BILLINGS — Fly fishing is a way of life for many in Montana and the sport of fishing is a major economic boon for the state, bringing in $907 million annually.
But in places across the state — such as the Jefferson River basin — trout numbers have declined by 20% to 25%, and the challenges facing these fish are multiple.
"If you just look at how many people have moved into Montana in the last decade, how many of those are recreationalists? Including anglers? That’s just more pressure. Throw in some bad weather, some hot weather, some low water, and it’s a recipe for a declining population to me," said East Rose Bud Fly & Tackle owner Rich Romersa.
Romersa mentioned that the last two seasons have been out of the ordinary.
"Travel traffic seemed be down a little bit, although after the last two summers, I’m not even sure what normal traffic is anymore. But Billings is growing so much that just the local business is making up for that," Romersa added.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) Region 5 spokeswoman Chrissy Webb says while the trout numbers in Yellowstone and the surrounding counties are relatively normal, trout require stability to thrive.
"They’re what we consider a cold-water species. So, they really need that cold, clean water to do well. With these prolonged periods of drought that we’ve seen in a lot of places throughout the state, they’re of course faced with a lot of challenges," Webb said.
She said one specific challenge is on the radar of FWP.
"We’re still working through the process of figuring out what increased angling pressure could do to these fish," Webb added.
Romersa mentioned that while this season has been a successful one for him, trout face a very unique battle in Montana.
"Montana does not stock its rivers and streams. We don’t do that, a lot of states do, but we don’t. So, high water, crazy low water, crazy temperatures, it definitely can impact trout populations, so I’m not really surprised by it (declining trout populations in parts of the state)," added Romersa.
Montana does stock ponds, lakes and reservoirs according to Webb.
Romersa added that while stocking the rivers with hatchery fish would help the number of trout, the wild-bred population is what makes Montana trout fishing "so spectacular."
"You start mixing that vibrant population with hatchery-raised fish, you might benefit the angler, but you’re not benefiting the habitat, I’ll tell you that," Romersa said.
But with numbers in decline in places around the state and with river populations solely reliant on their own ability to rebound.
The key to improving the situation, according to Romersa, comes down to communication.
"When it comes to conservation, public access, educating sportsmen and women about catch and release and taking care of our resources, all of that stuff to me, can improve what we’re talking about today," said Romersa.