Guest blog by Laura Ziemer, director, Trout Unlimited Montana Water Project
When Lyndy Caine bought the venerable Firehole Ranch in 1999, her goal was not just to save one of Montana’s iconic fly-fishing ranches—it was to preserve a way of life. The Orvis-endorsed ranch, on the banks of stunning Hebgen Lake just outside of Yellowstone National Park, was slated to be subdivided into “ranchettes,” but Lyndy had a different vision: Keeping it the way it was: A place of timeless beauty where guests could relax in a place steeped in nature and angling tradition, and fish the lake as well as the many famous rivers and streams of the Upper Madison watershed.
To her credit, Lyndy also had a strong vision of stewardship for the ranch and its natural resources. For years, she has been working with Trout Unlimited to restore Watkins Creek, an important wild trout spawning tributary that feeds Hebgen Lake and the Madison River. The creek also shelters native westslope cutthroat trout in its upper reaches.
Historically, the ranch’s irrigation diversions reduced flows in Watkins below what was optimal for rearing young rainbow trout. TU worked with Lyndy and the Firehole Ranch on a plan to boost flows and retool ranch irrigation management. Earlier this year, the Montana Department of Natural Resources approved a 10-year lease of part of the ranch’s water rights to ensure a minimum healthy flow of 5.5 cubic feet per second in Watkins—enough to protect the creek’s vital trout habitat.
That deal was the culmination of 10 years of effort and water management planning involving TU, Firehole Ranch, and neighboring ranches.
Watkins Creek is a good example of the importance of tributaries to fishery health—and the importance of flows. A little extra water can go a long way to improving watersheds and habitat. Boosting flows is a key goal for TU’s Montana Water Project, which works with private landowners throughout Montana on streamflow projects that often improve ranch operations while benefiting trout habitat.
Another encouraging development: Recent Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks studies show considerably higher percentages of wild rainbows in Hebgen Lake than previously thought—the MFWP historically stocked Hebgen with rainbows each year under the perception that there was little natural reproduction. The surprising data—showing a resurgence of wild trout populations—underscores the importance of rainbows being able to access spawning and rearing habitat in Watkins Creek.
Restoring Watkins will make the wild rainbow fishery even more vibrant and sustainable—and help ensure that the Firehole Ranch remains a special angling destination for generations to come.