Creel study 

Fishing for the value of bull trout

Creel: 1. a wicker basket, canvas bag, for holding fish, often worn over the shoulder by a person who fishes. 2. a basketlike cage for trapping fish.

Fish biologists use creel studies to determine the living contents of lakes, rivers and streams. They set traps and gill nets, then come back to see what turns up. They count fish, and from these samplings they keep track of how different species are faring.

Dating back to the 1960s, creel studies show a drastic decline in populations of bull trout inside Glacier National Park. Where there once was a purely native population of fish, the non-native lake trout has drastically rearranged the underwater hierarchy inside Glacier. For roughly 10,000 years, bull trout enjoyed an uninterrupted reign as the top aquatic predator in the park and the rest of the Flathead River system. Today, bull trout are disappearing from Glacier, and the species is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

This story is a creel study of sorts—a sampling of people, places and things caught up in the effort to restore bull trout in Glacier Park and the Flathead. There’s a gunboat, a beer can with dangling hooks, a grad student with spy equipment, a lure known as a Wilson Wobbler and a surgically enhanced yellow perch named “Dolly Parton.”

The story casts a wide net to document the frustrating circumstances currently confronting the bull trout—a fish that’s vanishing with the memories of those who knew bulls well.

Fay Eklund’s button reads, “Better over the hill than under it.” The spry eighty-something recently attended a series of funerals for classmates she grew up with in Kalispell. Her button offers a little comic relief in the aftermath.

Eklund laughs a lot, especially when retelling a favorite fish story. There’s the one about her fishing while pregnant with her first child. She threw an anchor overboard, not realizing the rope was wrapped around her leg. Next thing Eklund knew, she was bobbing in the water right where the Flathead River enters Flathead Lake. This was a prime fishing spot at the time, where she and her husband Dallas would catch 10- to 15-pound bulls. The fish had mouths big enough to swallow a man’s hand.

One old photo shows Dallas standing on the banks of the North Fork of the Flathead. The image is distinctly of another era. Instead of Gore-Tex, Dallas wears a classic red and black wool overcoat. And instead of the pan-sized rainbow-cutthroat hybrids that populate the North Fork, Dallas is holding three giant bull trout.

The fish were lunkers. They were beautiful trophy catches, but Fay remembers that not everyone was enamored of the mighty bulls. She says, “There were people who weren’t interested in fish like that. They wanted little fish to pan fry.”

To this day, there are anglers who consider bull trout to be a nuisance species because they are highly piscivorous. They eat other fish: popular game fish like the non-native rainbow trout and yellow perch.

Over the years, as more people moved into the Flathead Valley, Fay says the lakeshores and riverbanks became frequented by people who “didn’t know beans about fishing.” When they’d catch a bull trout, they’d simply toss it into the shade of the willows and the cottonwoods. “Just wasting,” says Fay. “They catch so many, and they take some and throw them in the bushes.”

By the 1980s, bull trout numbers in the Flathead aquatic ecosystem were in serious decline. Development in the valley and logging in the mountains were degrading the bull trout’s habitat, but there was a much larger problem brewing in Flathead Lake—one that began with the introduction of the tiny mysis shrimp.

The story of the mysis shrimp is Montana’s chapter in an ongoing collection of lessons learned in national parks. Since the 1950s, Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee/North Carolina border has employed a squad of assassins that’s tasked with killing wild boars. The hogs act like four-legged vacuum cleaners, rooting around and devouring everything from rare wildflowers to flame orange salamanders. Introduced mountain goats in Washington’s Olympic National Park have fallen into the anti-exotic crosshairs as well, though a plan to shoot them from helicopters was eventually scuttled.

For Glacier, the non-native cautionary tale begins at Swan Lake, outside the park, where Montana fisheries managers once tried to bolster kokanee salmon populations by introducing the opossum or mysis shrimp as food.

Unfortunately, the most notable result of this introduction did not take place in Swan Lake. Instead, the mysis shrimp washed downstream into Flathead Lake, where they fueled a catastrophic boom in lake trout. Within a few years, both kokanee and bull trout populations in Flathead Lake crashed as they fell prey to growing schools of ravenous lake trout.

Redd count levels (the number of spawning areas) for bull trout in eight major streams in the North and Middle Forks of the Flathead River drainages declined from 391 in the 1980s to 83 in 1996.

Clearly, fewer bull trout were migrating up from Flathead Lake to traditional spawning grounds in or near Glacier National Park. It was these spawning grounds that interested Wade Fredenberg. In 2000, the bull trout specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service set out to study the fish on the west side of Glacier Park. Fredenberg hypothesized that while fewer bull trout were migrating to and from lakes in Glacier Park, the numbers of lake trout making their way into park waters might be on the rise.

The lake trout boom in Flathead Lake pushed huge numbers of these fish into all parts of the aquatic ecosystem. Fredenberg compares the phenomenon to what would happen “If you drop a couple hundred thousand people in the Flathead Valley. Suddenly there’s going to be people at your favorite hunting spots and you don’t know where they’re coming from.”

For lake trout, the lakes of Glacier Park became those favorite hunting spots. Fredenberg was the first person to discover this non-native species in Glacier Park’s Harrison Lake.

“My heart just sunk. This is the first time anyone has documented this, and now this lake is changed forever,” recalls Fredenberg, who would spend more than a year studying the park lakes in the Flathead drainage.

In 2000, when Fredenberg began his research, it had been more than 20 years since the last study. He found that since surveys taken in 1969 and 1977, bull trout had been abruptly dethroned by lake trout. In Lake McDonald and the four other major lakes on Glacier’s west side, the average number of bull trout caught in creel studies dropped from 4.5 per net in 1969 to 0.5 in 2000. All the while, lake trout numbers were on the rise, from zero caught in 1969 to three per net 31 years later.

Based on previous studies conducted by other fisheries biologists in other mountain lakes, and on his own findings in 2000, Fredenberg concluded that, “Conversion of unique native bull trout ecosystems to lake trout-dominated systems appears to be a common result once lake trout are established. It is clear from my study that even when habitat conditions remain relatively unaltered, the transition to a fish community where lake trout are the dominant piscivore may take place rapidly. On an ecological scale, 20 or 30 years is a very rapid transition, given that the native fish complexes presumably have been intact for thousands of years.”

In 2001, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife report to the state’s Flathead Basin Commission offered more evidence of this transition. It showed that “bull trout can be considered threatened or nearly extinct in 15 of the 27 natural lakes they historically occupied in the upper Flathead Basin,” which includes lakes west of the divide in Glacier Park. In the upper Flathead drainage, “Less than three percent of this historic [lake] habitat is currently considered stable or secure for bull trout.”

A portion of that tiny three percent is lake habitat found in Glacier Park. This last sliver of refuge, this last bit of territory, has been whittled down from what was once a grand expanse stretching from now urbanized river corridors like those in Kalispell to high mountain lakes all over the Northwest.

Today there remains just one lake on the west side of Glacier Park where bull trout truly hold their own.

Quartz Lake is the largest remaining natural bull trout lake in the upper Columbia River drainage that continues to host an entirely natural species assemblage of fish. Nowhere else in this vast river system—stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Columbia headwaters in Glacier Park—is there another lake as wild as Quartz.

More than six miles by trail, the hike into Quartz is buggy and mostly boxed in by dense forest. The views are limited and the mosquitoes are unrelenting. Along the lake’s shore, pine pollen concentrates in layers as thick as pancake batter. The water is enticingly clear, allowing visitors to watch giant bull trout swim quietly by the logs locked in a jam at the outlet of Quartz Creek.

At least three otters live in this logjam, which is heavily populated by native westslope cutthroat. Fingerlings dart in and out of the shadows where the aquamarine water gurgles through a maze of driftwood and fallen logs.

Quartz Creek tumbles into Middle Quartz Lake and Lower Quartz Lake before emptying into the Flathead’s North Fork. This summer, on the cascading stretch of creek between Middle and Lower Quartz lakes, a National Park Service crew planned to build an artificial barrier. The barrier was meant to prevent the migration of lake trout up from Lower Quartz Lake, where they were recently reported.

But in early June, when officials with Glacier Park and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service went looking for a good place to put the fish barrier, they realized that their plan would never work. Runoff turns Quartz Creek into a white, roaring ribbon of water capable of washing away any artificial barrier made of wire, rock or logs.

The park may still find a way to physically block the migration of lake trout into Upper Quartz Lake. Until then, those hoping this final refuge will remain lake trout-free can only cross their fingers.

If lake trout do infiltrate Quartz Lake, many visitors will continue to come and go at this place without noticing. They’ll be distracted by the sound of loons in the distance and by tracks on the trail: Is that a lynx, or a mountain lion print? Backpackers will wander through, calling out “Hey bear,” in hopes of avoiding a grizzly encounter. Anglers will continue to fish for whatever’s biting.

Quartz Lake will still feel wild, even if there remain no bull trout swallowing cutthroat whole and growing fat under the logjam. In their place, there will likely be lake trout from Lower Quartz Lake. These fish will probably be joined by other “lakers”—also known as “Mackinaw”—that make the trip all the way from Flathead Lake.

Lake trout in Flathead Lake school deep under the surface, requiring fishing gear known as “down riggers,” which are specially designed for reeling in lake trout that weigh 20 pounds or more.

Smaller, adolescent lake trout are also fair game. In fact, the Flathead Lake Co-Management Plan—an agreement between the Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks—specifically targets smaller Macks.

Growing numbers of these modestly sized lake trout threaten to suppress future gains in bull trout numbers. FWP and the tribes hope sport fishing can keep lake trout numbers in check and allow dwindling populations of bull trout in the Flathead system to recover. The recently concluded “Mack Days” fishing tournament on Flathead Lake attracted 200 anglers who hooked hundreds of lake trout. Fish caught during this twice-a-year event were filleted and distributed to local food banks. In Idaho, fishery managers have taken this bent rod strategy one step further on Lake Pend Oreille. Once a haven for both native bull trout and non-native kokanee salmon, Pend Oreille’s fishery is quickly being overrun by lake trout.

In response, the Idaho Fish and Game Commission voted recently to open Pend Oreille to commercial lake trout fishing. Commercial fishermen on the Great Lakes already trawl with nets for lake trout, and this recent move by Idaho fisheries managers could lead to a similar harvest on Pend Oreille.

Steve Thompson with the National Parks Conservation Association worries that if lake trout populations in Flathead Lake are not significantly reduced, then Glacier Park’s bull trout are in real trouble.

“We should seek to restore native fisheries, even if this means an aggressive program to virtually eliminate lake trout from Flathead Lake,” says Thompson.

Anglers like Tom McCrea aren’t so sure. He remembers when bull trout were so large and plentiful that “you could take a beer can and dangle some hooks from it and catch one.”

A more traditional bull trout lure is known as a Wilson Wobbler. It’s a little bigger than a cigarette lighter, and looks like a mini football with treble hooks hanging off. McCrea used to pull bull trout out of the Flathead River using Wobblers, but now he’s satisfied with down rigging for lake trout.

“I don’t believe that a bull trout is any more of a fighting fish than a lake trout,” says McCrea, who thinks a balance can be struck between the needs of bull trout and the desires of lake trout fishermen.

Lots of folks enjoy trawling for Macks, but it’s not every angler’s idea of a good day on the water.

“Talk about a boring fishing trip,” says Glacier Park biologist Bill Michels. “Then you catch them, and you can’t hardly give them away.”

Michels sees FWP’s policy skewing toward the desires of lake trout anglers and sport fishing outfitters, which are leery of declaring outright war against the lakers.

“We’d like [the tribes and FWP] to take an aggressive approach to reducing lake trout,” says Michels, explaining that FWP and the National Park Service follow different mandates. The Flathead’s aquatic ecosystem is inter-connected, but the agencies managing the system are not. “The conflict is more in our management and our goals overall. And that’s politics, more than what we think as biologists.”

All the biologists involved know that when it comes to bull trout, there’s a lot that’s not known. Questions remain, chief among them: Will fewer lake trout really equal more bull trout? Yellowstone National Park is currently trying to rid Yellowstone Lake of lake trout, an effort that appears to be helping native cutthroat make a comeback. But will the same strategy work for bull trout in the Flathead and Glacier?

Something has to be done, says Michels, because, “If you can’t save native species in a national park, you’re essentially throwing in the towel.”

Glacier Park isn’t giving up. And that’s where Gunner comes in.

On a rainy Friday afternoon in June, a 23-foot outboard with an enclosed cabin and roof perfectly suited for mounting a machine gun pulls away from a dock on Glacier Park’s Lake McDonald. The boat isn’t really a gunship, but it reminds trout researchers Kyle Hunter and Andy Dux of one. That’s why they nicknamed their craft “Gunner.”

Dux is at the wheel as the boat motors toward a floating fish trap located just offshore from the Apgar Campground. When the boat reaches the trap, Dux, a 24-year-old graduate student at Montana State University, tells Hunter to man the scoop net. Slowly and carefully, Hunter removes redside shiners and peamouths from the trap and sets them free in the open lake. Once all the smaller fish are cleared out, Hunter trains his net on a couple of lake trout.

The fish are on the small side and not big enough to qualify as recruits for a study Dux will conduct for the next two years. He’ll steer Gunner around Lake McDonald, where he hopes a collection of fish traps will capture both lake and bull trout. He needs a study group of 37 fish, all of which will have sonar transmitters surgically inserted inside them.

Dux and Hunter have yet to catch a bull trout big enough to carry a transmitter, but they have installed two of the high-tech bugging devices in a pair of lake trout. The process involves a dose of anesthetic and an incision to the fish’s underbelly. Each transmitter is about the size of a lipstick case, and after it’s inserted, it takes just five stitches to close the incision.

“This is so we can study their habitat use both spatially and temporally, in space and time, to see what these fish are doing,” says Dux, explaining that the study seeks clues about the interaction between lake trout and bull trout. The sonar devices will allow them to see when and where the two species overlap as they go about their lives in Lake McDonald.

Fish biologists know that lake trout tend to displace bull trout from their native habitat, but Dux says, “We don’t really know the mechanism. It’s yet to be seen exactly what the mechanism is.”

Do lake trout gather near the mouths of streams and feed on bull trout fry washed down from spawning streams? Do bull trout compete with lake trout for certain food sources in certain parts of the lake at certain times of the year? These are questions Dux and Hunter chase with their nets and transmitters. Their study is being done through the Montana Cooperative Fishing Research Unit at Montana State, and their findings may help point the way to a management plan that protects the remaining bull trout in Glacier Park.

Park ecologist Leo Marnell says fish managers need to know all they can about the bull trout-lake trout interaction, acknowledging that lake trout will always have some presence in Glacier.

“There’s just no way we can get rid of them,” says Marnell. Asked how much time bull trout have left on the west side of the park if lake trout numbers continue to rise, Marnell replies, “I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows.”

A ponderosa pine grows up through the roof of The Pines Café and Mounted Fish Museum in Columbia Falls. On the café’s walls hangs an assortment of fish, some traditionally mounted, others endowed with strangely human qualities.

The “Fur Bearing Trout,” reportedly from Iceberg Lake, dons a lovely fur coat. It hangs cozily near the entrance to The Pines, right next to “Dolly Parton.” Ms. Parton appears to be a rather large yellow perch with long eyelashes and is, as Pines owner and amateur taxidermist Leon Syth explains, blessed much like the country singer of the same name.

“Where the titties are, there were two fins,” says Syth, recalling how he constructed the Dolly Parton fish mounted in his restaurant. “I just took off the fins and put those titties on it.”

The name of Syth’s topless fish is a pun—a play on Dolly Varden, a species of fish very similar to bull trout. Set on a muscular, greenish-gray frame, pink spots dot the bodies of bull trout and Dolly Varden. The species shared the Dolly Varden name until biologists distinguished the two. The ocean-going variety are today called Dolly Varden, while the freshwater breed is known as bull trout.

In the novel Barnaby Rudge, Charles Dickens inadvertently makes a connection between his character, Dolly Varden, and these species when he gushes over Dolly, calling her the “very pink and pattern of good looks.”

At The Pines, bull trout are held in equally high regard. The museum’s showpiece contains a fiberglass replica of a 14-pound bull trout caught just down the street from The Pines in the Flathead River. It’s some of Syth’s finest work, wherein all kidding’s aside, and a piece of natural history is documented. A reader board tells visitors about the bull trout’s underwater reign, about its migration throughout this corner of the Columbia River Basin: “Each year the bull trout leave Flathead Lake and swim up the Flathead River to spawn.”

Last fall, to the disappointment of many, very few made the trip.

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