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Count the Redds

In partnership with Montana's FWP, private land owners in Paradise Valley have been working on ways to improve the region's native, and world-famous Cutthroat Trout habitat. For some of these stories, check out the impressive narrative map here


One particular effort you can get involved is our "Count the Redds" is a local education and citizens scientist monitoring effort to help water rights owners work in collaboration with others to manage and improve cutthroat trout spawning...all while respecting needs of irrigators and the legal rights of all water rights owners.

What is a Redd?

The word "redd" comes from the Middle English word "redden" or "riddan", to free (from an encumbrance) or to clear (an area). For trout, it has come to mean a spawning nest made by a fish.

Cutthroat trout spawn in tributaries to the main stem of the Yellowstone, typically sometime in the month of July, when ag producers often need to use their legally allocated water rights for irrigation. In the past, some of these tributaries could run too low for cutthroat to successfully spawn. Big Creek was an example of that. But through the efforts of private water rights owners, FWP and Trout Unlimited, Big Creek now provides great habitat for cutthroats to create the next generation of trout for the Yellowstone. One way we verify that trout habitat has improved is to "count the redds". We have data for those counts going back to 1988.

The following videos and photos and reports help explain redds, spawning, and successful collaboration between local irrigators, Montana FWP and Trout Unlimited on the Upper Yellowstone watershed.

Anatomy of a Redd


Big Creek Cutthroat Redds - Part 1 Video

Big Creek Cutthroat Redds - Part 2 Video


Big Creek Success Story

Big Creek Redd Counts (Map)

Data has been collected on Big Creek Redds (from the confluence to the irrigation head gate) since 1988 - see below chart for details. The following two criteria are used by scientists.

  • A clear pit of 3-5 inch gravel with a tailspill of 0.5 – 2.5” clean gravel immediately downstream, with a bright appearance (minimal silt, soft, not imbedded in silt).

  • Suitable-sized gravel although lacking other components, not likely a result of hydrological scour, and presence of fry nearby or eggs in gravels.


But, it is more fun, to join us on our Redd count, then adopt your own stream, and get good at identifying them yourself. We can teach you how. Park County residents and schools can contact for more information.

Irrigation headgate where irrigation water rights have been leased to increase main tributary flows year round and at critical spawning times 

Fish wheel installed below the headgate in order to prevent trout from getting in to the irrigation ditch

In 1988, Patrick Byorth, then a graduate student at Montana State University conducting cutthroat spawning studies on the Yellowstone River, set up fish traps on Big Creek. He was dismayed by the results, finding only about a dozen cutthroat spawners over the course of the entire spawning season. Returning the following year, he found the same disappointing results, with virtually no fry production.


The primary problem was the timing and amount of irrigation withdrawals. All too often the lower stretch of Big Creek was completely dewatered for a significant portion of July and August, killing any cutthroat fry born in the stream before the fish could migrate downstream into the Yellowstone River. Byorth calculated that if the Big Creek cutthroat were to survive and thrive, a way had to be found to maintain a minimum stream flow of 11 cubic feet per second (cfs).


In 1995, landowners along Big Creek decided to act. Dick Kendall, a partner in Big Creek Ranch, remembers, “When we applied for the funding under [Montana’s] Future Fisheries Improvement Program, there had never been a project of this size undertaken under the law. My neighbor, Bruce Malcolm, and I put together the application, and over some long days and a lot of coffee, we talked our neighbors into going along with the idea.”


The Future Fisheries Improvement Program provided funding to improve irrigation projects and keep more water in the streams for fish. With the state program sharing approximately half the cost and the landowners committing the rest, Big Creek Ranch and the Malcolm Ranch upgraded their irrigation systems, moving from traditional ditch/flood irrigation to pipeline, gravity-feeds, and pivot irrigation. The improved system saved labor costs and cut water consumption in half; 50% less water was needed to irrigate three or four times more acreage. Most important for the ecology of Big Creek, and as a requirement for the state cost-share, the landowners agreed to guarantee a minimum of 11 cfs in the stream year-round -- water saved through irrigation efficiency and landowner cooperation would remain in the creek to permit trout fry to migrate to the Yellowstone River in July and August.


Today, the three cooperating ranches, including Mountain Sky Guest Ranch, work with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks regularly throughout the irrigation season. Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks routinely monitors creek flows. When flows begin approaching the 11 cfs mark, the ranches agree to take turns shutting down on their collective use. “I’ve gotta say, the ranchers on both sides of the creek have just been wonderfully good at compromise and cooperation,” Kendall notes. “We have never had a harsh word. We work together to manage the water levels to insure the fry can return to the Yellowstone River.”

Today Big Creek exceeds its potential as a major cutthroat spawning tributary for the Yellowstone River. Originally it was hoped that 5-6 years into the project, some 35,000 fry would be produced – a survey documented 40,000 cutthroat fry, not including the rainbow trout and brown trout spawn. Bill Taylor, another partner in Big Creek Ranch, sums the project up: “For conservationists, the Big Creek Water Restoration Project is a good example of how private landowners can work together with each other, with land trusts, and with the State to get a result that benefits everyone. This project is relatively inexpensive and produces a long-term benefit to the fishery and to the private landowners, as well as the next generation.”

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