“When does the fishing season open?”
I occasionally get this question, especially in springtime, from people who are a bit confused about news reports about changes in Montana’s fishing regulations, especially the new regulation that waters in Montana’s Central District are, essentially, open year around.
The third Saturday in May (May 21 this year) is the traditional opening day of the Montana fishing season, but that date is now almost a footnote to the fishing regulations. The basic rule of thumb, now, is that if you want to go wet a line you can do it, if you can stand to be out there.
On the other hand, this doesn’t mean you don’t need to check the regulations before heading for your favorite fishing hole. There are still enough exceptions to the basic rules to fill a drift boat.
For example, the Madison River is now open to angling year around, but if you’re also hoping for a fish dinner, you need to be aware that the entire upper Madison River, from the Yellowstone Park boundary to Ennis Lake, is open to fishing, but it’s strictly catch-and-release for rainbow trout in some stretches, all trout in some stretches, though in most stretches an angler 14 years old or younger, may keep one trout, and in some stretches that one trout can be a rainbow.
On the other hand, on the lower Madison, from Ennis Dam to the mouth of the river, the only special regulation is that there’s no limit on northern pike.
On the Jefferson River, the 100 yards upstream and downstream from the creek mouths of Hells Canyon Creek and Willow Springs Creek is closed to fishing all of April and from September 30 through November 30.
On the Big Hole River, we still have the extended season for whitefish and catch and release for trout from December 1 to the third Saturday in May. Arctic grayling are always catch and release, and from Dickie Bridge to Melrose Bridge, it’s artificial lures only.
I could go on and on with special rules for various streams and lakes, but you get the idea. It is true that we can, essentially, go fishing any time of year, but you still need to pick up a set of regulations and then know where you are fishing and what, if any, special rules apply for where you are. That’s been the rule of thumb for years and it still is.
Not everybody agrees with year around fishing. I remember one Big Hole rancher, now deceased, who got tired of seeing drift boats on the river almost all year, lamenting that the fish never got a rest from the anglers, adding, “They’re all broke to halter and trained to lead.”
I’d guess that most of us might disagree that Big Hole trout have forgotten to put up a fight, though at the same time, we certainly see the occasional trout that has a hook scar or two.
An essential change among Montana’s anglers over the last 30 years or so, particularly on trout streams, is that a lot fewer people are taking fish home for dinner. While a lot of people still like to eat trout, catch and release is, for most, the general rule. On a personal basis, I know that about the only times I keep a trout is when I have an order for a trout dinner. When I do get that order for trout I’ll often head to one of the many headwaters creeks in our area and get a bunch of brook trout.
An old fishing partner used to do some guiding on the Big Hole and liked to tell stories about people he’d taken down the river, generally adding that a favorite part of the day was a shore lunch of fresh trout. I rather suspect that most people taking a guided float trip down a trout river, these days, would be shocked at the idea of having trout for lunch.
The times—they’ve been a’changing.