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Sunday, February 18, 2018

Paddlefish season expected to be brief

Season starts May 15

By Jason Stuart

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

The start of the annual paddlefish season on the Yellowstone River is only a few days away, but anyone looking to snag one of the prehistoric fish for keeps had better get down to the river early and often once the season opens, as wildlife officials are expecting a quick end to this year’s harvest season.

The paddlefish season opens on Monday, May 15. 

The first day is a catch-and-release only day, and anglers can only fish at the Intake Fishing Access Site on those catch-and-release days. The first harvest day of the season will be Tuesday, May 16.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Region 7 fisheries manager Mike Backes said the way things are shaping up, he’s not expecting there to be many harvest days this season before FWP shuts it down. The agency has a quota of 1,000 fish which can be taken from the Yellowstone, after which they shut down the harvest season.

“I hate to say it, but yes (it will be a short season), given what the water forecast is looking like, it’s not going to be a long, drawn-out season,” Backes said. “Hopefully we get six or eight or 10 harvest days, but that might be a stretch this year.”

One major indicator of that is how neighboring North Dakota’s paddlefish season went. That state’s season on the Missouri River has already come and gone. Backes noted that North Dakota wildlife officials shut their season down after just four days, harvesting 826 fish over those four days.

The other major sign that this season is likely to be short is, as Backes alluded to, the current state of the Yellowstone. Bolstered by a whopper of a mountain snowpack at its headwaters and the headwaters of its major tributaries, the river has been running high and turbid almost ever since the ice came off it. Paddlefish require the river to be running high and muddy to begin making their spawning run up it, with a flow of about 20,000 cubic feet per second being the ‘magic number’ for the fish to begin making their way upriver from the confluence with the Missouri.

As of Tuesday morning, the official river gauge at Glendive was reading a flow of over 27,000 cfs, and National Weather Service forecasts are predicting the Yellowstone will reach flow rates of nearly 40,000 cfs by the opening day of paddlefish season on Monday.

Backes noted that the warm weather this past week has further melted some of the mountain snowpack and is sending a fresh surge of water down the river.

“They’re projecting a pretty substantial flow by Saturday after that warm weather went through the last few days,” he said.

Backes added that while he hasn’t made a trip yet to survey the number of paddlefish at Intake, others have already reported seeing fish there, a reversal from last year, when low river flows made for a sluggish opening to the paddlefish season.

“There’s been multiple people out at Intake the last few days, and they’ve all reported fish they can visually see,” he said.

As FWP gears up to manage another paddlefish season, Backes also took a moment to reflect on the fact that major changes may be lurking around the corner. While he noted it will at least be a couple of years out if the project proceeds without delay, Backes said there’s no doubt that the construction of the new concrete weir and fish bypass channel at Intake will have an impact on the paddlefish season.

“If and when that change occurs, it will reduce the convenience of being able to manage the paddlefish harvest, because both fish and anglers will be more spread out,” Backes said. “We’re definitely looking towards that change and trying to figure out how we do business from that point on and the anglers will be adjusting as well.”

The paddlefish season on the Yellowstone runs from May 15 to June 30, though the season will be ended once FWP determines the quota of 1,000 fish harvested has been reached. A special license is required to fish for paddlefish. Paddlefish tags are $6 for Montana residents and $15 for non-residents. 

Paddlefish harvest days on the Yellowstone are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. At Intake only, anglers may also catch and release paddlefish on Sunday, Monday and Thursday.

Reach Jason Stuart at rrreporter@rangerreview.com.

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