The big rainbow trout deserved to live.
For nearly 10 minutes, it had fought for its life in the waters of the Bighorn River against the fishing skills of outfitter Curt Collins.
Collins had fooled the fish with a nymph imitation fly.
The take had been deceptively light, but Collins struck with his fly rod and felt the trout’s strength quickly bend the rod in half.
The rainbow struggled there for a time, then raced nearly a hundred yards downstream with Collins in pursuit.
In the closing minutes of the fight, the trout made two more surges, stripping line off the reel as it ran toward the middle of the river.
But finally, the fish relented. He floated on his side as he was pulled toward Collins’ waiting net. And as suddenly as the fight began, the fight was over.
With a different fisherman or on another river, that big rainbow would have done the last acrobatic flips of his life as he was carried ashore in the landing net.
He would have received a rap on the skull and been dropped into a creel or a cooler for the trip home. Eventually, he would have been eaten.
But this was Montana’s Bighorn River, in a stretch where all rainbow trout must be released.
And Collins believes in catch-and-release fishing.
So he eased the big rainbow back into the river, and held him there until he recovered his strength and swam away.
While in most of Montana fishermen still have the right to keep their catch, this year might be the time for all anglers to release all creek, stream and river trout that they catch.
In looking over the revised fishing regulations for 1989, the trout limit has been reduced to its lowest level in the 100-year history of the state on many waters.
All of the small creeks and most of the streams and rivers in the Central District will be cut back to a daily bag limit of two trout, only one of which can be more than 13 inches long. Only a few big rivers have exceptions.
The severe cutbacks are a result of last summer’s drought, when some streams were completely dewatered and others suffered from low flows for extended periods of time.
By lessening the pressure on fish populations, the streams will have a better chance to bounce back.
For that reason, catch and release is an excellent option for fishermen this year. Instead of taking breeding-age trout out of these waters, these fish will have a chance to spawn and repopulate the streams and rivers.
If a fisherman wants to keep trout for his or her table, fishing the reservoirs would be a far better choice.
Trout in reservoirs are replenished through stocking each year. Even with the low water levels in reservoirs last year, stocking levels can be increased to provide more trout for the future.
But the rivers, creeks and streams will be coming back on their own.
There are no plans for stocking them and biologists feel it may take 10 years for the trout populations in some waters to bounce back to pre-drought levels.
Their best hopes for the future lie in the wild strains of trout that survived the drought.
As a result, the spawning efforts of a big wild rainbow or wild brown trout this year could go a long way toward helping those waters recover.
And that’s the best argument for catch and release fishing that has been made in Montana.