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“Hoot Owl” fishing restrictions for the Smith and Sun rivers

Fishing (MTN News stock photo)
Posted at 12:30 PM, Jun 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-30 20:20:45-04

GREAT FALLS — Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks said on Tuesday that, effective immediately, portions of the Smith and Sun rivers are closed to all fishing daily from 2 p.m. until midnight. FWP said in a news release that the restrictions will remain in effect until conditions improve. They are known as "hoot owl" restrictions (see below for explanation of the term).

The restrictions are issued for:

  • Smith River - from the confluence of the North and South forks to Eden Bridge south of Great Falls
  • Sun River - from the mouth of Muddy Creek to the Highway 287 Bridge.

Similar restrictions were implemented for other areas on Monday:

  • Beaverhead River hoot owl restrictions from the mouth to Laknar Lane Bridge
  • Shields River full fishing closure from the mouth to Rock Creek
  • Lower Big Hole River hoot owl restrictions from the confluence with the Beaverhead River to Notch Bottom FAS
  • Upper Big Hole River full fishing closure from Saginaw Bridge on Skinner Meadow Road to the North Fork Big Hole River
  • Jefferson River entire river hoot owl restrictions;

FWP's drought policy provides for fishing restrictions when flows drop below critical levels for fish, when water quality is diminished, or when maximum daily water temperatures reach at least 73 degrees for three consecutive days. The latest measurement of flows on the Smith recorded on June 29 at the gauge station below Eagle Creek near Fort Logan indicate a flow of 69 cubic feet per second (CFS), which is the lowest flow ever recorded for this date, and meets established criteria to prompt the restriction. Long-term median flow for this date is 328 CFS.

Low flows and higher water temperatures have been driven primarily by very low snowpack, water supply and inflows to the river. In addition, much hotter air temperatures have spiked water temperatures in the Smith River above 77 degrees this week. Water temperatures of 77 degrees or more can be lethal to trout.

The Sun River has experienced similar declines in flow, in addition to higher water temperatures. The gauge station at Simms reported flows of 125 CFS on June 29, while the long-term median flow for this date is 361 CFS. Water temperatures were measured at nearly 79 degrees.

Restrictions of this nature are designed to protect fish that become more susceptible to disease and mortality when conditions like this exist. FWP officials said one of the best short-term strategies to address heat-induced stress in Montana's wild trout is to reduce catch-and-release mortality by alerting anglers to fish only in the morning.

"Limiting fishing to only the cool morning hours can help," said Jason Mullen, FWP Region 4 fisheries biologist for the Smith River. "We're trying to minimize additional stress on wild trout during this summer of high-water temperatures and low flows. This is especially important among catch-and-release anglers who should reel in their catch and release it as quickly as possible. Reducing the time spent on the line and out of the water can really help the survival of trout this time of year."

In addition, anglers can also help reduce stress and mortality for fish by following these practices when catching and releasing fish, though fish mortality may still occur:

  • Fish during the coolest times of day, where permitted.
  • Keep the fish in water as much as possible.
  • Remove the hook gently. Using artificial lures with single and barbless hooks can make hook removal faster and easier.
  • Let the fish recover before releasing it.

If high temperatures and extremely low flows persist anglers may want to consider fishing areas with less stressful temperatures and conditions, such as larger lakes or reservoirs, or higher elevation waterbodies.

Although angling restrictions are in effect in other areas of the state, these are the first restrictions imposed this year in FWP Region 4. But unless weather and river flow conditions improve, it is possible that anglers may see additional restrictions in other waters around the region and the rest of Montana.

What does the phrase "hoot owl" mean in this context? From a now-archived article on the FWP website:

The term “Hoot Owl” comes from logging operations in the early 1900s. During the summer months, western forests typically are extremely dry and hot and fire potential is correspondingly also very high. Loggers working in the forests to cut and move trees used a variety of equipment that generated sparks (chain saws, vehicles, metal on metal contact between chains, chokers, and similar).

To help prevent fire when conditions were extreme, loggers would stop operations in the afternoon to avoid working in the driest and hottest parts of the day. Morning hours were somewhat safer because of dew and cooler temperatures. Working in these early hours, people would encounter owls that were also active in the morning.

Their calls (hooting) lead to reference to the morning work window as the “Hoot Owl.” The term stuck and later came to be associated with human activity conducted only during early hours of the day. At FWP, we use the term “Hoot Owl” to reference drought-related restrictions that allow anglers to fish in the morning (for reasons similar to why loggers would work in the morning incidentally), but not in the afternoon.