West Fork angler

A long angler tries his luck on the West Fork of the Bitterroot River. 

A change aimed at spreading out fishing pressure on the West Fork and upper Bitterroot River was approved unanimously by the state Fish and Game Commission Thursday.

“It was pretty much a slam dunk,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks recreation manager Christine Oschell. “The updated rule will be in place when the restrictions start on June 1.”

Last year was the first for new rules managing commercial use on the popular trout streams. The rules capped the number of outfitters and divided the upper reaches of the Bitterroot River and the West Fork into four sections. Each section was closed one day a week between June 1 and Sept. 15 to provide opportunity for non-commercial anglers.

Following that first season, outfitters and guides complained about the sections being too short, especially during high water. They said that forced them to pile into the same access points at the top of each section to ensure the longest float possible rather than spreading out and using other access sites.

The new rule changes the word “float” to “launch.”

It allows outfitters and guides to launch in one section and float through adjoining sections open to commercial trips on any given day. Outfitters will still be limited to two “launches” from any one section of the river. They won’t be allowed to float through sections that are closed to commercial angling.

Oschell said FWP plans to increase its monitoring this summer and will publish a report at the end of the year.

The department received a good number of comments on the proposed change on both sides of the issue from out-of-state anglers.

Bill Harness didn’t say where he was from in his comment, but he did want to let FWP know he was “growing tired of the whole situation.”

“We have been coming the Bitterroot Valley for the last 25 years to fish each July,” Harness wrote. “Becoming a part of some traffic jam exercise by the DFWP is ruining the experience for me. I realize you have a job to do, and protecting the wildlife is of paramount importance, but my activity in the valley has done nothing but bring important revenue to the area all while having little or no impact on the environment.

“We keep nothing. We kill very few. We do not litter. We do not ‘carry on’ while on the river,” he wrote. “Why not enforce behavior and let people fish where they want to and when they want to? It has come to the point I would rather just go somewhere else. The experience is being ruined by DFWP and not by too many fishermen on the river at any given time.”

But L. Marovelli had a different take.

“I live on the West Fork near mile marker 20 and have been disgusted in recent years by the abusive overuse of this fishery by commercial float interests,” Marovelli wrote. “I am considering relocating my retirement residence as a result.

“I am total disgusted by the lack of action provided by the FWP to protect this small stream from commercial interests,” he wrote. “It is a shame that I must drive over the pass into Idaho or to Dillon to find some solace while fly fishing.”

Marovelli signed his comment “Disgusted on the West Fork.”

Oschell said the number of out-of-state comments on the proposed rule change was “sizeable.” While most were focused on support of outfitters, a much smaller component came from people who lived along the river and didn’t like seeing boats float by.

This year, those complaints started early.

So far this spring, Oschell said the department has received a number of calls from people about crowding on the West Fork.

“It’s the only clear water around right now,” she said. “It’s been really crowded. We’ve started monitoring that. There are lots of people. About 98% are commercial.”

Oschell said the number of people using the river in the spring and fall has been growing.