No More Mack Days?

By Beacon Staff

Anglers from across the region are preparing to swarm Flathead Lake for eight weekends of action-packed fishing. Their target is lake trout, and their reward is up to $150,000 in cash and prizes.

Since launching 10 years ago, the twice-a-year Mack Days fishing derbies have become signature events on the largest freshwater lake in the West. The fall tournament regularly attracts more than 500 anglers, while the spring event, which kicks off March 15, draws twice that amount.

Last spring more than 1,000 participants landed a record 38,085 lake trout, also called mackinaws, or macks. The top angler caught 1,525 fish. The largest catch weighed almost 25 pounds and stretched more than three feet long.

For the many people who love hooking trophy lake trout, Flathead is one of the best spots in the West. More than 1 million of the silvery species, including roughly 400,000 plump adults, are believed to be swimming in the lake’s depths. For shoreline communities, the abundant sport fish has become an economic magnet, reflected by the rising popularity of Mack Days.

But the non-native species is also a perennial source of conflict and anxiety.

In the latest chapter of the contentious subject, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes announced plans last year to review their management of Flathead Lake and possibly enhance suppression efforts of lake trout to help native bull trout and westslope cutthroat. This could include cutting the non-native population in half by allowing gill and trap netting, bounties and commercial fishing. It could also mean the end of Mack Days.

The prospect has angered recreationists and alienated the tribe’s longtime partner, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, which separated itself from the process in a public sign of disapproval last year. FWP has stated that bull trout levels in the Flathead Basin are stable, as defined by the previous 10-year co-management plan between the agency and CSKT.

FWP’s new chief, Jeff Hagener, reiterated the agency’s belief that stricter reduction is unnecessary at this time in a January letter to Joe Durglo, the chairman of the CSKT Tribal Council.

“FWP currently cannot support the Tribes’ draft lake trout suppression (environmental impact statement) for reasons stated in a letter from FWP Fisheries Chief, Bruce Rich, to Tom McDonald in March 2012,” Hagener wrote. “Our concerns regard both the content and process of the draft EIS.”

Nevertheless, the tribe moved forward and, after almost a year of gathering research and public comment, plans to release a draft EIS on April 15.

CSKT Fisheries biologist Barry Hansen, who has led the EIS process, said the document will include four possible management options for lake trout in Flathead Lake — reduce the population by 25, 50 or 75 percent, or maintain the status quo.

The tribe currently relies solely on anglers to suppress lake trout through Mack Days and general harvest. Roughly 70,000 lake trout a year are caught in Flathead, according to the tribe. But Hansen said that only keeps the population from growing. An additional 13,000 catches are needed to actually put a dent in the population, he said.

“The EIS was only initiated because we determined that Mack Days alone was not sufficient to meet the goals of the co-plan,” Cindy Bras-Benson, a tournament organizer and CSKT fisheries specialist, wrote on the Mack Days website. “Therefore if none of the ‘action’ alternatives is chosen Mack Days would end because the monetary investment would no longer be justifiable.”

By sponsoring Mack Days, the tribe spends almost $300,000 annually.

“The issue is that Mack Days isn’t enough. It needs help with other tools,” Hansen said. “We like using anglers to achieve these objectives, but it doesn’t seem anglers can catch enough to do it.”

Hansen emphasized that other places with lake trout infiltration are trying to “annihilate” the species, but the CSKT does not intend for that to happen.

Anglers from Idaho head out from the Blue Bay Campground to fish during Mack Days on Flathead Lake. – Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon

“That is not our objective,” he said. “There will always be lake trout in Flathead Lake to the best of our knowledge.”

There will be a 45-day public comment period after the EIS is released and the Tribal Council could make a decision by summer.

Chuck Hunt, the vice president of Flathead Wildlife Inc., a local sportsmen’s group, is concerned about removing too many lake trout. What will it mean to the economy if one of the best lake trout fisheries is harmed? What will it mean to the current relationship between lake trout, Mysis shrimp and plankton, which all together help make Flathead one of the cleanest lakes around? What happens if millions of dollars are spent on suppression but the population inevitably returns to current levels?

“I have concerns about native trout. No doubt about it,” Hunt said. “But there are some bodies of water that it just doesn’t make sense to do this. Are we willing to take away 397,000 opportunities for anglers or sportsmen and replace it with 3,000 native trout?”

It’s illegal to intentionally fish for bull trout in Flathead Lake.

At issue, at least between FWP and CSKT, is the definition of “stable.”

Yearly redd counts, which determine the number of spawning adults, showed the bull trout population in the Flathead Basin ranged between 600 and 1,100 in the 1980s, according to FWP fisheries biologist Mark Deleray. In 1991, biologists counted 624. The following year they counted 291. The subsequent six-year period showed the lowest redd count numbers on record, Deleray said.

FWP teamed with the CSKT a decade ago on the Flathead Lake and River Fisheries Co-Management Plan, which was crafted largely by Deleray and Hansen. The 57-page document outlined a 10-year strategy for handling its keystone fishery, which included an impetus for dealing with lake trout.

The plan, jointly agreed upon by FWP and CSKT, determined that 300 redds was a stable level for the basin’s native population. If those levels remained secure, then additional suppression measures would be unnecessary, the plan stated.

Over the last 14 years the bull trout numbers have stabilized, Deleray said. Last year’s count determined there were roughly 500 redds, he said.

“By definition, which we jointly agreed on, bull trout are not at jeopardy and are stable,” he said. “You can argue that you want more than 300.”

Deleray also said there is concern about the timeframe of the EIS process, which originated as an environmental assessment that would have required lengthier scoping than the EIS.

As a result, FWP is not partnering with CSKT during the EIS process but has offered input.

Hagener asked the tribe for a resolution in his letter.

“Before we can move forward together with CSKT in co-management, underlying issues, including the purpose and need for the EIS, and future management direction must be resolved,” Hagener wrote.

“I offer the suggestion of retaining a third party mediator to help us work through differences and to create a shared vision for future management direction of the Flathead Lake fishery.”

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