Last fall, 16-year-old Stephen Naethe put on his warm clothes and flippers, plopped his float tube into the frigid waters of Flathead Lake and caught 686 lake trout.
In reality, maybe only a couple hundred were caught from the float tube. The rest were hauled in from his boat, which the young Naethe had finally worked up enough money to buy. Most days, he goes out fishing by himself. He can’t afford to be distracted. It takes utmost focus to feel nibbles when his bait is more than 200 feet below the lake’s surface.
Naethe has emerged as one of Mack Days’ favorite fish tales – the kid from Pablo who launches his boat an hour before dawn and doesn’t reel in his last line until an hour after dark. But this fish tale isn’t exaggerated. He’s just that good.
“I’ve been getting ready for Spring Mack Days ever since the end of the Fall Mack Days,” Naethe said last week.
Naethe was the top youth angler yet again at the Fall Mack Days on Flathead Lake last October and November. As one of 693 anglers overall, Naethe also brought in a bigger haul than nearly every adult. He will be gunning for his fifth straight youth title and the all-division top prize when Spring Mack Days begin on March 13 and then run every weekend until April 26.
Mack Days began in 2002 as a way to help restore balance to Flathead Lake’s ecosystem by thinning the population of lake trout, also known as mackinaws or “macks.” Lake trout are voracious predators that have taken a significant toll on the region’s native species: bull trout and westslope cutthroats. The main sponsor of the derby is the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.
Cindy Bras-Benson, one of Mack Days’ organizers, said “we’re not wiping out the population,” but instead the goal is to reduce lake trout numbers enough to stabilize the environment for native species.
“I think it’s important for people to realize this is something that’s being done to preserve the history of the area,” she said.
Anglers are eligible for a number of cash prizes. This year, the total pot is worth more than $45,000. Prizes of up to $500 are given out for the largest and smallest mackinaws, most fish caught and other categories. Also, there are more than 1,000 tagged fish that, if caught, range in value from $100 to $5,000.
Contestants can fish as few or as many of the tournament’s 20 days as they please. At the end, they enter the totals from their 12 best days. The 21st and final day is separate from the regular derby and has it own slate of events and prizes. Anglers are allowed to register at any time before or during the event.
During the first Mack Days in the fall of 2002, 888 mackinaws were harvested, only 200 more than Naethe caught by himself this past year. The total number has steadily increased over the years – an encouraging sign for biologists. Last year’s Fall Mack Days brought in a total of 10,108 lake trout.
All of the trout are kept. Anglers can take home as many as they want. Fried lake trout is a popular dish. The rest of the fish are filleted and either cooked up at a large fish fry at the end of the tournament or flash-frozen to be donated to local food banks.
“These fish are brought in and processed and they’re going to be distributed to people who need them,” Bras-Benson said.
The Spring Mack Days tournament, Bras-Benson said, is shaping up to have the most anglers yet, perhaps more than 700. Even with the huge turnout, Naethe is considered a favorite in the adult group and is expected to take the youth title again. An angler from Missoula named Keegan Noyd has placed second in the youth division the past two Mack Days and Naethe expects him to make a strong run again this year. But Naethe is ready.
“He’s been doing good, but I don’t think he’s as serious as I am,” Naethe said. “I don’t think anyone my age is. For me even when I go out when it’s casual, it’s still intense.”
Go to www.mackdays.com or call 883-2888 for more information.
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