Lightning over River Rock

Lightning captured from River Rock pond, delayed exposure while zooming out.

BELGRADE — The ice is off River Rock Pond, and a few anglers tossed lines into it as the sun moved toward the horizon Monday evening.

Meanwhile, in an event center overlooking the pond, a small crowd mostly consisting of bass enthusiasts converged to question the state’s plan to nuke the pond’s smallmouth bass and stock it with rainbow trout.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks worries the bass could be illegally stocked in the region’s famous trout streams. Smallmouth bass thrive in river systems and eat smaller fish, and state biologists worry such an introduction would decimate trout populations.

Travis Horton, FWP’s regional fisheries manager, told the crowd that it’s a question of when someone might move the bass, not if.

“Once there’s a source, we see them spread rapidly,” Horton said.

FWP released its proposal to use rotenone to kill the pond’s fish last month. In addition to the River Rock Pond, there are two other private ponds where FWP suspects the species exists. The proposal would cover eradication at those ponds and others in the valley where FWP finds the fish.

A public comment period for the project ends on Wednesday. FWP wants to move forward quickly once the comment period ends.

Horton points to the proliferation of largemouth bass in the Gallatin Valley as an example of bucket biology in action.

The state stocked largemouths in the Three Forks Ponds in the 1970s. Now, largemouths are found in a number of area ponds — all illegally introduced.

All the bluegill in those ponds are illegally introduced, too, and Horton said that shows that it’s not a stretch to think someone would try to move smallmouth into a river. He said FWP has received multiple reports of smallmouth bass being in some of the tributaries of the upper Missouri River, and that biologists have been out looking for the fish. None have been found so far.

Several people at the meeting said they enjoy fishing at River Rock because of the smallmouth bass. It’s a different experience from searching for trout on the Gallatin or Madison, and one that some anglers prefer.

Scott Uber, of Four Corners, said he fished the pond quite a bit last summer, and that he enjoyed it specifically because of the smallmouth bass. He likes bringing his kids to fish here, and said there are some decent sized bass around.

“I probably won’t fish it if there’s just rainbow trout,” Uber said.

Uber also said he thought it would be a risky place for someone to try to keep live fish to restock elsewhere. The pond is surrounded by condos and a paved trail. A store and offices sit off the southern bank, not far from the event center.

Nate Jenkin, a junior at Belgrade High School, used to live in the subdivision and has fished the pond for more than a decade. He said there are a number of other species there, too, including koi.

He’d be interested in seeing rotenone take out the koi, but he’d rather see FWP stock the pond with largemouth bass instead of rainbows. Because he lives in the Gallatin Valley, he said, he can drive any direction and find trout water.

“It’s nice that I can come here and throw topwaters for bass,” Jenkin said.

Horton said he wouldn’t have a problem stocking largemouth bass instead of rainbows, given that the bucketmouths are already somewhat abundant and would struggle to live in a river.

He said he’d rather do that than leave the smallmouth, which he considers a serious threat to the trout fisheries.

“When I’ve got a source right here, I can’t ignore it,” Horton said.

Michael Wright can be reached at mwright@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

Michael Wright covers the environment and wildlife issues for the Chronicle.

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