Fishing regulations on the Bitterroot River may be getting a whole lot simpler.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks officials are nearing the end of a scoping process that asks anglers for their ideas on proposals designed to both protect native trout and simplify the rules.
So far, the response has been a mixed bag, said FWP fisheries manager Pat Saffel.
At a recent meeting in Hamilton, outfitters and fishermen told officials they were not excited about the prospect of increasing the bag limit on brown trout in an attempt to protect cutthroats and bull trout, both native species.
"It was largely negative at the meeting in Hamilton," Saffel readily admits. "We heard that we're proposing a war on brown trout. Frankly, that's not true."
It is true that brown trout are expanding their range in what were once the strongholds of cutthroat and bull trout in the upper reaches of the river.
"They are moving into the East Fork and into the tributaries," Saffel said. "They're moving into the West Fork too."
And there is concern about the potential for brown trout to displace those native species.
Other sportsmen have offered their support for the department's preliminary proposals to streamline the complicated set of existing regulations on the Bitterroot River and target brown trout for harvest.
"So far, it's been about 50/50," Saffel said.
Studies have shown that brown trout are not the easiest fish to catch and officials say the potential to overharvest the species is low, especially considering today's focus on catch and release fishing.
FWP Bitterroot-based fisheries biologist Chris Clancy counts the numbers of fish with hook scars captured during annual monitoring runs.
Thirty percent to 50 percent of the cutthroats his crews capture while electro-fishing have scars indicating they have been caught before by anglers.
Only three to four percent of brown trout have the same marks.
"Brown trout are a difficult fish to overharvest," Saffel said. "If a fish population had 50 percent cutthroat and 50 percent brown, fishermen would catch 80 to 90 percent cutthroats and 20 to 10 percent browns.
"All trout are not the same," he said.
Neither is the Bitterroot River.
The upper reaches of the river are the strongholds for native trout. Rainbow and brown trout have always fared better in the lower end.
"We really have two different fisheries going on there," Saffel said.
The regulations set to manage those fisheries can trace their way clear back to the early days of the state's decision to manage for wild trout.
The first slot limits and requirements for artificial lures were put in place in 1982. In 1990, the state required anglers to release all cutthroat trout. The final tweaks were instituted in 1992.
"Times have changed since then," Saffel said. "For instance, most people don't keep fish any more."
For many anglers, the many and varied regulations on the Bitterroot River can be confusing.
"One section starts a mile below Darby," he said. "Nobody knows where that is."
Saffel will have to make a decision soon on whether to ask the FWP Commission to consider making changes on the Bitterroot.
The department presents tentative regulations to the commission on August 11. The commission makes its decision in October after hearing from the public.
If nothing changes over the next couple of weeks, Saffel said the department could propose rules that would standardize the fishing regulations and allow anglers the option to harvest more brown trout.
A slot limit similar to that on the Blackfoot River that allows anglers to keep three brown or rainbow trout might be one option. Brown trout could be any size, but fishermen would have to throw back any rainbows over 12 inches long.
Saffel also likes the idea of moving the catch and release section of the river to between Woodside and Florence. Cutthroats would continue to be protected.
Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or email@example.com.