Fishing In Montana


Fishing is a popular activity in the intermountain-high prairie west, especially in Montana. Anglers can enjoy this “sport” year round, as ice-fishing is a past-time of many. The thriftiest person can make due with the basic equipment of a pole and a sparing amount of tackle; i.e. hooks, line, and sinkers. However, fishing accessories are a multi-million dollar industry and one could get overwhelmed with the plethora of merchandise available. Many other past-times and activities support and interfere with fishing, and the same activity can be either helpful or a hindrance; i.e. boating. Sometimes it is great to have a boat to get to deep waters for certain types of fish; yet, for a shore line fisherman, a boat is a disturbance. Some similar examples include: hiking, swimming, dog-walking/exercising, picnicking, camping, and driving. All of which carry their own juridical load. It is common knowledge that individuals must obtain a fishing license to fish on ALL state waters, which is every body of water accept a privately owned pond. A conservation license is needed before one can purchase a fishing license. Applicants are required to provide their social security number, driver’s license or photo ID, and resident status. Licenses are valid in yearly increments from March 1st to the following February. License requirements are broken down by age1:

1-11 No License Required – Must observe all limits and regulations.
12-14 Conservation License only.
15-61 Conservation License + Fishing license
62+ Conservation License Only2

In 1999, Montana Legislature passed a bill that regulates and necessitates the purchase of the Warm Water Game Fish Stamp, and is required of all anglers to possess any warm water fish. Certain species of fish require additional license in order to possess them, i.e. paddlefish require a Paddlefish Tag and bull trout require a Bull Trout Card. One must also obtain permits for fishing contests, aquatic invertebrates, and commercial fishing.3 Within the license or permit is where the majority of the juridical burden for anglers begins. Upon purchasing a license, one is given a regulations booklet. It is the fisherman’s duty to be wise and knowledgeable of its entire contents, as he/she could be held responsible for a violation of known standards. The ultimate, over-all, desired outcome is to enjoy the sport and to provide a good meal. More importantly to do all that and to abide by certain regulations and etiquette, preserving nature for future generations is the true outcome.
Juridical Controls

There are three fishing districts in the state of Montana, and each should be consulted, as they impose explicit regulations and limits as well. Specific bodies of water also harbor certain regulations, all of which will either be posted at the water site or in the local newspaper of the corresponding or nearest town. The main source of everything fishing is the FWP (Fish, Wildlife, & Parks). This is the most reliable source of news, regulations, emergency closures, and limits. Most fish and game violations are misdemeanors, punishable by a fine up to $1000, and possible imprisonment of up to 6 months. The court can also order the forfeiture of any current fishing, hunting, and trapping license and the privilege to hunt, fish, and use state lands for a period of time decided by the relevant court. Exceeding the daily limit of fish results in a fine, plus restitution to the state for each fish caught over the limit, i.e. a bull trout is up to $500 per fish, paddlefish is $300 per fish. Individuals who transplant, introduce, or import fish, face punishment of a fine up to $5000 and imprisonment of up to a year. If the effects of the violation cannot be eliminated (the person is a multiple re-offender), he/she may lose the privilege to hunt or fish in Montana for the rest of his/her life.
It is unlawful and a misdemeanor to4:

Introduce any fish or fish eggs into any waters w/o the FWP permission.
Refuse to show one’s fishing license upon demand.
Refuse to show one’s fish upon demand.
Loan or transfer your fishing license or tags to any person.
Sell game fish except as prescribed by FWP Commission regulations.
Leave or dump any dead animal, fish, garbage, or litter in/on any state, federal, and private property where public recreation is permitted.
Stun or kill fish by using any carbide, lime, giant powder, dynamite, or other explosive nature, or any corrosive or narcotic poison.
Hire or retain an unlicensed outfitter or guide.
Waste any part of game fish suitable for food.5

The Montana Trespass Law comes into play quite frequently, as most “public” waters will eventually coincide with someone’s private property. The trespass law states that the public can enter private land ONLY with the explicit permission of the landowner. The Montana Stream Access Law states the public may use rivers and streams up to the ordinary high water marks. Although the law gives the public the right to use waterways, it does not give them the right to enter private lands bordering those waterways, or to cross private land to gain stream access.6 Other waters commonly fished in Montana are on Indian reservations. A tribal permit is required to fish on these waters, which can be inquired about by contacting the tribal headquarters of the corresponding reservation.


There is widespread belief that the Montana’s rivers and lakes are becoming overcrowded. As a result, the Fisheries Division of FWP formed a River Recreation Conflicts Group with two subcommittees. One addresses etiquette and the ethical practices of recreationists; the other investigates possible legislative measures to alleviate some of the problems created by recreationists. It has been found or contended that most people are unaware of the dissatisfaction they are causing others. The following is to be used as a “guideline” rather than rules or laws.7

Fish in a location that won’t cause congestion.
Don’t crowd or encroach on another angler’s space.
Don’t monopolize a good fishing spot, fish for a while, and then move on.
Wading anglers should yield to floaters when there is no channel for the floater to navigate.
Avoid using the streambed as a pathway, as foot traffic can cause damage to the aquatic habitat.
Dogs should be kept under control or leashed.
Minimize group size.
Keep noise to a minimum.
Don’t litter.
Loons, swans, and other water birds can die from lead poisoning after swallowing lead fishing sinkers. Use non-lead sinkers and jigs.8

Qualitative Measure

Because fishing takes place in nature, and most times in seclusion, people tend to feel free of the juridical controls that are in place. Civilians can escape obtaining a license, and take too many fish, quite easily; and there are many who do. Although there are fish and game officers of law, Montana has millions of acres of public land compared to a handful of officers. The public is left to adopt self-policing practices. It has not been shown if a person being good through direct action or ethical awareness is at work when they are fishing. It does appear that collective action on caring for the environment is at play for most of the fishing population.

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