The next decade of angling on the Helena-area reservoirs is the subject of three public meetings this week.
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks is holding meetings in Great Falls today, Bozeman on Tuesday and Helena on Wednesday to explain and solicit feedback on an update to its Upper Missouri River Reservoir Fisheries Management Plan. This is the third revamp for the 10-year plan with the current document going through 2019.
“We’re looking for a high level view from anglers about their preferences for the reservoirs to help us guide our management plan,” said Eric Roberts, FWP fish management bureau chief.
The agency is using the meetings as a compliment to an online survey it launched Dec. 5 to solicit public comment on the management plan. The meetings are expected to last about two hours and will include a presentation on populations and trends as well as an opportunity for public comment. The online survey takes about 10 minutes and asks questions about Canyon Ferry, Holter and Hauser reservoirs and adjoining stretches of the Missouri River.
In October, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission directed fisheries staff to reopen public involvement on the plan after both the commission and several anglers spoke out about a lack of attendance and public input at several scoping meetings.
Roberts said at that hearing FWP did not believe a full revision was needed from the current plan, and had convened a seven-member committee to offer recommendations during the summer. Staff did acknowledge poor attendance at five scoping meeting held last summer, but the plan used sound criteria and fisheries management, he said.
FWP proposed five changes to the current plan, which drives management but does not develop individual regulations. The agency proposed reducing the yellow perch goal for netting surveys on Canyon Ferry, incorporating management for northern pike on Canyon Ferry, standardizing size criteria for walleye on Canyon Ferry and Holter, re-evaluating strategies for budget limitations on stocking rainbow trout, and allowing a fishing tournament on Holter.
Fisheries management on the reservoirs has long been a contentious issue centered around the presence of walleye in the system. While walleye were stocked in Holter and Hauser, an apparent illegal introduction in Canyon Ferry grew numerous trophy-sized fish that has made it a destination since the 1990s.
Over the decades, the number of smaller walleye have increased and now dominate Canyon Ferry. Angler groups such as Walleyes Unlimited have called for a return to slot limits, meaning reducing harvest on medium-size walleye in an effort to grow larger walleye and provide more fish of prime eating size.
Trout fishing has also waned due to a reduction in stocking due to budgetary restrictions.
Anglers testifying in October expressed frustration with they believed was a downward trend in fishing on the reservoirs.
“We’re doing exactly the same things right now and what I’m seeing is it’s not working,” Dale Gilbert of Ulm testified. “It can and has been better while at the same time having a quality trout fishery.”
Last year, management triggers led FWP to allow only one walleye over 20 inches in an effort to remove more small fish. At the same time, managers have resisted efforts to reduce size limits further despite pressure from a vocal group of walleye anglers.
State biologists believe an uptick in walleye spawning is the primary cause of high numbers of small fish. They are concerned that slot limits protecting fish in the 16-inch to 20-inch range will be counterproductive, because those fish are the primary spawners and will continue to overproduce smaller walleye.