Landing a Lunker

A recent catch in Flathead Lake nearly broke the state record and continued the streak of trophy catches in Northwest Montana

By Dillon Tabish

It was a slow morning of fishing off the eastern shores of Flathead Lake.

Mike Howe, captain of A Able Fishing Charters and Tours, was with a husband and wife from Tucson, Arizona who were on vacation and wanted to catch a few decent fish.

But by 2 p.m., July 8, the dry spell lingered and hope was fleeting. Howe recommended they wait a little longer as he set a downrigger at 210 feet, plunging one of the lines into the darkness.

“You stick with it. You keep going because you just never know when that line starts bouncing what’s going to be on the other end of it,” Howe said.

Within five minutes, the reel hummed to life. The husband grabbed the rod immediately as the line zipped out at a ferocious speed.

“We knew we had a good fish on,” Howe said. “When it came to the surface, I was shocked at how big the fish was.”

After 15 minutes of careful reeling, Howe helped haul the silvery lunker into the boat.

Their eyes could hardly believe what they saw.

Anything over 30 inches is considered a trophy lake trout. Anything weighing more than 10 pounds is impressive. Theirs was something altogether unique — the lake trout weighed 36 pounds and stretched 45 inches. It had a 30-inch girth and, based on the initial survey of its ear bones, was well over 40 years old.

“That’s a fish of a lifetime for anybody,” Howe said. “I’ve fished Flathead Lake for 18 years and I’ve never caught anything close to that.”

As it turned out, their fish barely missed out on the official state record. Ruth Barber achieved that hallmark catch 10 years ago on June 23, 2004. Barber’s famed fish, which she also landed on Flathead Lake, was 2.5 inches shorter but weighed 42.69 pounds. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks determines state records based on weight.

Nonetheless, the recent catch is extraordinary and the latest in a long line of amazing fish to surface in Northwest Montana.

This corner of the state is home to several remarkable state records. The largest cutthroat — Montana’s official state fish — was landed nearly 60 years ago in Glacier National Park. The largest white sturgeon, an ancient fish species that is listed as endangered, came from the Kootenai River in 1968. And the state’s monumental bull trout, another threatened species that can no longer be kept in Western Montana, has a similar historic mark based here.

In 1916, James Hyer was reportedly fishing on Flathead Lake when he landed a 37-inch, 25.64-pound bull trout. FWP’s current records do not confirm Hyer was fishing on Flathead, but multiple historical archives from the agency and the biological station at Yellow Bay reference Hyer’s milestone catch as taking place on the lake. The record still stands nearly 100 years later, largely because the fish is catch-and-release only, but also because of the impressive measurements.

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