With the first season in the books for new rules managing commercial use on the West Fork and the upper reaches of the Bitterroot River, the process to see what worked and what didn’t has begun.
“We definitely had some bumps in the road here and there,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks recreation manager Christine Oschell.
The new rules, which focused on managing crowding on the popular fishery, were set in place following a public process spearheaded by the 16-member Bitterroot River Recreation Advisory Committee.
The rules included capping the number of outfitters and dividing the upper portion of the West Fork and main stem of the Bitterroot into four sections. Each section was closed one day a week to outfitters and guides between June 1 and Sept. 15 to provide opportunity for non-commercial anglers.
“Overall, we saw good compliance,” Oschell said. “There were some misunderstandings, but we weren’t interested in giving citations this first year.
"This year we were focused on education and trying to get a handle on whether everyone would be willing to follow the rules.”
While local fishermen seemed happy with the opportunity to fish the river without competing with commercial guided floats, local outfitters say the new regulations created a host of challenges for their businesses.
“It was tough,” said Jenny West of Go West Outfitters. “It was really tough.”
The challenges started right from the beginning of the season with high water in June.
Each outfitter was limited to two boats per section per day. With the average length of the sections being about seven miles long, West said the fast moving water made the float distances too short for commercial fishing trips.
“I had clients who have been coming here to fish for more than 30 years,” West said. “They are just shocked. They come out here to enjoy fishing and I have to tell them we can’t go today. They feel displaced. They come here and spend $4,000 or $5,000 a season and now I have to tell them we can’t go where they want to go.”
West believes the rules are too rigid and don’t allow for the kind of flexibility that outfitters and guides have used in the past to help cut down on congestion.
“You have to put in at the top of the designated stretch and take out at the bottom of it,” she said. “You can’t go below that and you can’t use other launches in the same stretch … It makes it so you can’t be creative to try to spread out the pressure.”
Sean O’Brien of Hamilton’s Osprey Outfitters said local outfitters had hoped the new rules wouldn’t include June due the concerns over high water.
“As it turned out, it was more crowded up there than I’ve ever seen it in June,” O’Brien said. “In June, the water is normally really moving up there and it’s impossible to wade fish.
"Our biggest concern was dividing that small piece of river into four sections would end up condensing everyone in sections of the river that it would only take a couple of hours to float.”
During the early season, the main stem of the river is too high for people to safely float.
“When the main river is too big, the only place to fish is either the West Fork or the Rock Creek,” O’Brien said. “The problem is they tried to divide up 26 miles of river into four sections. When you couple that with high water in June, that allows for you to float the entire West Fork in a day because the water is moving that fast. It creates problems.
“I think it definitely needs to be revised,” he said. “June shouldn’t be in play at all.”
Eddie Olwell of Fishs Eddie O believes the season for the rules needs to be shortened on both ends.
“Generally the float traffic is down on the West Fork in early September and those first two weeks in June, the river is rocking and rolling,” he said. “It’s not as busy during those times.”
The limit of two boats per launch per outfitters added another layer of complexity that Olwell said created challenges for his business.
“I like to be able to spread boats out,” he said. “It would be nice to have some more flexibility.”
In general, the outfitters said the rules were too complicated for both commercial operations and the general public.
West said it would have been simpler to have set Saturday aside for noncommercial floats on the West Fork and Sunday for the upper stretch of the Bitterroot River.
“I think it would have been easier for everyone,” she said.
Marshall Bloom of Bitterroot Trout Unlimited served on the advisory committee.
“I think the participants of the panel certainly represented everyone who had an interest in recreational use in the upper river,” Bloom said. “I think in the end, we had an endorsement from an amazing cross section of the public.
“We just finished the first season and everyone I talked to has been very pleased with it, including a couple of outfitters and guides,” he said. “There have been a few complaints, but I think those things will be easily addressed.”
During the deliberation process, Bloom said he was “stunned” to learn there were more than 50 outfitters who claimed historic use on the upper Bitterroot.
“According to the rules, when the rules process is active, each outfitter can put two boats on the three open sections,” he said. “That figures out to be 300 boats per day and that’s just commercial fishermen. I think those numbers should put an end to anyone who says there is not a potential problem for crowding there.”
Capping commercial use at the current number should help outfitters and guides in the long run by ensuring the high-quality recreational experience won’t be diluted in the future, Bloom said.
“A lot of folks come down here from Missoula and other places because some times of the year, the upper Bitterrot is the best place to go fishing,” Bloom said. “We can’t afford to love it to death.”
Retired Bitterroot Forest ranger Dave Campbell was one local resident who took advantage of the opportunities to fish sections of the river without competition from commercial floats.
“I think it was dramatically better in terms of the number of boats we encountered,” Campbell said. “Previously, we would have run into many more boats on the river … I am going to be really curious to see how many of the local anglers who voted with their feet and stopped fishing the West Fork earlier have now returned.”
As the previous West Fork Ranger, Campbell said he’s been aware of complaints about crowding on the West Fork for years. From the onset, he said it’s not been a fishery’s issue, but instead a social problem.
“I’m hopeful that local people have taken advantage of the opportunity,” he said. “I’m also hopeful that outfitters can maintain their businesses. They are a big part of the valley’s economy.”
Oschell said FWP had a ranger at the access points Friday through Monday through this past summer.
While the department hears from outfitters about their concerns, Oschell said there was also a lot of positive feedback from the public, especially wade anglers from both Montana and out of state who took advantage of wade-only opportunities in the upper reach of the West Fork.
Oschell hopes to host a public meeting with the former citizens’ advisory committee sometime in November to talk about the lessons learned this past year.
Since the advisory committee has been officially disbanded, it no longer serves an advisory role.
“We can’t make any major changes without going through an entire new process,” Oschell said. “We can find out what worked and what didn’t and potentially some of those things can be tweaked.
"To make any major changes, we would need to go through the whole rule making process again.”