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Brown trout numbers soar on Bighorn River

Apr 7, 2013 - The Associated Press

BILLINGS, Mont. -- Good water years have allowed the brown trout population to soar on the popular Bighorn River in south-central Montana, making last year's roughly the fourth-highest trout count since 1986.

"The 2011 year class is really strong coming up," said Mike Ruggles, Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologist.

As fish populations have climbed, so has the number of anglers venturing to the world-renowned fishery popular with fly fishermen. The number of angler days was estimated at 130,000 in 2011.

"Last year was just exceptional as far as how productive the fishing was," said Hale Harris, owner of the Bighorn Trout Shop in Fort Smith.

The river is a continuation of the Wind River in Wyoming. It becomes the Big Horn River at the Fremont/Hot Springs County border in the Wind River Canyon.

Bookings for guided trips and rooms in the area about 90 miles southeast of Billings near the Wyoming boder are on par or ahead of normal for the coming fishing season, he added. The river fuels a local fishing industry that generates an estimated $50 million a year.

Based on surveys conducted last year, the upper river held about 8,000 fish per mile. That figure includes about 2,900 brown trout 9 inches or larger per mile and about 1,300 rainbow trout 9 inches and larger per mile. Adding in smaller fish brings the total up to 8,000.

"So there are a lot of little guys out there," said Ken Frazer, FWP regional fisheries manager, with quite a few 15- to 19-inch brown trout in the mix.

Farther down the river, near Mallards Rest fishing access site, FWP counted 1,950 brown trout 9 inches and larger per mile and only 134 rainbow trout 9 inches and larger per mile. Including smaller fish, the total count was 2,600 fish per mile.

"A lot of times we don't see many rainbows in that lower section," Frazer said.

The strong trout numbers are the result of a big water year in 2011 that not only filled Bighorn Reservoir, which feeds the river, but also flushed the waterway's gravel free of silt.

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