but had no idea there were similar things going on in Montana.

Fishing for locals: Crowding on Montana’s rivers has some considering Citizens Days regulations

Zeno Wicks - Ravalli Republic

Clash of two worlds. A guided outfit passes by an anchored fisherman on the Bitterroot River near Silver Bridge fishing access site on Friday morning. (Photo here.)

From its origin at Skinner Lake, located in Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest near the border of Idaho and Montana, the Big Hole flows north-northeast to its confluence with the Beaverhead River just north of Twin Bridges, creating the Jefferson River.

The dark outline of brook, rainbow and brown trout can be seen all along its 150 undammed miles. It also is the last place in the lower 48 holding the fluvial arctic grayling, a species that dominated much of the Upper Missouri in the late 19th century.

But on Thursday morning, just two cars were parked at the Fishtrap Fishing Access Site at river mile 81, both with Montana license plates. With a prominent brown trout population, the put-in typically sees far more traffic during the week.

Although a hotspot for stone fly fishing, the section from Fishtrap to East Bank FAS – roughly eight miles – was closed to commercial fishing. That meant only private, non-guided trips were allowed.

Yet the closure was applicable only on Thursday – and every other Thursday between the third Saturday in May and Labor Day.

Citizens Days, as they are known locally, have been in place on the Big Hole for more than 10 years and have proved popular with local anglers and river enthusiasts.

On Wednesdays, the stretch between East Bank and Jerry Creek Bridge is closed to commercial use, and on Fridays Glen FAS to Notch Bottom is off limits. In fact, a different stretch of river is closed to commercial use every day of the week. On weekends, the designated stretches also are closed to nonresidents.

According to Big Hole River committee member and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks statewide river recreation advisory councilmember Steve Luebeck, the idea is simple: By restricting commercial outfitters’ access to a particular section of river on a particular day, there’s less congestion for locals. Thus, a more relaxed recreational experience is achieved.

“What you find on these stretches are less floating pressure and frequently families with kids learning to fish,” Luebeck said. “Something you don’t see much of on the other river stretches.”

On the Beaverhead, the same regulations have been implemented to regulate use on the weekend. On Saturdays, the stretch between the High Bridge and Henneberry fishing access sites is closed to nonresidents and commercial use, while on Sundays it’s Henneberry to Pipe Organ FAS.

As part of the regulations, both the Big Hole and Beaverhead committees must review the rules governing the rivers every five years and take public comment. The last revision occurred in 2011, with overwhelming support for maintaining the rules by individuals and groups such as the Montana Wildlife Federation and the Anaconda Sportsmen’s Club. Of the 100 public comments submitted, only four individuals were strongly opposed to the rules.

“The overcrowding issue on the Big Hole has not been resolved by these regulations,” wrote one individual who grew up near the river. “It has simply been diverted to other areas of the state, a major ‘Band-Aid’ on the problem.”

Yet one statement sums up many of the comments: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Blackfoot Recreation Steering Committee, Region 2 Citizen Action Committee and River Recreation Advisory Council member Dudley Improta said he has sought to implement Citizens Days on other rivers in Montana.

“The Big Hole and Beaverhead rules were touted as some of the most innovative river regs in the country by Fly Fisherman magazine when they came out,” Improta said. “I spearheaded an effort to look at a Citizens Day on the Blackfoot with a possible Citizens Day on all Montana rivers.”

But that petition fizzled.

Improta said former Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commissioner and Region 2 Citizen Action Committee member Jim Olson is interested in creating regulations for commercial fishing on the Bitterroot. Olson was unavailable for comment.

But for many guides in the area, regulations similar to the Citizens Days would limit the area they can fish, and potentially hurt future business.

Sean O’Brien, a raft guide for Osprey Outfitters, said such a plan for the Bitterroot would be ridiculous.

“They’re ripping people off the river who are pumping money into the economy,” O’Brien said. “The river isn’t even crowded.”

Improta said there are no data showing whether the economy of Dillon has been hurt by Citizens Days.

According to FWP’s 2012 Report on Watercraft Inspection Stations, of the more than 30,000 boats inspected last year, 672 reported their destination to be the Bitterroot River while only 194 reported to be heading to the Big Hole River. Although such statistics are hard to translate to crowding on Montana rivers, a rough outline of where boaters plan on floating can be seen.

Yet the same report also illustrates that of those who reported heading to the Dillon area to float, more than 80 percent were from outside Montana. Of those who reported the Bitterroot as their destination, more than 90 percent were from Montana.

According to the report, these percentages “illustrate that the border stations see higher amounts of out-of-state boats than internal stations and roving crews.”

If Citizens Days were implemented on the Bitterroot, would they work in stemming the flood of floaters?

“I think that would just make other parts of the river more crowded,” O’Brien said.

Luebeck said several people in the commercial outfitting industry initially were opposed because they didn’t want their own access restricted, but he believes attitudes have softened in the past decade.

“On the Big Hole River, nonresident use was about 50 percent, and it’s still that level today,” Luebeck said. “Commercial use remains at pre-rule levels and there is room for growth if demand exists.”

He said the success of the rules is managing use in “time and place.”

On Friday morning, about a dozen cars were parked at the Bitterroot’s Wally Crawford FAS, located just south of Hamilton on U.S. Highway 93. Most of the license plates read “Montana,” with one from South Carolina and two from Washington. There was no way to distinguish which were with guided outfits and which were on a private trip.

On the river nearby was a local fisherman who anchored his raft as a guided party passed.

“Don’t mind if we sneak behind you here,” the guide yelled.

“Yeah,” the fisherman grumbled, attempting to un-snag his line.

Reach reporter Zeno Wick