Laker Takers Seek A Cutthroat Comeback
In attics all across the country, there are curled black-and-white photographs of grandpa holding up a stringer of cutthroat trout. The white border has yellowed, but still contains captions in the cursive penmanship of yesteryear. "Yellowstone 1962 – a good day of fishing."
Those days and those fish are gone now, and it's not because the fishermen caught them all.
Introduced non-native lake trout have created fewer fishing opportunities for fewer fishermen.
"Fishing in many of Montana's lakes – Flathead, Yellowstone among the most famous - is totally different today than it was just 20 years ago," says Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited. "At one time, Flathead Lake was one of the most popular angling destinations. People fished for native bull trout, cutthroat, introduced perch and kokanee, plus small numbers of lake trout and whitefish."
Today it's a virtual monoculture – one fish dominates: the Lake Trout, or Mackinaw.
So what happened? Here's a brief history lesson.
After stocking the lake trout and kokanee, Montana Fish and Wildlife added mysis shrimp that they thought would help the kokaneee, but it turned the food web upside down. Now the native fish are gone.
"The whitefish are doing okay," says Farling, "but they're hard to catch."
"If you fish for lake trout," points out Farling, "you know it takes a boat, specialized equipment, and they're hard to catch. So fishing has almost halved. Same thing has happened on other western lakes where lake trout have taken over, and we're worried about it at Yellowstone."
Not that the lake trout doesn't have its fans. After all, they're big, powerful fish that go on drag-peeling runs. Catching a 16" cutthroat is fun, but catching a 16-pound lake trout isn't even hooking a big one. Yet it's a different game, and one that's enjoyed by few.
There are people at Flathead – Farling calls them "a tiny Kabal of charter operators," who make their living by taking tourists out to fish for the lakers. The guides want to see the booming lake-trout fishery continue, because their economic interests are at stake. And some of these operators have friends who heat up the political battle between native fish and the introduced goliaths that have pushed everybody else off the block.
Enter Mack Days [LINK: http://www.mackdays.com/] – this party is the jam. The annual multi-week tournament offers up to $150,000 in cash and prizes to put lake trout on ice, with the hope to open up enough room in the ecosystem for native fish to be restored.
"We held the first Mack Days in the fall of 2002 to help correct an imbalance in the Flathead Lake trout fishery caused by the continually increasing population of lake trout," said Barry Hansen, fisheries biologist for the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, who sponsors the tournament. "Mack Days represents a new approach to fisheries management, one that that strives to directly involve the angling public in shaping the fish community."
Trouble is, even as the success of the events continues to grow, the levels of lake trout being harvested aren't enough to significantly reduce the number of lakers in the lake. That's shocking, because last fall a single angler – Wes Shockley - raked in 1,361 fish. Everybody finishing in the top 10 had over 400 fish.
In other words, if you've got a boat and a rod, it pays – literally – to drop a line in Flathead lake this spring. The catching appears to be good, if you know what you're doing. Some top anglers have already turned in over 350 fish apiece. The tournament runs through May 20.
But be careful with your fish ID. In the past, people have brought in the ESA-listed Bull Trout thinking they're lakers.
Farling believes that to truly rein in the population, it'll take a gillnetting operation. There's one underway at Yellowstone Lake, and it's working. In the meantime, sharpen your hooks. It means more than protecting native fish – it's about protecting fishing.
"We do a lot of agonizing about the future of fishing," says Farling. "So many fewer people are fishing. No wonder! It's harder to fish out there! To fish for the walleyes introduced to central Montana or the lake trout that we're talking about, you need a boat, they're harder to catch, and it's boring for a kid to troll all day. These new fisheries aren't family friendly or kid friendly. They're tougher fish to catch. And I'm really worried about converting cutthroat or bull trout fisheries – we're making it tougher for kids to grow up learning how to fish."
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Recycled Fish is the national non-profit organization of "anglers living a Lifestyle of Stewardship both on and off the water, because Our Lifestyle Runs Downstream."