Pulling the Plug on Pike

We need an end to all the now-illegal bucket biology

By Rob Breeding

It’s in our nature to be bucket biologists. Moving fish around nature is an intrinsic part of human nature. We grow accustomed to certain species, and when we move to new places, we often bring our fish with us.

Bucket biology served our species well in the time before we had a very good understanding of biology. It was a simple enough process. Fill a bucket full of your favorite fish. Transport the fish to your favorite “new” water. Empty said bucket.

When you returned a year or two later, if the water had filled with the new arrivals, you counted your experiment in bucket biology a success.

We’re surrounded by the fruits of this work. Rainbow and brown trout — upon which the legendary reputation of Montana fly fishing was built — are both imports. Well, rainbows did occur naturally in the Kootenai River, but everywhere else in Montana they are the result of human-assisted migration across the inhospitable matrix of dry land.

For much of the history of the post-settlement West bucket biology was considered a success. We look at that success through a different lens today, now knowing these random introductions of non-natives can have unintended consequences across ecosystems.

So we just don’t randomly move fish around anymore, or at least we know better. Unfortunately, that compulsion to have our favorite fish wherever we darn well please still swamps our better judgment. That leads us to Lake Mary Ronan.

Last week the Montana Fish and Wildlife Commission approved an emergency regulation requiring anglers to immediately kill any northern pike caught in Lake Mary Ronan, and to turn in the fish at an FWP office within 10 days. If the angler wants, FWP will return filets or other edible parts, except the head. That will be retained so the otoliths (inner ear bones) can be examined.

Those earlier bucket biologists were acting on the scientific information and ethos of their time. Moving fish around today is a different matter, and folks who do this sort of thing are essentially saying, “My desires come first. Screw my neighbor.”

I’m not a psychologist, but I do fish, a lot, so I think that qualifies me to identify this behavior as a mental condition, one I’ve named “pescatarian narcissistic personality disorder.” There are many of these bucket biologists out there, and the best of them have upped their game to become “live-well biologists.”

Bass and walleye anglers are notorious pescatarian narcissists, but there’s no class of fish mover more reviled than northern pike aficionados. Understand, I think pike are cool fish, especially in their native range of the Midwest and Canada, and I generally don’t advocate for their removal in the places they were introduced in the past. But pike are eating and egg-laying machines, incompatible with most sport fish.

Bass and trout may coexist. Pike, on the other hand, convert trout fisheries into pike fisheries, and even if those trout are non-native, western Montana is still trout country.

Full stop.

What’s at stake in Lake Mary Ronan isn’t some obscure endangered species, but another introduced sport fish: Kokanee salmon. The lake has a productive fishery, and is also Montana’s sole source for the Kokanee eggs it uses in its stocking program. There are also trout, bass and yellow perch in the lake, though perch are one fish that seems to do just fine living alongside pike.

I’m not advocating the removal of all non-natives. I’m too big a fan of rainbow trout, and ringneck pheasants for that matter, to be such a snobby purist.

But we need an end to all the now-illegal bucket biology. There are too many great fisheries enjoyed by too many Montanans to let the random whims of a handful of pescatarian narcissists determine, possibly forever, what Montana fisheries will become.

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