In Flathead Lake, conservation has never tasted so good.
That’s thanks to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, whose campaign to reduce invasive lake trout populations and protect native fish species in the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi is getting a boost from an unlikely source — the supermarkets.
One year ago, the CSKT Tribal Government approved the incorporation of the nonprofit, tribally owned Native Fish Keepers, Inc., which has begun selling wild-caught fillets of lake trout and whitefish caught in its gill-netting operations, as well as fish harvested during the spring and fall Mack Days, a biannual fishing derby hosted by the tribes.
Those suppression efforts, which appear to be having a measure of success, are also prohibitively expensive, and the aim of Native Fish Keepers is to offset the exorbitant cost of facilitating both the tribes’ gill-netting program as well as its Mack Days events. The fishing derby cost the tribes about $200,000 annually, while the suppression gill-netting effort, launched in 2014, has led to additional expenses.
CSKT Fisheries Biologist Barry Hansen said the costs include paying out prize money to Mack Days participants, purchasing and maintaining equipment, including miles of net, and the purchases of multiple boats.
“This is so expensive that the revenue we generate through Native Fish Keepers will never completely offset the costs, but we are really encouraged so far by the popularity of the product,” Hansen said. “The demand for it is high, so the potential is great.”
Lynn DuCharme, marketing director of Native Fish Keepers, said the fillets are available in grocery stores throughout western Montana, and the company hopes to begin distributing its product throughout the Pacific Northwest. In the Flathead Valley, the fillets are available at the Super One in Polson, the IGA in Bigfork, Third Street Market in Whitefish and the Albertsons in Kalispell.
In addition to tasting great, DuCharme attributed much of the popularity of the lake trout and whitefish to a widespread dedication to conservation on Flathead Lake.
The freshness of the product is also a boon to business.
Immediately after the fish are removed from the nets, they are placed on ice and ferried to a state-of-the-art processing facility on Blue Bay, DuCharme said.
“As soon as the fish come out of the lake, we have a shuttle boat that brings them straight to the processing facility,” DuCharme said.
At the processing facility, the fresh-caught fish are filleted, flash frozen and shipped to retailers.
“They get processed and frozen in the same day,” she said.
The current program employs eight tribal members who conduct the gill-netting operations and up to 10 who work at the processing facility.
But the suppression program’s success hinges on it continuing in perpetuity, and maintaining a suppressed lake trout population means maintaining the pressure.
The tribes set a goal of reducing adult lake trout abundance by 75 percent in Flathead Lake, and to maintain that population level indefinitely.
“We expect native trout to rebound in response to reduced predation of lake trout,” Hansen said.
With an estimated 1.5 million lake trout in Flathead Lake, the tribes’ goal is to remove 143,000 annually in order to begin seeing a reduction in the overall population. Last year, angling and netting combined removed about 100,000 lake trout. In its 16-year history, Mack Days has removed approximately 600,000 lake trout.
Lake trout were first planted in Flathead Lake a century ago, and for decades the population remained relatively small, co-existing with native bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout. But in the 1980s, when mysis shrimp introduced into surrounding water bodies migrated into the lake, the historic food web began to unravel.
Lake trout suddenly had an unlimited protein source at hand and the population exploded, with the non-native species outcompeting bull trout and native westslope cutthroat trout at an alarming rate.
Bull trout were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act in 1998, but the Flathead Lake aquatic community hasn’t been the same since.
“This is a mitigation program first and a business second,” DuCharme said. “But so far, it has exceeded our expectations. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Grilled Lake Trout Three Ways
Perfect Grilled Lake Trout
Lake trout fillets, skin removed
Apple juice (if desired, marinate fillets in juice overnight in fridge)
Place fillets on lightly greased or sprayed foil. Sprinkle with lemon pepper and a little salt. Add thinly sliced butter pats on top of fillet and a layer of thinly sliced onion. Loosely place another layer of foil on top of fillet and place on grill, medium heat. Grill for 20 minutes or until fish flakes easily. Place on platter and drizzle with melted butter and sprinkle with parsley.
Chipotle Grilled Fish Tacos with Slaw
1 chipotle pepper, chopped
1 teaspoon sauce from chipotle pepper can
1 crushed clove of garlic
Juice of ½ lemon and lime
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon soy sauce
¼ teaspoon oregano
Combine ingredients in a blender. Put a small amount in a separate container to use on tacos after assembly. Place fish and marinade in zip lock bag and soak for at least 15 minutes.
Prepare the coleslaw with cilantro one hour ahead of time.
4 cups red or green cabbage, shredded
½ purple onion sliced thin
½ cup vinegar
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped (optional)
¼ cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon salt
Combine cabbage and onion. Mix remaining ingredients and toss with cabbage mixture. Let sit for one hour.
Grill fish until browned. Turn and lightly cook. Do not overcook.
Heat the tortillas and then stack with grilled fish and cabbage mixture.
Drizzle with set-aside marinade mixture, lime juice and a dollop of sour cream or plain Greek yogurt.
Simple Grilled Lake Trout
Leave skin on lake trout fillets, and spray racks with oil before grilling to save on cleanup time. Place fillets on grill skin side down and baste with lemon juice and lemon pepper.
Grill fish hot and fast using high heat or hot coals. Cook until the skin turns black and then flip fillets over carefully. Remove the skin and baste with lemon juice and sprinkle with lemon pepper. Cook until bottom side is golden. Flip back and cook skinned side until golden.
For more recipes, visit nativefishkeepers.org.