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New Jefferson River rules address declines in trout
By Perry Backus of The Montana Standard, 03/17/2005

WHITEHALL - Every spring, Jefferson River rainbow trout crowd around the mouths of a pair of tributaries waiting for their chance to spawn.

Of course, that congregation of big trout attracts anglers.

Now, faced with declining trout populations due to chronic drought conditions, fishermen are going to have look elsewhere for a place to cast their lines in spring and fall.

The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission recently adopted an emergency regulation closing fishing at the mouths of Hell's Canyon Creek and Willow Springs, between Whitehall and Twin Bridges, to protect the spawning trout. The closures are in effect from April 1 to April 30 and Oct. 15 to Nov. 30. The regulation closes all fishing within 100 yards up and down stream from the mouths of the two creeks.

Since the tributaries are the mainstays for recruiting new rainbows into the river, the closure makes sense, said Ron Spoon, the state fisheries biologist for the Jefferson River. The hope is that once the water returns after this latest drought cycle finally abates, trout numbers will rebound fairly rapidly.

People interested in the Jefferson River fishery started talking about what could be done last winter. The ideas ranged from reduction in bag limits to season closures. But the idea rose to the top was simple: Protect the most vulnerable fish.

"It was a slam-dunk," Spoon said. "It was easy to implement and it did the most to protect the spawning stock as best we could. If we do that then as soon as we get back into water, our recovery can be relatively quick." Rainbow trout have a tenuous existence in the Jefferson River. They spawn in the spring making it difficult, if not impossible, to create an effective redd (nest) in the mainstream of the river during what can be a tumultuous runoff. Rainbows need smaller tributaries, of which there are few.

Even with that limiting factor, rainbow numbers increased from 1983 to 2000 due to in part to relatively good flows, better habitat and a catch-and-release regulation. Since then, with the worsening drought, their numbers have been declining.

They're not alone. All fish species, including whitefish and suckers, in the Jefferson River are down since the drought.

Even with the closure, anglers can fish up and downstream from the closed areas. But the restriction will continue.

"But I don't see this closure going away," Spoon said. "It's just too important to protect those spawning trout."

Used with permission of the Montana Standard

Jefferson River, Hamilton Slough
Group eyes slough as home for trout

By Perry Backus of The Montana Standard, 12/14/2004

Bruce Rehwinkel at Hamilton slough.
Trout Unlimited's Jefferson River project coordinator Bruce Rehwinkel hopes that Hamilton Slough, near Twin Bridges, will produce trout for the Jefferson River in the near future. Perry Backus / The Montana Standard.

TWIN BRIDGES - To most, the creek winding its way toward the Madison County fairgrounds just down the road from Twin Bridges doesn't look like much.

Sometimes, it nearly dries up. A few beaver have settled in here and there. And a layer of fine silt lines the creek bottom. It seems hardly a place for a trout to call home.

But then there are those with a trained eye and a certain touch of optimism that comes from experience who know about potential.

Trout Unlimited's Jefferson River project coordinator Bruce Rehwinkel is a good example. When he strolls along the banks of what's called the Hamilton Slough, he sees nothing but trout-producing possibility. After all, Rehwinkel knows the capability of thousands years of genetics.

Rehwinkel and others are hoping that Hamilton Slough might one day join other small, unassuming streams that have become magnets for trout looking for a place to reproduce along the Jefferson River.

Reconstruction projects at places like Willow Springs and Hells Canyon creeks made nearby trout populations jump. And now volunteers are looking to make alterations in Hamilton Slough in order for it to follow suit.

At first blush, Hamilton Slough looks like it has potential to produce trout.

Rainbow trout spawn in April, just when the slough is running full bore. While water levels drop after irrigation begins, trout eggs only need a small amount of water to remain viable as they incubate.

Initial efforts are going to focus on narrowing the channel on a small portion of the stream to increase the water velocity. The hopes are that will help scour out the silt in the stream bottom and expose the gravel trout need to spawn.

And the beavers are going to have to go.

"There's really not a shortage of beavers around here," Rehwinkel said. "On the other hand, there is a real shortage of places for fish to spawn along the Jefferson River." Add a little bit of fencing to keep the cows from tromping through spawning areas, Rehwinkel thinks the slough might just have a chance to produce some trout.

He's not alone.

"I think there's definitely some potential here," said Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist Ron Spoon. "Our approach is going to be low key, with some hand work and fencing, and then we'll let it heal itself. It could turn out to be a nice piece of stream for trout to spawn in."

There's no time like the present to get started. The biologists have already begun the process of rearing young trout in the stream in hopes that they'll return a few years down the road to reproduce.

The process - called imprinting - involves taking trout eggs from another site and placing them in incubators in the slough. The trout hatch and then spend time in the stream before finally swimming down into the Jefferson and possibly the Beaverhead, Big Hole and Ruby rivers as well.

After three to four years, the surviving adult trout hopefully will return to the slough to spawn.

"Obviously this whole process takes time," said Spoon.

Both Spoon and Rehwinkel have seen it work before.

In the mid-1980s, Rehwinkel began working with a landowner to reconstruct a spring creek called Willow Springs. With a shovel and knowledge he'd gained from picking people's brains, Rehwinkel went to work recreating spawning channels for trout.

Those efforts paid off. Biologists now count somewhere around 150 redds (places where trout spawn) in Willow Springs Creek. And about three-quarters of those fish are found on about 600 feet of stream.

Rehwinkel envisions that initial efforts on Hamilton Slough will focus on about 2,000 feet of stream.

"If it's successful, it shouldn't be too hard to sell an expansion of the work," he said. "Once everything is in place, the rest is going to be up to the trout. They have thousands of years of genetics to work with. I think they can figure it out."

Hamilton Slough is one example of numerous projects where landowners, the state and Trout Unlimited are stepping forward to try and improve the fishery in the Jefferson River.

"It's hard to imagine that this (would) work so well without the cooperation of the landowner (Hamilton Ranch)," said Spoon. "Ranch manager George Trischman has always been so cooperative and nice to work with. It's not always that way and it's certainly nice to be in that kind of situation with this particular project."

Trout Unlimited, along with Orvis and the National Fish and Wildlife Federation, fund the Jefferson River Project. Rehwinkel, a former FWP fisheries biologist, coordinates the ambitious program, which works with local landowners, the state and others interested in rebuilding the Jefferson Rivers trout population and improving habitat.

"The Jefferson is just one of those places where fishing ought to be better," said Bruce Farling, executive director of the Montana Chapter of Trout Unlimited. "There's been a lot of attention on the rivers where crowding has become a problem ... we've always thought that rather than regulating, one solution might be to increase the supply of good fishing rivers."

When projects like this work, they often lead to other opportunities, said Rehwinkel.

"This isn't an end all project for the Jefferson River," Rehwinkel said. "It's just another step on the journey back."

Used with permission of the Montana Standard.

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