Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes fisheries specialist Cindy Benson remembers the day her father first caught a lake trout, also called a mackinaw, in Flathead Lake. It was in the early '60s, and though her family knew the species had been introduced decades earlier, it was still a rare catch. "Then all you would see were cutthroats, bull trout and kokanee salmon," she recalls.
Today, though, the native fish are all but gone, and the charter boats that now operate out of the north end of Flathead advertise trophy lake trout fishing. It's why for the last 11 years CSKT, with the help of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, has hosted Mack Days, a semi-annual fishing tournament geared toward quelling the ever-growing lake trout population. But recent questions about the event's efficacy are making the future uncertain for the popular competition.
In 2012, Mack Days recorded the removal of nearly 40,000 lake trout from Flathead. Combined with the non-tournament harvest, which is bolstered by many of the same anglers who compete in the tournament, about 70,000 fish were taken last year.
But according to CSKT fisheries biologist Barry Hansen, it's not enough. By his estimations, in order to make even a 50 percent dent in lake trout populations, about 114,000 fish need to be removed annually.
The shortfall makes the CSKT Tribal Council wonder if Mack Days, which costs the tribe more than $350,000 a year, is worth it. "What we're doing now is progressing nicely," says Hansen, "but we need to do more if we're going to benefit native fish."
Earlier this year, CSKT and FWP spearheaded an effort to draft five new management plans for Flathead lake trout. Recently, though, the state has withdrawn from the process and distanced itself from Mack Days, citing concerns with the proposals and, according to FWP biologist Mark Delray, "issues with the process in general." He added that Montana FWP has not started brainstorming alternatives.
Benson feels that even if Mack Days isn't solving the problem, it is helping. And its benefits, she says, go beyond the shores of Flathead Lake. She notes that the majority of fish caught are cleaned, packaged and frozen. From there, the filets are sent to food banks "from Missoula to Whitefish." She estimates that the event provides about 40,000 pounds of fish annually, all of which would be lost if Mack Days ends.