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Fish management failures

by Warren Illi
| April 4, 2024 12:00 AM

Last week I drove to my cabin in the Thompson Chain of Lakes, planning to do some spring cabin chores and squeeze in a last ice fishing trip of the season. Wrong!  The spring cabin chores were there, awaiting my arrival. But the lake ice was melted out 20-30 feet. Most of the lake was ice covered, but the remaining ice was dark gray and looked absolutely rotten. Ice fishing is done until next December. All of the major lakes in the Thompson Lake chain had large expanses of open water. 

So, for most of us boat anglers, if we want to fish, we will have to fish Flathead Lake or the lower Flathead River. The photo attached to this article is Ron Catlett, a local home builder, with a beautiful 22-pound lake trout. This was caught last week in Flathead Lake. Ron is a great boss who takes his crew on a fishing trip every year. That’s my kind of boss! Last week they were guided by Outcast Guides and Outfitters (406-249-5814). They caught eight fish that day, including some other whoppers. Their fishing technique was simply using a dead bait fish and letting the lake trout or northern pike spot it, attempt to eat it and get hooked. Then it was “fish on.”

Flathead Lake continues to produce some great fishing, even though local fish managers are attempting to eliminate lake trout from the lake. A logical question is why would fish managers try to eliminate a great lake trout fishery? The answer is simply that lake trout are not a native fish. Fish managers are trying to increase native bull trout and west slope cutthroat trout which apparently can’t out-compete the introduced lake trout. Perhaps a quick review of Flathead Lake fish management history is in order.

When settlers arrived in the Flathead, Flathead Lake had no lake trout. Shortly after European settlement in the Flathead started in the late 1800s, the railroads also arrived with their steam engines and attached firewood/coal cars and a tank car filled with water for the steam engine. Those trains originated in Minnesota with its numerous fish species. It was the trend in that era for settlers to bring their favorite local fish species with them. The railroad tank cars, full of water, provided the perfect way to get fish, in this case, lake trout, from Minnesota to the Flathead.

This movement of non-resident game fish from one part of America to other lakes and rivers was a standard fish management technique of that era. So, lake trout were introduced into Flathead Lake. Those trout survived and reproduced. The young lake trout lived in the deep depths of Flathead Lake, but not in great numbers. What they lacked was a good supply of food. So, most of the young lake trout simply starved. 

Years later, another non-native fish, the Kokanee salmon was introduced into Flathead Lake. They thrived and became a major Flathead Lake fishery. Each fall, thousands Kokanee salmon, perhaps tens of thousands of Kokanee salmon, made their annual fall run up the Flathead River to spawn. As they made their spawning run, Kokanee lost their desire to feed, so it was difficult to catch them on the normal fisherman’s hook and line. They tended to concentrate in huge schools in the river. Anglers were allowed to use weighted treble hooks to snag those fish. In the 1970s it was not difficult to go “snagging” and literally bring home buckets and buckets of snagged salmon.

Also occurring in the 1970s, the state of Idaho imported mysis shrimp from Canada into Idaho lakes. The mysis thrived and became a new and major source of food for Idaho salmon. With this new source of rich food, Idaho’s record size kokanee increased every year for several years. Montana anglers wanted the same larger kokanee in Montana, so pressured Montana biologists to plant mysis shrimp in Montana. Mysis shrimp were planted into Whitefish Lake where they thrived and migrated down the Whitefish River to the Flathead River to Flathead Lake. Perhaps unknown at that time, mysis are a day feeder, dropping down to the lake bottom at night to rest.

The mysis lying on the bottom of Flathead Lake were an ideal source of food for the hungry young lake trout. With this increased food supply, young lake trout thrived. As they  grew, they changed their diet from mysis to kokanee salmon, wiping out the kokanee salmon population in Flathead Lake. So, the mysis shrimp that were planted in the Flathead Lake system, with the intention to benefit the Kokanee, ended up wiping out the Kokanee. This is a splendid example of the law of unintended consequences. 

So, both the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on the north end of Flathead Lake and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes on the south end of the lake, continue their effort to get rid of lake trout. In a lake and fishery system as large as Flathead Lake, this appears to be mission impossible. Yet fish managers continue to spend limited fish management money trying to do the impossible. Due to their failure, we are lucky to still have good lake trout fishing in Flathead Lake.