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'Hoot owl' fishing restrictions for parts of Smith and Sun rivers 

What are 'Hoot Owl' fishing restrictions and why they matter for Montana rivers
Posted at 10:31 AM, Jul 15, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-15 12:31:34-04

GREAT FALLS — Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks said in a news release on Friday, July 15, 2022, that portions of the Smith and Sun rivers will close to all fishing daily from 2 p.m. until midnight, beginning Saturday, July 16. The restrictions will stay in effect until conditions improve.

The hoot-owl restrictions are issued for:

  • Smith River -- from the confluence of the North and South forks to Eden Bridge south of Great Falls
  • Sun River -- from the Highway 287 Bridge to the mouth of Muddy Creek. 

FWP's drought policy provides for angling restrictions when flows drop below critical levels for fish, when water quality is diminished or when maximum daily water temperatures reach at least 73 degrees for three consecutive days. Water temperatures of 77 degrees or more can be lethal to trout.

The latest measurement of flows on the Smith recorded on July 14 at the gauge station below Eagle Creek near Fort Logan indicate a flow of 162 cubic feet per second, with water temperatures exceeding 73 degrees for three consecutive days, which meets established criteria to prompt the restriction.

The Sun River has experienced similar declines in flow in addition to high water temperatures. The gauge station at Simms reported that water temperatures have exceeded 73 degrees for seven of the previous eight days.

What does the phrase "hoot owl" mean in this context? From a now-archived article on the FWP website:

The term “Hoot Owl” comes from logging operations in the early 1900s. During the summer months, western forests typically are extremely dry and hot and fire potential is correspondingly also very high. Loggers working in the forests to cut and move trees used a variety of equipment that generated sparks (chain saws, vehicles, metal on metal contact between chains, chokers, and similar).

To help prevent fire when conditions were extreme, loggers would stop operations in the afternoon to avoid working in the driest and hottest parts of the day. Morning hours were somewhat safer because of dew and cooler temperatures. Working in these early hours, people would encounter owls that were also active in the morning.

Their calls (hooting) lead to reference to the morning work window as the “Hoot Owl.” The term stuck and later came to be associated with human activity conducted only during early hours of the day. At FWP, we use the term “Hoot Owl” to reference drought-related restrictions that allow anglers to fish in the morning (for reasons similar to why loggers would work in the morning incidentally), but not in the afternoon.

Restrictions of this nature are designed to protect fish that become more susceptible to disease and mortality when conditions like this exist. FWP officials said one of the best short-term strategies to address heat-induced stress in Montana's wild trout is to reduce catch-and-release mortality by alerting anglers to fish only in the morning.

"Limiting fishing to only the cool morning hours can help," said Jason Mullen, FWP Region 4 fisheries biologist for the Smith River. "We're trying to minimize additional stress on wild trout during this summer of high-water temperatures and low flows. This is especially important among catch-and-release anglers who should reel in their catch and release it quickly without even removing it from the water if possible. Reducing the time spent on the line and out of the water can really help the survival of trout this time of year."

In addition, anglers can also help reduce stress and mortality for fish by following these practices when catching and releasing fish, though fish mortality may still occur:

  • Fish during the coolest times of day, where permitted.  
  • Keep the fish in water as much as possible.   
  • Remove the hook gently. Using artificial lures with single and barbless hooks can make hook removal faster and easier.   
  • Let the fish recover before releasing it.  

If high temperatures and extremely low flows persist, anglers may want to consider fishing areas with less stressful temperatures and conditions, such as larger lakes or reservoirs, or higher elevation waterbodies.

These are the first restrictions imposed this year in FWP Region 4. But with weeks of summer and warm dry weather ahead, it is possible that anglers may see additional restrictions in other waters around the region and the rest of Montana.