What started out as an informational meeting to update anglers on the Flathead Lake and River Fisheries Co-Management Plan Wednesday night, quickly turned into a heated debate as emotions ran high, accusations flew and tempers flared.
More than 40 fishermen and women gathered at Snappy Sport Senter to listen to Barry Hansen from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes fisheries division discuss a plan to reduce Flathead Lake’s nonnative lake trout population.
The majority of anglers expressed a lack of confidence in Hansen’s research and concern for the future of the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi.
“You say this is an experiment. So what are our guarantees? We don’t have any guarantees,” Steve Reding, a self-subscribed “weekend warrior” fisherman, said. “If we lose Flathead Lake, it’s gone for our lifetime.”
Hansen fielded the anglers’ charges, telling them his group, along with Fish, Wildlife and Parks, did not intend to deplete the lake’s fishery. If the plan succeeds in reducing the number of nonnative species, he said he didn’t think anyone would notice.
“As we get emotional and worry about losing something, we have to make sure it’s real,” Hansen said. “I appreciate you don’t want to lose something, but I don’t think you will. It’s not like we’re going to go off the cliff and not come back.”
Mike Howe, who started the local group Flathead Anglers to help sportsmen and women in the valley stay up-to-date on the management of Flathead Lake, invited Hansen to speak Wednesday night and address rumors about a plan to gill net lake trout in Flathead Lake.
Hansen started the presentation explaining to anglers the group is looking for ideas to improve the harvest of lake trout.
Because it falls on several jurisdictions, Flathead Lake is managed cooperatively between the state and tribes, and the co-management plan is facilitated and guided by a joint board.
The need for such a plan was realized in the late 1990s, Hansen said, after agencies tried, unsuccessfully, to revive the previously abundant Kokanee Salmon population that crashed in 1987. Mysis were introduced to area lakes in 1965 to grow larger Kokanee.
“That was a mistake, in hindsight,” FWP Fisheries Biologist Mark Deleray said.
Instead of providing fodder for the Kokanee population, the planted freshwater shrimp were eaten by lake trout. Experts recruited by FWP to study the situation found that lake trout would eventually completely eliminate Bull trout on Flathead Lake, Hansen said.
In order to mitigate this problem, Hansen and FWP started Mack Days fishing contests. In 2008, they noticed a drop off in contest participation, and meeting their goal of harvesting 60,000 lake trout a year started coming up short.
Anglers scoffed at Hansen’s suggestion that the simplest way to make up the shortfall was to gill net Flathead Lake.
“You screwed it up once, don’t screw it up again,” audience members shouted.
“You’re trying to control nature,” local angler Jon Bailey said. “I kill 2,000 fish a year. You don’t have my numbers.”
Many of the anglers agreed that Hansen’s research did not extend to them and said they felt the surveys he put out were not thorough enough.
“The attitude you guys have had toward fishermen is bad,” Matt McComb with Mo Fisch Charters said. “The only number you have is what people turn in. There’s 10,000 fish just in this room.”
But Hansen said he was confident in the accuracy of his numbers.
“This is not a census. (It’s about) can we catch more fish? And can we do it more cost-effectively,” he said. “People are still suffering from the Kokanee collapse. This is different.”
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