The great Flathead fish fiasco 

State and tribes disagree over how to handle invasive lake trout

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Last June, the tribes released a draft plan to reduce lake trout abundance in Flathead Lake by either 25, 50 or 75 percent over 50 years. This translates to removing 84,000-143,000 lake trout per year through a combination of derbies, bounties and two types of netting: trap nets, which are large box nets set on the lake bottom, and gill nets.

The plan was supposed to revive the co-management plan’s collaborative spirit, but the state pulled out of the process in March 2012, and then published a series of objections in the local newspaper after the plan was released. Biologists argue that gill-netting could indiscriminately harm both lake and bull trout. “Bycatch is a real concern,” says Vashro, who retired at the end of 2013.

The tribe counters that in Lake Pend Oreille, Swan Lake, Quartz Lake and Yellowstone Lake (see sidebar), gill-netting has successfully suppressed lake trout numbers. But Vashro points out that those lakes are smaller, so the results aren’t easily comparable. He has a larger concern, too: No matter how many lake trout are caught, those that remain will eat Mysis, which continue to thrive. “This is not the same lake as it was in 1980,” he says. “Until you understand that, you’re just treating symptoms.”

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  • Cathrine L. Walters

Ellis agrees that ridding the lake of Mysis is likely impossible, but she also believes that their numbers might be held in check by Flathead’s other species, such as lake whitefish, which eat the shrimp and are not known to harm bull trout. Still, eradicating lake trout is also likely impossible, and continuous long-term suppression would be necessary if managers intend to keep the species at bay.

The tribes are willing to do just that, says Tom McDonald, the manager of their fish and wildlife division. Throughout the history of the Bitterroot Salish, the Pend d’Oreille and the Kootenai peoples, bull trout and cutthroat were a reliable food source where other fish and game were unpredictable, especially during hard winters. They were another type of sustenance, too, as the tribes ceded swaths of territory to the United States with the signing of the Hellgate Treaty in 1855, and again when more land was taken in the early 20th century, during land allotment.

“These fish are of extreme cultural importance to us,” he says. “Letting them wink out on our watch wouldn’t be just ecologically bankrupt—it would be morally bankrupt.”

In September, the tribal council voted to reduce lake trout populations by 75 percent in 50 years. After the Bureau of Indian Affairs reviews the finalized plan, gill-netting in Flathead Lake could begin as early as this year. But whether it will take place on the entire lake, or just the tribes’ half, has yet to be resolved. For now, the state size limit also stands. And so this Solomonic exercise in fisheries management will continue, until someone sees fit to budge.

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“Do you guys wanna keep it?” Capt. Rod asks.

The lake trout’s gills flare as it gasps for breath, but otherwise it doesn’t struggle. It is time for us to answer the question at the heart of the matter for it and its species: catch or release?

“Yeah, we’ll keep it,” one member of our party says. “Maybe we’ll cook it up later.”

“Okay,” Rod says, and he takes the trout from me and lowers it back into the lake and lets it go. (Perhaps he didn’t hear us?) The trout drifts away, floating on its back, its fins lolling in our wake.

I ask if the trout will be okay. “He had some kick, I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Rod says.

A few gulls land on the lake and get busy.

Rod watches for a few seconds, then makes his way back to the wheel. “I bet you hate that I released him,” he says to Vashro.

“Not a bit,” Vashro says. He grins inscrutably. “You know, I let most of the ones I catch go, too.”

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of High Country News (

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