Know the fishing rules
Let’s assume you are fishing the lower Flathead River and land a nice fish. Is it a rainbow trout or a westslope cutthroat trout or a bull trout or a northern pikeminnow or a mountain whitefish or another fish species?
All of these different fish species look somewhat similar. They are all long narrow-bodied fish with various colors and dark spots. Step one in fishing is to be able to accurately identify what species of fish you caught, then determine if it is legal to keep this fish species.
This leads to knowing how many fish you can keep and whether there is a size limit?
The answer to all of these questions is in the official 2021 Montana fishing regulations booklet. Next to having your 2021 fishing license, this booklet of fishing regulations is probably the most important document you can take with you when you go fishing in Montana.
Like the old credit card TV ad says, “don’t leave home without it.” That is my philosophy with my copies of the fishing regulations. I keep copies in my truck, home, at my lake cabin and in my primary tackle box.
Western Montana has a very wide variety of lakes, reservoirs, streams and ponds with a very wide variety of fish species.
When I go to my lake cabin, I know what fish are in that lake and can easily identify the four fish species I will likely catch.
But if I decide to fish the lower Flathead River or go down to Lake Mary Ronan or want to fish Little Bitterroot Lake or any other body of water, before launching my boat, I always take a minute to review the fishing regulation booklet to see if there are any special fishing regulations for that body of water.
This 100-page fishing regulation booklet is crammed with fine print of what one may do and what can't be done pertaining to fishing. The first 19 pages are general regulations that generally apply to fishing anywhere in Montana.
It includes regulations dealing with aquatic invasive species, how Montana is divided into three major fishing districts, who needs a fishing license, camping in one of the 339 statewide fishing access sites, catch and release angling tips, fish consumption guidelines, proper disposal of fish entrails and a host of other guidelines and rules.
Next in the regulation booklet are the specific rules for the three fishing districts in Montana.
The Flathead area is in the Western District, which is essentially all of Montana west of the Continental Divide. This section has all the general fishing regulations such as bag limits for each species, fishing methods allowed in the Western District, plus a listing of the dozens and dozens of lakes and streams with special regulations pertaining to legal fish species, bag limits and fish size limits.
I think this is the most important part of the fishing booklet. This is what you need to read before launching on any body of water. There are special regulations for over 100 bodies of water in the Western District.
Not only are there special regulations for different bodies of water, but there are sometimes different regulations for different stretches of some rivers.
For instance, the general fishing limit for cutthroat trout in the Western District is three fish daily and three fish in possession, with no size limits if you are fishing in a lake or reservoir.
If you are fishing in most rivers and streams, you can catch and keep three cutthroat daily and in possession, but none can be over 12 inches long.
But in the Flathead River below the confluence of the North
Fork and Middle Fork, there is only catch and release fishing for cutthroat. But apparently you can catch and keep some cutthroat caught above the confluence of the North Fork and Middle Fork.
You gotta read the regulations!
The last few pages of the fishing booklet are color pictures of the most popular game fish species in Montana. Looking at these photos, it almost seems easy to distinguish between the various fish species.
But actual on-the-water fish identification is not always easy. The normal very distinctive red or pink stripe down the side of the non-native rainbow trout is not always evident in the field and almost non-existent on some fish.
Then you will need to look at the forking of the tail, spots on various parts of the fins and other means of fish identification.
For open water fishing, in rivers and streams, you can use only one line with two hooks per line in the Western District. But in lakes and reservoirs, you can fish with two lines.
The several sloughs off the main stem of the Flathead River look like small lakes, but are considered part of the river, so you must follow river fishing regulations, unless listed differently in the regulations.
Another key aspect of fish regulations is that fish in your freezer at home are considered part of your possession limit. If you have three cutthroat trout in your freezer, you can’t keep any cutthroat trout you catch on your next fishing trip.
These fishing regulations are intended to maximize sport fishing opportunities without adversely impacting the fishery resource. So go fishing, have fun, but spend some time reading the regulations.
You may be surprised to see what is allowed or not allowed.