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'A different river': Anglers excited for new fishing opportunities on Montana rivers following floods

Fishermen on the river
Posted at 12:14 PM, Jun 30, 2023

BILLINGS — Last year’s June floods left behind quite a bit of debris. Specifically, woody debris. But as it turns out, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Fisheries Management Biologist Bryan Giordano explained woody debris left behind from a flood is often viewed as a negative, but it's actually crucial to the fish population.

“The wood is not necessarily trash. It is important to stream function, it’s important to slowing down the river, it’s important to protect the banks and provide the fish habitat and aquatic habitat,” Giordano said. “Woody debris is really any woody material that comes into the river. So that can be a Cottonwood that falls in or Willows that fall in during high water. A lot of times they accumulate on point bars, on islands. It’s actually how islands start and that’s how they’re formed."

Bryan Giordano
Bryan Giordano

Giordano said last June's floods heavily impacted the Yellowstone River, but the smaller rivers like Rock Creek and the Stillwater saw the most change.

“The Yellowstone, it changes every year. And that’s the thing about large rivers, is they change. There are new gravel bars, there are new places to fish and for fish to hold,” Giordano said. “We really saw the rivers changing in the smaller rivers. So the Stillwater and Rock Creek are really the places that changed more so, and those are the places that you really are going to see fish moving around and finding them in different areas."

According to Giordano, rivers are constantly changing, regardless of if there's a flood. But when a flood does hit, it can be beneficial in more ways than one.

“Floods kind of act as a reset button for rivers. They introduce new habitats, woody debris specifically. And that’s a really important aspect to fish. And it’s not just important for adult fish, it’s important for young fish too,” Giordano said. “It gives all age classes of fish places to live and hide. In a large river like the Yellowstone, they can hide in the middle of the river. But in small creeks like Rock Creek, when the river gets lower, they need a place to hide. Woody debris provides that habitat for them."

Woody debris on the Yellowstone
Woody debris on the Yellowstone

More woody debris means more habitat for fish to populate.

“It increases spawning habitat with new gravel in the system as well. We’ve actually already seen fish using side channels to spawn that weren’t there previous to the flood,” Giordano said.

Giordano said the debris also acts as a stabilizer for banks, protecting homeowners from rising waters.

“Woody debris provides habitat for fish. Multiple life stages, juvenile fish and adult fish. It also provides a habitat for aquatic organisms for fish to eat. But it also provides stream stability. When we’re fishing, we find fish in woody debris. But that’s also what stabilizes banks," Giordano said. "We’ve seen a lot of rip-rap going into rivers, a lot of rock going into rivers, and woody debris also serves that purpose. But unlike rock, it also slows rivers down, it provides the fish habitat. Those are important things when we’re looking at full-river function. So woody debris serves as protection to homeowners as well as providing fish habitat."

Fish swimming in the river
Fish swimming in the river

But Giordano is excited about what this means for fishermen.

“You’re going to see a different river when you come fishing. It’s the same as last year. Post-flood, these are different rivers now. The fish are still there, they’re just in different places," Giordano said. "It’s kind of exciting. Folks that have been here for 30 years now have a different river to explore. So I suggest people get out there and explore it, find new places, and enjoy it."

Other Billings anglers agree.

“It is fun to go back to where you fished before and have it structurally changed," said Richard Romersa, the owner of East Rosebud Fly Shop, on Wednesday. "It is fun. It’s a new look, no doubt."

Richard Romersa
Richard Romersa

Romersa is an avid flyfisherman and is looking forward to this summer's fishing.

“For somebody that puts the time in, they’re going to have good days on the Yellowstone,” Romersa said. “Come to East Rosebud Fly Shop and spend some money."

One of Romersa's loyal customers, Jason Priest, travels all the way from Red Lodge to stock up on supplies at the Billings shop, located at 960 S 24th St. W. Suite A.

“Coming to East Rosebud Fly Shop and seeing Rich and his colleagues makes a huge difference because they know about bugs, they talk to everybody. Flies, who’s fishing, where’s fishing going well. It’s a good, timely source of information which just improves your chances of having a good time,” Priest said. "I fish the Stillwater, the Yellowstone, and the Bighorn a lot. Sometimes as far as the Missouri."

Jason Priest
Jason Priest

Priest said while the rivers are always changing, he's looking forward to exploring new spots.

“These rivers change all the time anyway and the fishing improves, sometimes it doesn’t. Seems like there's faster water and that fishes really well, especially in the summertime,” Priest said. “Besides being beautiful, (the Yellowstone is) different every year, so that’s exciting. You get to experiment and you find out what works. But you float by it, so you have to come back and do it again. More habitat, more fish, but also more challenges because sometimes you can’t see the debris underwater. You got to learn your way around. But again, that’s part of the fun, is learning where those new spots are. Learning what the conditions are so you can be successful."

Learning your way around - something Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks is excited about.

“We are anglers too. We spend a lot of time on the rivers, not just doing our jobs, but in our free time. I’m out on the river fishing, my coworkers are out on the river fishing," Giordano said. "We’re excited that it’s a different river and being able to go out and fish different places and enjoy that. So get out and do it, and remember that floods are good for fish and they can provide bank stability in the long run by increasing woody debris in the system."

Fishermen on the river
Fishermen on the river