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Is the Awesome Henry's Fork Fishery in Decline?

Plus a new muskie study, results from Atlantic striped bass public comment, billfish survival, a Texas fly-fishing festival, and Montana a water-law debate, in Fly Fisherman's News Briefs for February 23, 2023.

Is the Awesome Henry's Fork Fishery in Decline?

Recent guide research indicates that the Henry's Fork trout populations are down. (Photo courtesy Joshua Bergan)

If you’re cooped up with cabin fever watching the latest blizzard waiting for spring, chill out with the latest roundup of news briefs for Fly Fisherman this week.

Henry's Fork Woes?

It's a simple question, but the answer is one that causes great consternation for many trout fishing enthusiasts around the West: is the famed Henry's Fork in decline?

For at least a partial answer to that, consider the TroutHunter report filed earlier this month by John McDaniel. Spoiler alert–there's some bad news coming and McDaniel has the data to prove his contentions at the Harriman Ranch fishery on the famed trout stream.

"In 2022, Ranch fishing was the worst I have experienced over 40 consecutive years and more than 14,800 hours of angling and guiding," McDaniel wrote. "An index of how recently a major part of the decline has taken place is provided by the fact my clients and I were on the water for 497.5 hours in 2022 and landed 115 rainbows of at least 17 inches in length. (From here forward, every rainbow, or fish, I address will be at least 17 inches long.) 

"In contrast, in 2020 we took 168 rainbows in 420.5 hours. The disparity in productivity of the respective years of fishing is dramatic. In 2020, we averaged taking a rainbow every 2.5 hours. In 2022, it took us 4.3 hours to land each fish."

McDaniel acknowledges that there are a variety of reasons for such fishing, but he deems "...the most important to be the catastrophic decline in many species of aquatic insects. If prior to 2010 someone had told me I would invest 497.5 hours fishing or guiding over the three months when PMDs (Pale Morning Duns) traditionally are abundant and land only two rainbows on PMD flies, I would have laughed at them. If it had not been for our grasshoppers, 90 percent of my hours of fishing and guiding after 10 August would have been a disaster."

In addition to the recent declines of PMDs, McDaniel also notes declines in Calllibaetis, Mahagonies, and several species of caddis. Thankfully, there are still decent populations of other mayflies, including Green Drakes, but the shorter duration of the hatches gives anglers a smaller window to capitalize on them.

"The data are particularly disturbing because the Harriman Ranch fishery had been celebrated by experienced anglers throughout the world for its immense and diverse populations of aquatic insects," he notes.

McDaniel's post–and the two dozen plus comments that follow it–is a long read and deep-dive into the subject, but it is a very worthy topic. While he fears that it may be too late now, he hopes that anglers will make strong demands on the powers that be to save one of the most important trout fisheries in the world. 

"The only hope to avoid that disaster is to make dramatic improvements in protecting the fishery," he said. 

ASMFC Striped Bass Move Draws Angler's Ire

Striped bass fly anglers and the American Saltwater Guides Association are seeing red this month after a recent move to postpone an upcoming decision by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

What irks the ASGA is that despite some 1,950 people opposing any commercial transfers of striped bass quotas, the overwhelming public comment against such a move wasn’t even discussed in the most recent meeting on the topic. In fact, the ASGA notes that some 2,105 of 2,147 total public comments–or 98 percent of them–spoke up in favor of Option A, which would result in no commercial transfer quotas at all for Atlantic striped bass stocks.


Screen shot of comment totals for Atlantic striped bass regulation change, 2023
Anglers overwhelming preferred Option A, no commercial transfers of striped bass quotas. (Graphic courtesy of the American Saltwater Guides Association)

"None of this means that our positions should win out just because we generated the most comments," the guide association notes. "However, not even mentioning the public input during a hearing is a travesty.”

The ASGA, which acknowledged that blunt criticism might bring no favors to the organization, also added: "This isn’t a game. Our members’ lives depend on this fishery. Our businesses are no less important than the commercial sector."

The guide organization’s ire stems from the ASMFC moving to postpone action on the addendum last month, and instead passing a motion that furthers the timeline of the process along as the technical committee is asked to gather more data.

"The motion directs the Technical Committee to provide data that will show what the impacts of fully exploiting the commercial quota are," states the ASGA. "We will never dispute that more data is better for everyone. I have a question though. Within the current context and condition of striped bass, why wasn’t this task completed months ago? Shouldn’t this be the first thing done? Think about it. If you wanted to fully exploit the commercial quota for striped bass, wouldn’t you request a report on the impacts? But, that was not done. So here we are."

With time being of the essence here as striper numbers continue to flounder, expect more on this contentious topic as the battle to restore the Atlantic Seaboard’s striped bass stocks continues and the next ASMFC meeting approaches later this spring.

Why Muskies Can Be So Hard to Catch

If you've ever fly fished for muskellunge–or simply muskies–then you probably already know that they are difficult to catch. 

But why? A recent scientific study in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management suggests that capture of muskies–or catching them, as most of us say–is actually predicted by behavior and size characteristics, and not necessarily metabolism (i.e., when they are hungry).

A Virginia state employee holds up a large muskie, standing a river.
A recent study sought to define the angling vulnerability in muskies, with the intent of informing management activities to conserve populations.(Photo_courtesy_Virginia_State_Parks)

"Fish that strike angling lures often have a set of characteristics that predispose them to capture," the report's abstract notes, authored by John F. Bieber, Michael J. Louison, and Cory D. Suski. "Vulnerable fish may then be removed from a population, either through harvest or incidental mortality, and in turn leave individuals in a population that are less vulnerable to angling.

"Over time, the removal of vulnerable individuals can erode capture rates, possibly resulting in evolutionary changes if traits that result in capture correlate with characteristics such as fecundity or growth."

Texas Fly Fishing Festival & Brew Fest Hits Big D

Logo for Texas Fly Fishing & Brew Festival
The Texas Fly Fishing and Brew Festival takes place Feb. 25-26, 2023 in Mesquite, Texas.

There’s a surprising number of fly fishing clubs and fly shops scattered around Texas, as well as ample opportunities to target big largemouths with deer hair poppers, bluegills sipping down dry flies, redfish tailing on the coast, and even tarpon at the coastal jetties and rainbows on the Guadalupe River.

There’s also this weekend’s 6th Annual Texas Fly Fishing & Brew Festival, as this year's event returns to the Mesquite Convention Center in the suburbs of Dallas for a Feb. 25-26 run. 

In its six-year history, the event has attracted some of the top names in the sport including the late Lefty Kreh, the late Dave Whitlock, Bob Clouser, Blane Chocklett, Brian O'Keefe, and more. 

This year, that trend continues with lots of statewide talent along with two of the most respected names in the industry coming to the DFW Metroplex as Tom Rosenbauer of Orvis and Pat Dorsey of The Blue Quill Angler fly shop coming to the show.  

Working for the Vermont company 40-plus years, Rosenbauer is a well-known author, video and television show host (including The Orvis Guide to Fly Fishing on World Fishing Network, the company’s marketing director, host of the Orvis Fly Fishing Podcast each week, and a variety of other jobs that he has handled over the past four decades. Because of all of that, it’s little wonder that he’s widely regarded as the face and voice of Orvis in the minds of many.

Dorsey is a prolific author too, penning numerous how-to stories for Fly Fisherman  each year, including recent selections on fishing the South Platte River near Deckers when it snows and fooling selective trout during a blue-winged olive hatch. He’s authored a number of books too, including the Fly Fishing Guide to the South Platte River, Colorado Guide Flies, Tying & Fishing Tailwater Flies, and Fly Fishing Tailwaters among others.

One of the country’s preeminent fly tyers, Dorsey once tied some 28,000 flies in a single year. A designer of numerous well-known trout patterns over the years, the popular Colorado guide is a premier fly tyer for Umpqua Feather Merchants, a Pro Team Member for Whiting Farms, and tyer of a signature line of flies sold in fly shops around the country.

For information on the 2023 Texas Fly Fishing Festival, to view the seminar topics and schedule, or to purchase tickets, visit the event’s website.

Post-Release Billfish Mortality Examined

Fly fishing for billfish is something of an extreme pursuit, taking fly anglers to far flung tropical waters as they try and tempt denizens of the deep with fly tackle.

A billfish being handled in the water by a man leaning over gunwale of boat.
Post-release mortality is relatively rare in billfish species. (Photo courtesy of photographer Derke Snodgrass, NOAA, NMFSSEFSCSFD)

If that part of our sport seems to be a bit difficult–and hint, hint, it is–so too is the task of biologists trying to get a real-world handle on billfish species that aren’t always easy to study.

In fact, according to the Lahaina News, a Hawaiian online news site, a recent study is aiming to learn more about six different billfish species and whatever post-release mortality they might suffer. Technology and costs have plagued other such studies, which in turn can limit the amount of statistical data that can be accurately gathered.

"However, a study by Dr. Michael Musyl and colleagues published in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences compiled the results of 49 independent studies into a single meta-analysis to estimate post-release survival in six species of billfish," notes the story. "This study included billfish that were caught on both recreational and commercial fishing gear (longline)."

The report reportedly indicates that blue marlin had 12 studies performed, black marlin had three, striped marlin had seven, sailfish had seven, white marlin had six, and spearfish had one. The meta-analysis of those studies performed by Dr. Musyi and his colleagues found 41 instances of post-release mortality, with 90-percent of that happening within 10-days of release. 

There didn’t appear to be any significant differences in post-catch mortality between gear types according to the study, although there could be differences that are harder to detect and other factors that come into play like handling practices of these large pelagic predators. 

Noting that other studies have pointed out that billfish caught on circle hooks have a higher survival rate than those caught on J-hooks, the Lahaina News story also states that, "Given the relatively rare occurrence of post-release mortality in billfish, the authors point out that catch and release fishing is a viable fisheries management option."

Montana Debate Heats Up on Federal Water Regs

As the political winds continue to shift after last fall's mid-term elections and in advance of next year's presidential race, the debate is simmering again in the Big Sky State as Montana's rivers and streams and how to manage them comes into focus again.

That comes on the heels of a recent challenge to a federal rule that tried to clarify Clean Water Act regulations and give a revised definition of "Waters of the United States."

A fly angler fishing a verdant Montana trout stream.
The debate is simmering again about how to manage Montana's rivers. (Photo courtesy Joshua Bergan)

"In developing this rule, the agencies considered the text of the relevant provisions of the Clean Water Act and the statute as a whole, the scientific record, relevant Supreme Court case law, and the agencies' experience and technical expertise after more than 45 years of implementing the longstanding pre-2015 regulations defining “waters of the United States," states a published document in the Federal Register.

"This final rule advances the objective of the Clean Water Act and ensures critical protections for the nation's vital water resources, which support public health, environmental protection, agricultural activity, and economic growth across the United States."

The rule from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Army (including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) was to become effective on March 20 this year. But it has been reportedly challenged by all 48 Republican senators thanks to a Congressional Review Act joint resolution of disapproval. 

Now, the senators have 60-days to send a new rule to President Joe Biden's Oval Office desk as a formal legislative repeal according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

In addition to the congressional repeal noted above, an upcoming Supreme Court decision could throw a curveball into all of this as well. And in the final analysis, the Bozeman newspaper notes that federal protection could come to an end for more than half of the Big Sky State's waterways.

There are arguments from stakeholders on both sides, and this is all a part of the ongoing battle between policies of the former Trump Administration and those being championed by the Biden Administration.

Some have praised President Donald Trump for executive office moves made during his term that made regulations less confusing, particularly for the agricultural industry. Others support the Biden Administration and its efforts to go back the other way. And all of this falls under the shadow of the upcoming Supreme Court decision.

At the end of the day, however, regardless of what one's political beliefs are and opinions on water in the West, what's at stake is vital to the interest of Montanans according to Democratic Sen. Jon Tester, who sent an e-mailed statement to the Bozeman newspaper noting that he'd continue to talk with constituents in his state and work to ensure that the federal government is overreaching in this matter.

"As a third generation Montana farmer, I know that clean water is the cornerstone of our state’s economy and outdoor heritage—which is why it’s so important that any WOTUS rule works for farmers, ranchers, and conservationists alike,” Tester said to the newspaper.

As with several topics in this week's Fly Fisherman News Briefs, expect more to come on this topic.

Lynn Burkhead is a senior digital editor with Outdoor Sportsman Group.

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