The recent news of the temporary closure of the Yellowstone River to all water-based recreation hit close to home.
On July 19, my friend Bruce Cochran and I were floating the Yellowstone in a drift boat with guide Chris Fleck, fly-fishing for trout.
Exactly a month later, we heard that the seemingly thriving stretch of river we fished had been closed to recreation. Why? An outbreak of a microscopic parasite resulted in a large fish kill that affected mostly whitefish, but some trout, too.
Low stream flows and high water temperatures played a part in the proliferation of the parasite, and spokesmen for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks said, “The magnitude of the kill is unlike anything our fish health specialists have seen.”
Fish, Wildlife and Parks made the closure to keep the public from spreading the parasite to other rivers and to give the fish a chance to rest without being pressured by fishermen.
The crisis has since subsided and most stretches of the river have been reopened. The fishing has even rebounded, with good action and healthy fish reported, according to guide Chris Fleck, who guided Cochran and I down river in July.
But the damage has been done.
“It had a big effect on our economy,” said Fleck, whose Stillwater Anglers fly shop is less than one mile from the Yellowstone. “We were able to scramble and find other rivers to fish for people who had booked guide trips. But the retail side of our shop was hit hard.
“Nobody was fishing, so nobody was coming in to buy flies and tackle. Everything from bars and restaurants to convenience stores and fly shops like ours were affected.”
Now Fleck is doing damage control, trying to get the word out that the Yellowstone is recovering.
“We hear a lot of misconceptions, like people saying that every fish in the river was killed,” Fleck said. “We lost some fish, but there still were plenty of survivors.
“We think the worst is over.”