Lower Madison River

Anglers float down the lower Madison River in this Chronicle file photo.

State officials approved Thursday a permanent, monthlong time-of-day fishing restriction on the lower Madison River to protect fish on hot summer days.

The “hoot owl” restriction will be in place from the Warm Springs fishing access to the confluence with the Jefferson River every day, 2 p.m. to midnight, starting July 15 and ending August 15 each year. That’s a shorter time than what was proposed last spring, which would have put the restriction in place from July 1 to August 31.

The Fish and Wildlife Commission, a five-member board appointed by the governor, approved the permanent restriction as part of its update to regulations, which happens every four years.

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks first proposed the permanent restriction in June and has since gathered public comment on the issue through online surveys and public meetings.

Eileen Ryce, FWP fisheries division administrator, said in the commission meeting that comments were generally supportive of the proposal for the lower Madison. However, some people said they would like hoot owl restrictions to stay the same, or want none at all.

Hoot owl restrictions are ordered temporarily for rivers when water temperatures reach 73 degrees for three consecutive days, but no river in Montana has had a permanent hoot owl restriction until this vote.

The temporary restriction has been common for the lower Madison in years past. FWP data collected from 1997 to present day shows that the river typically warms to between 75 and 78 degrees in July and August.

FWP noted in the approved proposal that temporary restrictions are confusing and can be hard to follow.

Travis Horton, Bozeman-based regional fisheries manager for FWP, said he thought ordering the temporary restriction was largely symbolic because he didn’t believe people were fishing on hot summer afternoons.

However, when FWP gathered public comment, people said they do fish in high temperatures and even when temporary restrictions are in place. That helped convince FWP that a permanent restriction is necessary.

High water temperatures are hard on trout, and Horton said catch-and-release fishing is added stress that often kills the fish. He said the lower Madison is unique.

“I doubt there’s a trout population that lives in those high temperatures anywhere else in the state,” Horton said.

Ryce said it will be possible to lift the annual restriction if conditions allow.

FWP looks at water temperature, flow and pressure, to determine whether a hoot owl restriction is needed. For example, if there’s above average snowfall one year, that increases water flow in a river, generally making water temperatures lower, which happened in the lower Madison in 2011.

Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2607. Follow her on Twitter @shay_ragar.

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