Before we get all wrapped up in legislative craziness, we need to review a couple of recent, and not so recent, bull trout happenings.
Back in August, FWP proposed a couple of fishing regulation changes relating to bull trout in northwest Montana. They proposed decreasing the bull trout limit on Lake Koocanusa from two to one fish and they proposed increasing the lake trout limit on Flathead Lake from 50 to 100 fish. Both changes were proposed to help protect fragile bull trout populations. Voting on those regulation changes was postponed to the Nov. 18 meeting of the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission to await the results of the new redd counts for the Koocanusa population and to allow the Flathead Reservation Fish and Wildlife Board to vote on their proposed changes.
Public comments on the proposed changes were taken by FWP in September. For the decreased limit on Lake Koocanusa, there were sixteen comments received. All comments were in favor of reducing the limit from two to one fish. Seven of the comments favored closing the fishery altogether. Bull trout fishing was first allowed on Lake Koocanusa in 2004. Since that time, the bull trout population has shown a steady decline. Redd counts for 2010 revealed a decline of over 50% since the fishery began. Still the bull trout fishery in Lake Koocanusa and upstream tributaries continues to be fairly robust and FWP did not see any reason to completely close the fishery at this time. The Commission, following the recommendation of FWP, did vote to reduce the limit to one fish.
On Flathead Lake, FWP supported the increase in the lake trout limit to 100 fish. This proposal was supported by sixteen of eighteen public comments received. Predation and competition by lake trout in the Flathead basin has been identified as the number one cause of reduction in native cutthroat and bull trout populations in the watershed. Also in Nov. the FWP Commission voted to approve increasing the lake trout limit to “better balance lake trout with native fish“. The Flathead Reservation board also voted to increase the limit on the south half of the lake.
One other bull trout news item of note; On Dec. 15, representative Scott Reichner R-Polson introduced HB-137 in the Montana Legislature. This bill will authorize the FWP Commission to set bounties and allow for the commercial sale of lake trout from Flathead Lake. This is also another action that has been proposed by FWP and CSKT to aid in their attempt to get the overgrown Flathead lake trout population under control.
That brings us to a pertinent comment/question; What’s up with that slot limit thing? There seems to be agreement among all the managers of the Flathead fishery that the only solution to giving our native fish a chance to survive in the system is to suppress the massive population of lake trout that are gobbling up our bull trout and cutthroats. In the midst of all these good changes to help native fish and reduce lake trout populations, we still have a regulation in effect on Flathead Lake to protect the largest, most voracious and most fecund segment of the lake trout population. You are not allowed to keep any lake trout over thirty inches and can only keep one fish over 36 inches. The Commission and FWP continue to refuse to address the slot limit. Does this regressive regulation make any sense whatsoever? Are we really trying to reduce the lake trout population, or is all this just window dressing? We need to decide whether or not we want to take concrete actions that will help our native fish, or do we still want to protect the predators that caused the problem in the first place.
Finally, if you are still not convinced that these native fish are worth saving, take a look at this photograph from last summer. This is Arizona angler Bo Nelson showing off a possible 14-pound fly-rod world record bull trout caught in the Canadian Flathead. This fish undoubtedly spent time in Flathead Lake to grow to this size. The all-tackle world record of 32 pounds came from Lake Pend Oreille in 1949. We are supplying Canadian anglers with a declining opportunity to catch these world class fish in the Flathead and Kootenai while at the same time doing everything in our power to see that they are not allowed to survive there or in our own waters.