Trout, Mud, and the Roads Not Taken

Fishing the Bitterroot River

by Heather Whiteley On an early July morning last year I woke up in a tent pitched next to the West Fork of the Bitterroot River, near Darby, Montana. This beautiful stretch of broadly flowing water boasts some of the best cutthroat and rainbow trout fishing and averages around 5,500 angling days a year. Unable to resist the temptation, I grabbed my fly rod and made a few casts. I wasn’t there to fish, however, so I soon turned my attention to breakfast. After I had cooked up scrambled eggs and finished my coffee, my neighbors stepped out of their RV to assess the day. They eyed me narrowly as I pulled together my field gear and packed rebar survey stakes, measuring tape, and pvc pipe into the bed of my pickup. What, they may have wondered, was a woman—a very small woman—doing camping alone, especially when she was so obviously pregnant? The answer is mud—mud in streams. More politely known as sediment. Protecting the Bitterroot watershed for trout means removing negative impacts and currently, that impact is sediment. It’s true that sediment, largely caused by erosion, occurs naturally in a watershed within an undisturbed landscape. However, too much sediment can cover gravel areas and fill in pools, degrading habitats for both fish and insects.  

Forest roads: a major source of sediment in rivers

A primary source of excess sediment is the countless roads and trails that crisscross the landscape. The U.S. Forest Service is the largest landowner in the headwaters of the Bitterroot, and years of logging have left many miles of roads that are now abandoned and are actively eroding. Erosion harms twice—first by removing soil from a site and second, by depositing it on top of better soils or as mud in streams. So you can see that proper management of roads and trails is key to repairing damage to forested watersheds. That’s why I was camping beside the Bitterroot last July. I’m in the road monitoring and removal business. When the Forest Service no longer needs designated logging roads and is willing to go through the public process to remove them, Trout Unlimited will provide on-the-ground support, from monitoring sediment impacts to managing the contractors that operate the heavy equipment. With my survey stakes and tape measure, I set up permanent monitoring areas (called transects) to measure vegetation establishment over time on roads slated for removal.  In this way I can slowly measure nature reclaiming the land and determine how effective our actions have been in reducing erosion. Although I’m still waiting for results to come in, one thing I do know from my experience, sometime it’s easier to take a road than a trout! Heather Whiteley is a projects manager in TU's Watersheds program. 


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