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Drops in flows, increase in temps on southwest Montana's Big Hole River prompt alert

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Big Hole near Wisdom

In this file photo from the summer of 2021, an especially bad season for the Big Hole River, the river is a reduced to a low flow near Wisdom. 

Dropping water levels and rising temperatures on the Big Hole River prompted a news release Wednesday from the Big Hole Watershed Committee alerting both irrigators along the river and anglers to prepare for water use conservation measures and to adjust their angling habits.

“As the summer heat settles in, sections of the Big Hole River are reaching conservation triggers identified in the Big Hole River Drought Management Plan,” the release reports. “Flows are dropping rapidly in these sections and water temperatures are rising, so now is the time to do whatever can be done to protect the fisher.”

For some irrigators in the upper Big Hole who participate in the Candidate Conservation Agreement with Assurances with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, dropping flows and increasing temperatures could mean returning water to the river to prevent the listing of river-dwelling Arctic graying under the Endangered Species Act.

“The Big Hole Watershed Committee has enacted its phone tree to inform local irrigators of the need for water conservation,” the news release said. “Local cooperation is the best tool we have for conserving water, given our rivers are over-allocated, meaning there are more water rights than actual water.”

The BHWC recorded the following Big Hole River flows and temperatures on Aug. 2 at 5 p.m. (cfs is cubic feet per second): 

Section 1: Headwaters to North Fork BHR

Streamflow: 44 cfs (conservation trigger = 40 cfs)

          Temp: 70.3 F

          Status: Prepare for Conservation, Hoot Owl Fishing Restrictions

Section 2: North Fork BHR to Dickie Bridge

Streamflow: 216 cfs (conservation trigger = 140 cfs)

          Temp: 68.0 F

          Status: Prepare for Conservation, Hoot Owl Fishing Restrictions

Section 3: Dickie Bridge to FWP Maidenrock

Streamflow: 405 cfs (conservation trigger = 200 cfs)

          Temp: 66.9 F

          Status: Open

Section 4: FWP Maidenrock FAS to Tony Schoonen FAS (aka Notch Bottom)

Streamflow: 423 cfs (conservation trigger = 240 cfs)

          Temp: 72.7 F

          Status: Prepare for Conservation, Hoot Owl Fishing Restrictions

Section 5: Tony Schoonen FAS (aka Notch Bottom) to River Mouth

Streamflow: 192 cfs (conservation trigger = 150 cfs)

          Temp: 74.7 F

          Status: Prepare for Conservation, Hoot Owl Fishing Restrictions

Below is a list of voluntary actions anglers can take to protect the Big Hole River fishery during periods of drought:

  • Use a stream thermometer when you fish, available at a local fly shop. Water temperatures change throughout the day with the coldest water occurring in the early morning. Take the temperature frequently throughout the day and when water temps rise above 67 F, stop fishing.
  • Always keep fish wet and release them quickly.
  • Use heavier tippet and land fish quickly. Prolonged fight times in warm water place a high amount of stress on the fish and increase hooking mortality.
  • Consider exploring high mountain streams and mountain lakes, where water temperatures stay cooler and give the river fish a break.
  • Consider taking a break from fishing during hot weather and find other ways to enjoy the Montana outdoors.

To view the Drought Management Plan or current river conditions, click here: https://bhwc.org/river-conditions. To join BHWC’s email list or weekly water supply text message list, contact BHWC at info@bhwc.org.

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