Not long ago, the Flathead basin had the largest and healthiest population of native bull trout in the country with possibly 20,000 or more adult fish. Angler harvest of bull trout in the Flathead River system was 6,000 to 8,000 bull trout each year. Some of those fish reached more than 20 pounds. Today, because of precariously low numbers caused by predation from non-native lake trout, the species has been designated as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, and opportunities to fish for this magnificent animal are limited to only a few places in our home waters.
Easily accessible, family-friendly angling for bull trout along the banks of the North, Middle and South Forks, and the main stem Flathead River, as well as along the shores of Flathead Lake, Whitefish Lake, and Swan Lake has been replaced with specialized angling for an overpopulation of non-native lake trout in Flathead Lake.
Friday, March 15 marks the 12th year of the popular Mack Days fishing tournament, instituted by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP) as a means to reduce numbers of lake trout as part of the Flathead Lake Co-Management Plan. The No. 1 goal of the co-management plan was to “increase and protect native trout populations.”
After more than a decade, the fishing contests have failed to meet their stated goal. According to population surveys taken each year by FWP, the population of native bull trout in Flathead Lake has continued on a declining trend throughout the life of the contests. Top fisheries biologists estimate that we need to at least double the current lake trout catch in order to begin to reduce the lake trout population. Lowering the lake trout population will restore some balance and give our native fish room to thrive once more while still providing ample fishing opportunity for lake trout anglers.
We have the scientific and technical ability to bring back our native fish. Projects such as ongoing efforts in nearby Lake Pend Oreille have proven that reducing the number of lake trout will improve the numbers and health of other fish populations. It will cost money, and it will take time, but as our populations of native fish remain in decline we continue to lose more and more of a precious genetic and cultural resource that can never be replaced.
Our native fish have existed in this place since the retreat of the continental ice sheet more than 12,000 years ago. They provided an irreplaceable, constant source of protein for American Indian tribes, and until just a short time ago, bull trout gave Flathead anglers the opportunity to catch world-class trophy fish in our rivers and tributaries. These fish were designed by nature to exist in this particular place and to take advantage of the uniqueness of the Flathead River system.
Flathead Valley Trout Unlimited supports proposed efforts to secure our native fish populations and preserve this important resource for our children and grandchildren.
Chris Schustrom is chapter president of Flathead Valley Trout Unlimited