COLUMBUS, Mont. — Judging by the lack of anglers and recreationists on the nearby Yellowstone and Stillwater rivers Friday morning, word was slow to reach the public that the streams had reopened following an unprecedented closure on Aug. 19 caused by a parasite outbreak.
Trina Mailloux was an exception. The Park City angler waded into the Yellowstone River just west of town and began casting to trout jumping in splashy rises. As far as the eye could see, she had the river all to herself.
“I was going to go to the ‘Horn today until I checked the news,” she said, referring to the Bighorn River, which had not been closed.
Earlier in the morning she’d also fished the Stillwater River, catching several trout on dry flies, and saw no other anglers. The opening of the rivers came at the end of her week off, so it’s no surprise she said the closure “sucked. Especially when it’s hopper season.”
The Fish and Wildlife Commission on Thursday agreed to reopen several stretches of river and tributary streams that had been closed to all recreation. The Yellowstone River from the Yellowstone National Park boundary to the Carbella fishing access site is open to floaters but not anglers, at least until Tuesday when Fish, Wildlife and Parks personnel will determine how the fish in that stretch are faring.
Still closed to all recreation is the Yellowstone from Carbella downstream through the Paradise Valley and past Livingston to the Highway 89 bridge. This was the stretch of river where thousands of mountain whitefish perished from an outbreak of a parasite that causes proliferate kidney disease. The strange thing, though, is that sick whitefish that were caught and analyzed in a laboratory showed they were overcome by so many parasites that they never developed the usual markers of the disease, such as an enlarged kidney. That meant there were so many parasites in the water that the fish were essentially being shocked to death, according to FWP. Only a few dead trout were found.
Tributaries to the river in that Paradise Valley stretch, including the private Armstrong and DePuys spring creeks, have been reopened.
Also, from the Highway 89 bridge downstream to Laurel, where Mailloux was fishing, has been reopened to all recreational activity, along with the Stillwater and Boulder rivers. But you wouldn’t have known it based on the lack of activity on Friday.
Such quiet is not unusual for this time of year after school has restarted, said Kory Kober, an area resident and former Columbus fly shop owner and fishing outfitter, who was sighting in his bow at the same fishing access where Mailloux was casting. The fishing before the closure had been great, he added.
“It’s a matter of real estate,” Kober said. “When this river becomes half of its normal size the fish become really easy to find.”
On Friday the Yellowstone River at the Livingston water gauge was flowing at 1,590 cubic feet per second. On average over the past 91 years the flow on this same day has been 2,690 cfs. The minimum flow at the gauge was recorded in 2001 when the river dropped to 1,350 cfs.
With the river so low and another week of hot temperatures, the water also warmed up, hitting 66 degrees at Livingston on Thursday before cooling down to about 60 at night. Low flows and warm water temperatures stress trout and whitefish and contributed to the outbreak of proliferate kidney disease.
Kober, who is the third generation of his family to live along the Yellowstone River, said his family has “watched this river die.” He called it eerie to drive past the famed waters when it was closed and not see a single boat, angler or child splashing in the water.
In the last 10 years Kober said he’s noted the continual rise in the water temperature and the invasion of warmwater fish species moving upstream as the climate has changed. Now it’s not unusual for him or his buddies to reel in warmwater species like smallmouth bass, sauger or even a sturgeon in waters that once were the sole domain of trout — a coldwater species.
Whether this is a trend of warmer and lower summer stream levels has been prophesized in many research papers. Whether folks choose to believe in climate change or not, one thing is sure, Kober said. Many of the small towns along the river don’t have much going on in the summer when the rivers are shut down, Kober noted.
Chris Fleck, who owns Stillwater Anglers fly shop in Columbus, knows that fact only too well. He closed his shop while the rivers were shut down because business dried up. Now he’s reopened.
Comparing this year to the same period last year he figures his retail sales took a 70 percent hit and his guiding business was down about 40 percent. That doesn’t include people who may have shown up but went elsewhere because of the closure.
That drove business that Fleck, and other shops along the Yellowstone, may have gotten to the Madison and Bighorn rivers, which weren’t shut down.
Although Fleck and other outfitters who derive their livelihood from providing a service for anglers on the river didn’t disparage FWP for the river closure, he did suggest that the agency circle back to analyze their response and develop some type of crisis management plan for the future.
“I can understand their actions considering they didn’t know the extent of the kill and the damage,” Fleck said. “I understand their reaction.
“I’m willing to take a short-term dose of pain for the long-term benefit of the fish.”
The big question now in his mind is how long the news of the closure — which became national fodder — will live on. Will business be down this fall or next season because anglers outside of the immediate area may think the river is still closed?
“I hope there will be an aggressive campaign by the state to try to reaffirm to the angling public that we’re still fishing,” Fleck said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t get all of the facts and freak out.”