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Department says flows on Flathead River one-third of normal in some areas
July 23, 2023
A cutthroat trout caught on a western Montana river.

 A cutthroat trout caught on a western Montana river. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)


Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks issued a warning Friday about historically low flows on the Flathead River that could potentially lead to full fishing closures there, while the department added new restrictions on the Big Hole and Ruby rivers as well ahead of the hottest week in Montana so far this year.

FWP told anglers Friday to consider voluntarily limiting their fishing to morning hours on the Flathead, Swan and Thompson rivers in northwest Montana, saying flows on the North, South and Middle forks of the Flathead are about one-third of their normal levels for mid-July and that water temperatures are already approaching levels that can be harmful to protected bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout that live in the river.

The Flathead River gauge near Kalispell showed a reading of 4,130 cubic feet per second Friday compared to a median flow for the date of 10,100 CFS, while the North Fork of the river near Columbia Falls was running at 1,040 CFS Friday compared to its median flow for July 21 of 2,780 CFS, according to U.S. Geological Survey data. The latter gauge showed water temperatures of 65.5 degrees Fahrenheit Friday afternoon.

The department said conditions and its criteria for closing fishing entirely have not been met yet, but the Fish and Wildlife Commission could consider restricting or closing fishing access if flows continue to drop and the waters continue to warm.

If water temperatures reach 60 degrees or higher for three consecutive days, waterways home to bull trout could be restricted, while the same would happen for waters holding cutthroat trout if temperatures reach 66 degrees for three days in a row.

“Rivers and streams in northwest Montana are running at or near historic lows for late July, and local anglers are encouraged to try and reduce added impacts to cold-water fish like trout for the remainder of the summer,” FWP’s Dillon Tabish said in a statement.

While the snowpack was better this winter in southwest Montana, FWP also implemented afternoon and evening fishing restrictions Friday for portions of the Big Hole and Ruby rivers, which already have special restrictions added earlier this year because of declining trout populations during the past decade.

The restrictions for those two rivers close fishing from 2 p.m. to midnight on the Big Hole from its confluence with the Beaverhead River to the Tony Schoonen Fishing Access Site, and on the Ruby from its confluence with the Beaverhead to Duncan District Road.

FWP said those restrictions were added because of low flows and water temperatures that have reached 73 degrees for three days straight. Similar restrictions were put into place on the Jefferson River and portions of the Beaverhead and Bitterroot rivers on Wednesday – adding to the list of fishing-restricted waterways across Montana, which also includes portions of the Lower Madison and Su;n rivers.

This week’s drought update from the U.S. Drought Monitor showed minimal change from last week, as most of the drought in the state is contained to northwest Montana and the Flathead basin, which is experiencing severe drought.

But people living and visiting the area, as well as government officials, have taken notice of the waning flows on the Flathead River because levels in Flathead Lake are already at historic lows. A multiagency team that makes dam discharge recommendations to the Bureau of Reclamation rejected a plan last Friday to try to prop Flathead Lake levels up with water from the upstream Hungry Horse Dam, which would have lowered Hungry Horse to 20 feet below its full pool, over concerns about the coming water year during a likely El Niño event.

Earlier this week, a fire weather meteorologist warned Montana’s governor of hot and dry weeks to come leading to wildfires, especially in northwest Montana where the drought is most severe, and a top Montana climate scientist said late last week the faster-melting snowpack, lower flows, and warmer temperatures can all be attributed in part to the effects of climate change caused by burning fossil fuels.

“The sad thing is we’ve been predicting this for 20 years, and now it’s arrived,” Steve Running, a retired University of Montana professor of ecosystem and conservation science, told the Daily Montanan last Friday.

High temperatures are expected to be in the low-to-mid 90s in the Kalispell area through Monday, while they could top 100 degrees in other parts of western and southwest Montana, according to the National Weather Service. Those warmer air temperatures both during the day and at night, when lows are only expected to reach the upper 50s, will cause the streams and rivers to warm up as well.

That comes after much of northwest Montana saw average temperatures more than 5 degrees above normal during June, and average temperatures of more than 2.5 degrees above normal so far for July in Kalispell, according to NWS data.

FWP is asking anglers across the state to consider only fishing in the morning when the water is coolest, using barbless hooks when trout fishing, keeping fish in the water as much as possible, and to consider fishing streams, lakes and reservoirs where water temperatures are cooler until conditions improve.