply fish further downstream.
Despite its problems, the Bighorn is a very satisfying river. Even though MFW&P surveys show a large majority perceive crowding as a problem, an equally large majority report having a good time. Although the Bighorn has not recovered from its pre-drought 1987 peak of 10,000 fish per mile, it still boasts 3,400 browns and 1,000 rainbows one year or older per mile. Damn few rivers have such crowds of fish, and with a little foresight, you don’t have to put up with crowds of people to experience them, either. – Hugh Gardner.