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Sarpy Creek Boy

Bighorn River Trout Fishermen FYI

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Before coming out here, check with a fly shop or guide service to see if the river will be open this year or not. I'll post more informstion as it becomes available....


Montana Outdoors: Flow cut impacts trout of the BighornBy MARK HENCKEL

Montana Outdoors

The damage has now been done to the trout of Montana's portion of the Bighorn River. The big questions remain, however, as to exact extent of the damage and how far into the future it will persist.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Ken Frazer said it's going to take some time to answer those questions. It will play out in future fisheries surveys, in the day-to-day fishing that goes on there and in the pocketbooks of many who benefit from the multimillion-dollar tourism that the river generates.

The Bureau of Reclamation, in its role as both water manager and referee between competing interests in Montana and Wyoming for water in the river and water in Bighorn Lake above Yellowtail Dam, cut flows to the river from 1,900 cubic feet per second to 1,500 cfs last week.

The cut came as no surprise. High mountain snowpack wasn't melting. Bighorn Lake levels were dropping. And an agreement had been crafted in late April to try to buy time for the river by holding flows at 1,900 cfs for two additional weeks in hopes that conditions would improve.

In a few words, conditions didn't improve. So, flows were cut.

"We went down Friday and floated to see what the effects were," Frazer said. "We went through side channel areas and known spring spawning areas for rainbow trout. What we found was that a lot of the spawning areas where the rainbows had been building redds (spawning areas in the gravel) were dewatered to the point that they were unusable. The rainbows had been forced off all the redds."

With last fall's spawn of brown trout due to hatch and emerge from the gravel this spring, Frazer said, "we walked a number of areas looking for emergent fish and didn't find any. So we figure they hadn't emerged yet. We walked a number of areas where there should have been little fish along the shore. But, there weren't any."

There were some areas where gravels still had small flows going over them, where brown trout had chosen deeper areas to spawn. So there is some ray of hope for some portion of a brown trout year class from last fall. But overall, the picture is relatively bleak.

"Hopefully we didn't dewater everything," he said. "All we know is that they haven't emerged yet. So anywhere that was dewatered, we probably lost them."

Frazer said the prolonged series of drought years with their low flows is catching up with the Bighorn River. In a way, the river is living on borrowed time.

Trout in the Bighorn grow very fast, but that fast growth comes with a price. They also tend to die younger than trout in more slow-growing waters.

"The majority of the fishery we've had over the past few years came from the good water year in 2005," he said. "The year class from 2005 has been carrying the fishery. Most of the brown trout from that year class will be gone by the end of this season. If we don't have good production behind them, we could see a substantial drop in trout numbers.

"Normally in the fall, at Mallards Landing, we get lots of young of the year trout," Frazer said. "Last year was the worst I've ever seen. In five days of shocking, we got two young of the year rainbow and 31 young of the year brown trout. That's something I've never seen before.

"We may have been hurting last year but if we have another one this year, we may not have much to back them up," he continued. "We've said all along that flows drive the fishery of the Bighorn. With them, we have a great trout fishery. Without them, we're hurting.

"What I've been telling people is that our flow requests are based on maintaining the side channel habitat. At 2,500 cfs, most of the side channels are in good shape," Frazer said. "The 2,000 was our drought level minimums. When you start dropping below that, you really start dewatering them. We were at 1,900 cfs, which means the fish are already under marginal conditions and spawning in marginal areas. Going to 1,500 just made it worse.

"It's not that the fish aren't trying to spawn, but even the ones that do hatch are forced out into the main river and become food for the big fish," he said. "Predation becomes a big factor in eliminating the small fish."

So while the drop in flows to 1,500 cfs last week didn't come as a surprise to Frazer, he knew that it would also come with a price in lost year classes of trout and perhaps severe damage to the overall fishery that will continue throughout this year and beyond.


FWP panel studies river closure rules


Gazette Outdoor Editor

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission put the wheels in motion on preliminary work that could lead to fishing closures on the Bighorn River triggered by low flows.

The commission enacted no closures at its meeting in Glendive on Thursday. In fact, Billings FWP Commissioner Shane Colton said it was just about impossible to envision any closures this year.

"We just had some preliminary discussion on what to put in place," Colton said. "We need to figure out what sort of rule we'd need and what criteria we'd need and what we would have to implement to close the river if we find ourselves in very low-flow conditions.

"We can always close a river if there's impending doom," he said. "But that isn't the criteria we want to use. We want to have a basis and a structure and trigger points so people aren't caught unaware."

Reductions in flows from 1,900 cubic feet per second to 1,500 cfs through Yellowtail Dam on May 6 sparked the commission's action. Flows have been lower than 1,500 cfs during this long drought cycle and it is the compounded effects of those low flows that concern commissioners.

"This is such a different situation than we have in our closure criteria on other waters around the state," Colton said. "Those emergency closures are tied to high water temperatures" that stress and kill trout.

He said Bighorn closures would be tied to flow and effects on spawning habitat, the spawn, crowding and safety.

"Losing age class after age class after age class (of trout on the Bighorn) compounds matters," he said. "Trying to figure out how the activity impact (of a lot of fishing pressure) could affect the fishery after all these years of loss of fish classes - that's some heady stuff and we have to figure it out. We don't want to be reactionary. We want to do this for the right reasons. That's why we're developing the criteria."

Commissioners asked FWP biologists to come up with information to be discussed at the June commission meeting in Helena.

"We're going to start off very broad and we're going to have to narrow it down. It's not something we can afford to ignore," Colton said. "Wyoming has made requests for flows as low as 1,000 cfs. So we've got to have a structure in place if the Bureau of Reclamation does drop it down to critical low levels. We've got to know what those levels are and what we're going to do."

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.

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Hopefully this will help and they won't have to lower the flow rate any more or close fishing...

Heavy snowpack to begin melting


Of The Gazette Staff

At long last, Montana's copious amounts of snowpack should begin pouring out of the mountains this weekend in the first bout of sustained warm weather of the season.

"It's going to especially move at the lower elevations that have been hanging on in the cool temperatures," said Roy Kaiser, water supply specialist for the National Resources Conservation Service in Bozeman. "It's going to finish off the lower elevation snow."

And with mountain temperatures expected to remain above or near freezing at night, warm weather this weekend will begin gnawing at higher-elevation snow, too.

Kaiser estimated that annual snowmelt was delayed about two weeks by an unusually cool spring. But things are about to turn the corner, at least temporarily, the National Weather Service says.

Today through Monday, temperatures in Billings will be in the 80s, said Tom Frieders, warning coordinator meteorologist at the NWS office in Billings. At high elevations, temperatures will rise into the 60s during the day and fall back into the 30s at night.

"But if it does drop below freezing, it won't be by much, and it will be ready to start up melting the next morning," he said.

Frieders said no flood warnings have been issued, but the NWS will monitor rivers and streams closely.

"We're anticipating that streams will stay in their banks, but we're going to see a good rise on the streams coming out of the mountains, and it could come out pretty fast," he said.

Low temperatures have held snowpack in the mountains that in ordinary years would have come out more gradually beginning in late April and early May. In the past several years, with less-impressive snowpack, the snow has disappeared two to three weeks ahead of schedule in warmer than normal springs, making the contrast more marked.

But this year, snowpack was near or above normal in most basins and it stubbornly clung to the mountains at both lower and higher elevations.

Readings Thursday at Snotel sites around the state reflect the late melt. They range from 159 percent of normal snowpack for this time of year in the Bitterroot River Basin to 102 percent in the Wind River Basin.

For the Upper Yellowstone, snowpack stood at 122 percent of normal, while the Lower Yellowstone was at 118 percent.

The Bighorn Basin snowpack was at 116 percent of normal and inflows into Bighorn Lake are starting to ratchet up. On Thursday, inflows were measured at 2,471.6 cubic feet per second, up from 1,400 earlier this month. Boats can be launched at both Barry's Landing and Ok-A-Beh, but water level is still 8.2 feet below launch level at Horseshoe Bend. The Bureau of Reclamation hopes to have water levels up to boat launch requirements there by Memorial Day weekend.

Rivers around Eastern Montana appear in good shape to absorb a nice hit of melt water. At Billings, flood stage on the Yellowstone is 13 feet. On Thursday morning, the river gage showed the level at 3.92 feet.

Most of the rivers in Eastern Montana, except the Tongue and Powder, were running at 25 percent or below their seasonal averages, according to U.S. Geological Survey monitors. The Tongue and Powder were flowing higher, at 25 to 74 percent of normal.

A storm predicted to move in Tuesday or Wednesday is expected to bring temperatures in Billings back down to the 60s, Frieders said. Lower temperatures in the mountains could slow the melt.

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee Enterprises.

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okay, so there was acknowledgemment from the get-go that there was sufficient snow-pack to fill the reservoir this year..... so why would they ruin the rainbow spawn and drop the flows 1500 cfs if they knew higher flows and a full tank above the dam were only a matter of a week of waiting for a slight increase in temp...... this seems ludicrous-- that you would dewater all the areas that rainbows have already done their spawning in and kill all the eggs and young of the year fish.....

the management here is severely demented.... not that i'm advocating lower flows, but the river would have been better off if they had just left it at 1500, if they were intent on taking it there all along-- at least then the rainbows would have spawned in areas that still have water in them.....

it obviously could and should have just been left alone at 1900 cfs and everyone could have merely taken a deep breath and realized that the water will show up......

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I know the Fish and Game Commision met last week to discuss but I have not heard anything yet. I am going to drive up river this weekend to check out a few of my shore fishng spots to see what it looks like, I'll post my findings.

The snow pack is melting and there is a lot of flooding going on so hopefully things will improve, but we won't know the damage caused by this for a while.

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Drove up river today to the afterbay dam, the water is low. Lind Access(3 mile) is also low but there were a ton of fishermen there, the trout are stacked up in the deeper water, and the guys fishing were having good luck.

On down to Bighorn access the water is low but not as bad as the first two access's. The rain we have had for the last few days is helping, the water is starting to turn muddy from the run-off.

Mallard access is not very low but real muddy.

Two Leggins access is not that low but Muddy.

Skipped Arapoosh access and went on to Grant Marsh access, Water levels are fine but once again very muddy.

I stopped at one of the fly shops in Ft Smith, and the guy at the counter said they are expecting the B of R to open the gates soon, didn't know for sure if it would go back up to 1900 CFS or not. But he said the damage was done.

The one thing that amazed me was there were about 30 guys standing in the water fishing at Lind Access and there was cloud to ground lightning happening. Hopefully their fly rods were rubber and not graphite.

Was talking to guy that works for the BIA in the Irrigation and water dept and he said that over the last 25 years this part of Montana is 79" below normal rain fall. This year we were 5" below normal for the year, but we have had 2 to 3 inches of rain the last 3 days.

Will let you know when they open the gates and what the flow will be just as soon as I hear the news.

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Today's update from the Billings Gazette

Onslaught of water gives big boost to Bighorn River


Gazette Outdoor Editor

Memorial Day weekend campers and fishermen heading to the Bighorn River should be prepared for significantly higher flows, as the Bureau of Reclamation announced Friday that water releases through Yellowtail Dam will triple between Friday night and Monday.

The combination of heavy rain and significant snowmelt boosted inflows into Bighorn Lake that prompted the bureau to send 4,500 cubic feet of water per second (cfs) down the river by Monday. Flows will be stepped up over the three-day holiday weekend.

It's an odd twist of fate for the Bighorn River and its fishermen. On May 6, it was decided that inflows to Bighorn Lake were so low and slow in coming from snowmelt that flows in the river were cut to 1,500 cfs from 1,900 cfs, effectively leaving a year class of brown and rainbow trout high, dry and dead as side channels were drained.

Dan Jewell, Montana area manager for the bureau, said Bighorn Lake levels were rising so quickly that action had to be taken Friday.

"We're probably going to average 8,000 cfs for inflows today and the National Weather Service predicts it to stay that high or higher for a few days," Jewell said. "Our rate of reservoir rise is exceeding our 3-foot-per-day criteria.

"We're currently at 3,615 feet of elevation or better on the reservoir. It's prudent for us to start taking steps to control that rate of rise," Jewell said. "We had some locally heavy precipitation in some portions of the basin. And we actually had some Snotel stations that showed increases as well. The long-term prognosis is looking pretty good for the lake."

Wyoming recreational interests pushed for the flow reductions to provide an adequate boat-launching level at Horseshoe Bend Recreation Area. The National Park Service minimum launch level is 3,617 feet of elevation. That was expected to be exceeded sometime Friday night.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has reported that fishing pressure on the Bighorn River below Yellowtail Dam has been heavy in recent weeks and expects more of the same this weekend.

"With most rivers running high and muddy, the Bighorn River could be a popular place for anglers over the long weekend," FWP fisheries biologist Ken Frazer said Friday. "Below the dam, the river never gets much mud. The higher flows could help spread out the fishing pressure by filling side channels and giving more anglers room to fish."

Copyright © The Billings Gazette, a division of Lee


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As of this morning the flows are now at 7200 cfs, and they are uping th flows another 1000 cfs today, wyoming is now complaining their water is too high.

Too bad they shut down the flows in the first place, creating a loss of this years class of fish....

We have had a lot of rain this past month, and with the snow pack not melting because of the cool weather,there will be a lot of runoff as soon as the the warm weather arrives, I expect the flows of the river to continue rising.

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Since my last report the flows have been cut back somewhat to 6000CFS, but I can say that the higher flows have cleaned out all the grass and moss the water is clear and cold. Fishing is hot right now, you still need to fish close to shore for the best action. The smaller rivers and creeks that run into the Bighorn are also having hot and heavey action.

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what creeks do you fish in that area? i've wondered if there were any that are any good there..... i've fished the main stem a ton, it might be fun to try some new water....

it's still so frustrating that they dewatered the river early on..... they need to get legislation in place each year that requires them to evaluate the snowpack levels in the higher elevations and then fix the flows accordingly during rainbow spawning..... this keeps happening and it's ludicrous.... wonder who the morons in charge are?

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if they want lower flows through spring irrigation then just set the flows lower and just don't adjust them..... i feel like this move was made with spiteful intent after all the fighting that's been going on lately over the flow levels..... but maybe that's giving the folks who pulled the plug on the river too much credit in the brains department.....

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