Friday, July 19, 2024

2024 fish regs and non-native species

by Warren Illi
| March 21, 2024 12:00 AM

Wasn’t last weekend wonderful? With temperatures in the 50s, sunshine and no wind, I just had to dig out my dusty lawn chair, walk to the back yard, sit my butt down and soak up the glorious heat and sun. If this was global warming, I love it!    

This brief taste of spring is a warning for those of us who want to sneak in another ice fishing trip or two. This week I will be at my cabin doing just that. The warm sun has begun the slow process of melting lake ice, especially on the north shore that gets the warmth of the late afternoon southern sun. 

There is still good ice on most lakes, but you may have to get on the ice from the shaded side of the lake. Don’t forget to have your ice picks on a cord around your neck, just in case you fall in. Fish with a buddy and walk single file with good spacing between anglers so the person behind the lead angler can help pull out the lead angler if they fall through. 

While soaking up the sun last weekend, I spent some time reading the new 2024 fishing regulation booklet. My policy is to have a copy of this booklet with me every time I go fishing. I keep a copy of this booklet at home, another copy in my truck, another copy at my lake cabin   and a copy in my primary tackle box. 

That is why FWP has 270,000 of these fishing regulation books printed. It’s like the old American Express ad says, “Don’t leave home without it.” 

This 90-page booklet is nicely organized. The first 22 pages are the general fishing regulations with many do’s and don’ts for legal fishing. This part of the booklet also includes the general fishing regulations that pertain statewide for legal fishing. 

Every time I read these fishing regulations, I find something new to me. Catching crayfish at our lake cabin was always a priority for my young granddaughters. At the end of the day, we would catch a perch or two for bait in our overnight crayfish trap. This is what FWP calls an “unattended fishing device.” We were to have a tag on the crayfish trap with our name and telephone number. So, I sinned a little because my name was not on our crayfish trap. Luckily for me, I think the statute of limitations has expired.   

\Next in the book comes the specific regulations for each of the three fishing districts in Montana. Northwest Montana is part of the western district of Montana, which is the entire state west of the Continental Divide. Montana also has a central district and an eastern district for fishing regulations. These fishing district boundaries are completely different from hunting district boundaries.  

The initial part of the fishing regulations for each fishing district includes the general fishing regulations specific to that district, including the daily and possession limits for most fish species. Then comes a listing of every stream and lake in each fishing district and the specific fishing regulations for that body of water, if any. A prudent fishing policy is to have a copy of the fishing regulations in your hand as you launch your boat or pull on your waders. This will refresh your regulation knowledge for that particular lake or stream.

One aspect of the fishing regulations that is evident to me is that we, who live and fish in the western fishing district, have more fishing restrictions than anglers fishing in the central or eastern fishing districts. The fish managers in the western district seem more interested in preserving endangered species, such as bull trout and west slope cutthroat trout, than improving popular non-native fish species such as yellow perch, smallmouth bass and northern pike. 

I believe the most popular game fish caught in the western district is the non-native yellow perch. They seem to be in all lakes and slough. They bite aggressively and are good eating. They also reproduce like rabbits.  

I searched the new regulations for perch limits and found very little. There is no mention of perch in the general western district regulations and no mention of perch in many of the specific regulations for popular perch lakes such as Lake Mary Ronan, Thompson Lakes or Upper Stillwater Lake. There is mention of perch limits for the north end of Flathead Lake and Lower Stillwater Lake. 

So, for most of the other popular perch lakes, perch appear to be unregulated with respect to size or bag limits. This, to me, indicates local Fish, Wildlife and Parks bias against non-native fish. 

I have problems with the 15-fish limit on smallmouth bass in many Western Montana lakes such as Little Bitterroot Lake and McGregor Lake. These smallmouth fisheries were apparently started through illegal bucket biology.  Fish, Wildlife and Parks does not want to reward illegal fish stocking by managing illegally introduced fish through regulation. 

This is understandable, but seems to defy common sense. If an illegal fishery is established through illegal bucket biology, then Fish, Wildlife and Parks should either undergo the cost of eliminating that fish species or managing for that species. 

High bag limits such as the 15 smallmouth bass a day for Little Bitterroot Lake or McGregor Lake don’t seem to be working. Smallmouth bass are fun to catch and good to eat. So, most fishermen will self-regulate to preserve that fishery. 

So, if you plan to fish this year, I suggest you get a copy of the new fishing regulations and become informed. Remember to have fun.