MISSOULA — Some real big fish swim in western Montana rivers.
Leave them alone.
As they slowly return from near extinction, bull trout have become a good problem to have for fisheries managers.
Easy to catch, illegal to keep and difficult to nurture, the resurrection of bull trout dominated most of the conversation during a recent annual guide gathering hosted by the Clark Fork Coalition.
“Historically, there were bull trout in Lake Pend Oreille that went all the way up to Butte to spawn,” said Wade Fredenberg, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “They were called ‘the poor man’s salmon.’ Today, we still have some that swim 150 miles to spawn.”
It takes everything Mother Nature’s got to make a bull trout happy, so the fish’s presence in rivers like the Blackfoot and Clark Fork mean conditions have improved after decades of effort. In April 2011, a lone bull trout made it over the fish ladder at Thompson Falls for the first time in 100 years.
“If you can do whatever it takes to protect bull trout, then you essentially protect all the other fish and all the things that are good that people like about fish habitat,” USFWS field supervisor Mark Wilson said at the time.
The bulls require water that’s clean, cold, connected and complex as their life cycle shifts from mountain creeks to rivers to lakes and back again. Building a fish ladder at Thompson Falls Dam and removing the dam at Milltown east of Missoula restored hundreds of miles of water to bull trout habitat.
But small threats can undo grand efforts. Non-native fish like lake trout have invaded bull trout sanctuaries, to the point where just three lakes in all of Glacier National Park remain safe.
And human poaching takes its own toll.
“Folks used to find spawning areas and make a family tradition of hitting them,” Fredenberg said. “A lot of times they took a wanton, willing, let’s-kill-us-some-bull-trout approach. Plugging for bull trout was a big deal in the Flathead through the ’50s, ’60s and even into the ’70s.”
Fredenberg showed old family photos of anglers measuring bulls against their hip waders, with a worthy fish longer than a man’s leg. And thanks to their preference for deep holes of cold water, bulls make easy targets for river fishermen who target those spots. The temptation of snapping a trophy photo of the big fish has led to many not surviving, even though the anglers released them afterward.
“We’d love nothing more than to have enough bull trout in the Clark Fork River to fish for them all the time,” Fredenberg said. “But there aren’t enough of them, and dead is dead, whether by dewatering, too warm water, dams or angling. And they’re very vulnerable to angling.”
Bull trout made the federal Endangered Species List as a threatened species in 1998. Since then, they’ve recovered enough to allow fishing in the South Fork of the Flathead River, and briefly in Swan Lake and Lake Koocanusa. But sudden declines in spawning counts put those latter two lakes off-limits again last year.
The presentation generated some discussion among the 60 professional guides and amateur anglers in the Clark Fork Coalition lobby. Some wondered why bull trout, which feed on smaller game fish, were protected when lake trout were considered threats. The answer was the native bull and cutthroat evolved together without damaging each other’s populations, while non-native lake trout were wiping out both species.
Fishing guide Adam Spenner said keeping clients away from bull trout can be a challenge.
“They’re lethargic, easy to catch and people do target them,” Spenner said. “We try to let people know they need to be respected. They’re an important part of what keeps Montana and these rivers significant.”
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries manager Pat Saffel said the recent acquisition of 24,000 acres around Marshall Lake on the edge of the Mission Mountains was a major boon for bull trout. The lake sits in the middle of the best spawning streams at the head of the Clearwater River. But irrigation dams and development threats made the place tough for the big trout.
“Since the removal of the Emily A Dam (between Lake Inez and Lake Alva), we’ve more than doubled the number of redds (egg deposits) in the West Fork of the Clearwater,” Saffel said. “The West Fork has passed Monture Creek and the upper Blackfoot for bull trout production.”
Other streams offered mixed results. Bull trout have increased slightly in Fish Creek west of Missoula, but declined in Rattlesnake Creek. The Blackfoot River has improved, while Rock Creek east of Missoula has recorded falling bull trout success.
After Milltown Dam was removed, FWP surveyors counted 70 bull trout making their way into parts of the Clark Fork they hadn’t been able to reach for a century. But they haven’t gone beyond Flint Creek (by Drummond), even though sucker fish have moved all the way to Deer Lodge.
Nevertheless, biologists expect it won’t take much longer for bull trout to reach the Clark Fork’s headwaters. Once-devastated Silver Bow Creek has had most of its mining wastes removed, and has gone from zero fish to catchable trout throughout its 23-mile reach between 2000 and 2010.
“I’ve seen bull trout right under the Higgins Avenue Bridge,” said angler Brian Hinkle. “A little while ago, I hooked into a rainbow that had a bull trout chasing it. I’m a little more optimistic that they’re a little more healthy than we might think.”