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Can Diehard Anglers Save the Bull Trout?
For a decade, fisheries managers have used Mack Days to suppress lake trout populations
Mack Days
Angler Chuck Forgey, last year’s spring Mack Days champion, holds up a couple of small lake trout he harvested in the early morning hours of fishing on Flathead Lake. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon
There comes a moment, at the tail end of a snowy 14-hour fishing day on Flathead Lake, when the angler turns existential and begins questioning his purpose in this cold, icy world. More precisely, he looks at the side-swiping precipitation and choppy waves pummeling his boat, and asks: “What the hell am I doing out here?”

It is an appropriate question for the circumstances. Very few people want to be out on the western United States’ largest freshwater lake in freezing early-spring Montana weather, for any reason, and fewer yet voluntarily place themselves in that situation, for fishing.

But so it is with the most dedicated anglers at Mack Days, a popular twice-a-year fishing tournament that pulls tens of thousands of lake trout out of Flathead Lake. Though the majority of participating anglers are less serious, there are fanatics at the top of the tournament standings who refuse to let weather diminish their fish totals. Chuck Forgey of Arlee is one of them.

Forgey, the spring Mack Days’ defending champion and current leader this spring, said during tournaments he launches his boat on Flathead Lake at about 5:30 a.m. and gets off the water at around 8 p.m. or later.

“I get out there in the dark and leave in the dark,” Forgey said, acknowledging there are times when he wonders whether he’s “absolutely stupid” for being on the lake in sketchy weather, particularly when there are “decent-sized waves and you’re getting soaked.”

“I have friends who ask me why I go out there,” he said. “I tell them I’m crazy.”

•••••••

Mack Days began in 2002 as a fisheries management tool to control the thriving non-native lake trout population in Flathead Lake. Biologists believe that properly managing lake trout will help spur the native bull trout population. Tom McDonald, manager for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ fish, wildlife, recreation and conservation division, said there are only about 3,000 adult bull trout in the lake.

Cindy Bras-Benson, a tournament organizer and fisheries specialist with the tribes, said 888 fish total were caught during the first Mack Days in 2002. Last spring, anglers hauled in 26,477 lake trout, also known as “mackinaws” or “macks,” hence the name Mack Days.

The tournament is sponsored by the tribes and sanctioned by FWP. This spring’s event began on March 16 and will run for a total of eight weekends – Friday through Sunday – until ending with a stretch of 10 straight days in May. The tourney’s final day is May 20.

A total of $150,000 in prize money will be distributed to the winners and other anglers, including those who hook into tagged fish worth up to thousands of dollars each. As of last week, there were 680 anglers signed up for this spring’s event, though Bras-Benson expects around 1,000 to participate by tournament’s end.

The huge increase in harvested fish since 2002 is due to a number of reasons, including the tournament’s structure and rules. Anglers fish far more days than in the tournament’s earliest years and are now allowed to keep 100 fish per day.

Furthermore, anglers are getting better and so is their equipment, Bras-Benson said. After years of studying the fish habits and habitat, anglers are able to better locate and catch large numbers of fish with the help of modern fish finders and other gear like GPS-driven anchorless boat positioning systems.

Anglers can either take the lake trout home to eat or hand them over to tournament workers to be processed and delivered to food banks from Missoula to Whitefish, including outlying towns such as St. Regis and Hot Springs.

Most people opt to donate their fish, Bras-Benson said, which means a team of eight workers equipped with filet knives stays busy throughout the tournament, cleaning hundreds of lake trout at the end of each day. In the earliest days of Mack Days, Bras-Benson and tribal fisheries biologist Barry Hansen cleaned all of the fish by themselves.

After they are cleaned, the lake trout are placed in bags and frozen before being distributed to food banks. The heads and guts go to a composter in Ronan, “so none of it is wasted,” Bras-Benson said.

Over the years, Bras-Benson said food banks have left behind their initial reluctance to accept the fish. Today, lake trout are in high demand.

“Food banks now are calling and they want them,” Bras-Benson said.

•••••••

With around 1,000 anglers harvesting more than 25,000 lake trout each spring, combined with slightly smaller turnouts in the fall tournaments and regular daily angling, the lake trout population is clearly being affected in some manner, though the full extent is a source of debate.
Mack Days

Fisheries biologist Evan Smith holds a tiny tag used in tagging lake trout during the Mack Days fishing tournament on Flathead Lake.


Fishing guides on the north end of Flathead Lake maintain that lake trout numbers are in measurable decline and their business has been adversely affected. McDonald describes the lake trout population as “stunted,” which means it has essentially leveled out. But the important factor, he said, is that “we’re not seeing any response in the bull trout.”

To spur bull trout recovery, tribal fisheries managers say further lake trout population suppression is necessary, which could be achieved through increased angling efforts or alternative tools such as netting.

“That’s our big concern right now – while these contests have been wonderful, they haven’t gotten big enough to reduce the population sufficiently,” Hansen, the tribal fisheries biologist, said.

McDonald said the tribes have initiated an environmental impact statement process through the National Environmental Protection Act to explore the viability of other potential tools for reducing lake trout numbers, including trap netting, official lake trout bounties and the controversial gill-netting proposal. Fishing guides have expressed adamant opposition to gill netting.

A 10-year Flathead Lake co-management agreement between the tribes and FWP, in which FWP is responsible for the lake’s north end and the tribes oversee the south end, expired last year. McDonald said in the absence of a new agreement the terms of the old one remain in place.

Recently FWP withdrew its support of the environmental review process, citing concerns over documents to be presented to an independent scientific review panel. The draft environmental impact statement, according to FWP fisheries bureau chief Bruce Rich’s letter, “is incomplete in both content and process” and requires more public participation before scientific review. Rich also noted that FWP and the tribes need to answer questions regarding fish and wildlife management on the lake.

“Before FWP can move forward with CSKT,” Rich wrote, “underlying issues including the purpose and need, and future management direction must be resolved.”

McDonald said he hopes FWP “will feel comfortable with again being a cooperating agency,” but noted that the tribes are “continuing on with the process” regardless of FWP’s participation. He expects a final record of decision on the environmental impact statement by early next year.

McDonald notes that “anglers are always going to be a key element” in suppression efforts, adding that Mack Days have been an effective management tool. Currently, angling efforts – daily angling combined with the tournaments – remove about 70,000 lake trout each year. During gill-netting discussions, options upward of 100,000 fish have been identified as possible target goals.

“Our plan has never been to eliminate the lake trout fishery,” McDonald said. “The lake trout will always be there.”

Mark Deleray, a fisheries biologist with FWP, also said Mack Days has been a successful lake trout management method. The 70,000 fish harvested each year undoubtedly have an impact on the population, Deleray said, but exactly to what degree is unclear.

“As far as what the ramifications of that level of harvest are, there hasn’t been enough time to see,” Deleray said.

Bras-Benson said the survival of bull trout and westlslope cutthroat is at stake.

“I think it’s important for people to realize that if we don’t do something for these species that are struggling to try to help them continue on, future generations of people, what are they going to have?” Bras-Benson said. “I think it’s important we do something right now while there’s a chance.”

•••••••

As far as Forgey is concerned, there are enough lake trout to keep him happy. He’s catching more and more every year.

“Maybe the population is going down and I’m just getting better, but it seems like there’s just gobs of them in there,” he said.

Forgey and a small group of other diehard anglers have developed styles and strategies over the years that allow them to annually jostle for position at the top of the standings, pulling in increasingly large hauls of fish. They are competitors but comrades as well. Bras-Benson’s husband, Mike Benson, is one of the annual leaders.

“They’ve all become good friends,” Bras-Benson said. “They give each other advice and hints. They admire and respect each other. And they watch out for each other out there.”

Not many people are willing to brave 14-hour days in nasty Montana weather to win a fishing tournament. Amongst the handful of anglers who are willing, there is a sense of brotherhood.

“I used to coach high school basketball and I’d tell the players, ‘If you’re not here for the love of the game, you don’t need to be here,’” Mike Benson said. “It’s a little bit of the same thing with this. You have to love it.”
 
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