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Mack Days best ever, management efforts continue

BLUE BAY — Area anglers reeled in nearly 37,000 lake trout and more than $150,000 in prizes during the Spring Mack Days Tournament.

“This past event was the best we’ve ever had for numbers and for people that were out there fishing,” said Cindy Bras-Benson, a fisheries specialist with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes who organizes the tournament.

Donald Beville caught 1,551 lake trout to lead the men. Tracy Powers took the women’s top place with 455 fish, while Connor Kowalski won the 13-17 division with 308. Garett Vaughan won the 12-and-under division with 268.

Ryan Shima received $500 for catching the largest qualifying lake trout, which was 42 1/2 inches long and 24 1/2 pounds. Powers and Dan Smith brought in the smallest fish at 6.3 inches.

The tournament uses anglers to reduce the number of non-native lake trout, and the number of fishermen has increased 10-fold from the event’s first year, with more than 1,000 fishermen participating this spring.

While angler numbers and the daily catch quotas have increased, lake trout numbers haven’t declined enough, said Tom McDonald, the tribe’s Fish, Wildlife, Recreation and Conservation Division manager.

Samples of fish populations show no lessening of the invasive’s presence in the lake, McDonald said. Other signs the species remains too prevalent are that existing fish aren’t growing in size, and they’re reaching maturity several years later than in the past, he added.

Since 2000, the tribe has used tools, including bi-annual Mack Days tournaments, outlined in a management plan to reduce lake trout populations. Education, fishing tournaments and habitat enhancement for native bull trout aren’t doing enough, McDonald said.

In 2010, the tribe began looking into the impacts of more aggressive measures, such as netting. A final copy of an environmental impact statement studying effects of netting and other options is expected this fall.

The most common form of netting, gill netting, snags fish around their heads and, if left too long, kills them, McDonald said. Netting is listed in the original management plan, he said, but with the stipulation that public input is gathered before using it. So the tribe began an environmental assessment in 2010; then this spring switched to an environmental impact statement to analyze long-term effects of netting and other means of reducing the lake trout.

A draft form of the statement is expected to be complete by early fall. The public then can comment, and those comments will be taken into account and worked into the study before a final copy is released, McDonald said.

Removing all lake trout isn’t a realistic goal, McDonald said. However, their numbers in the lake now are imperiling other native species, including the bull and west slope cutthroat trout.

Lake trout, while considered an invasive species, lived for decades among other fish in the lake before Mysis shrimp were introduced to help the Kokanee salmon fishery.

“When that happened, they basically changed the food web of Flathead Lake,” McDonald said.

Instead of the salmon eating the shrimp, the shrimp ate the salmon’s food source, and the lake trout gorged on the shrimp. The lake trout population grew, and they became the predominant predator, displacing bull trout and preying on numerous species.

The bull trout’s place on the food chain isn’t its only importance. For thousands of years, they served as a major food source for native peoples and are a part of local tribes’ histories and cultures, McDonald said.

Bull and cutthroat trout also are iconic and important to tourism.

“When people come to Montana to fish, they’re primarily coming to fish for cutthroat trout,” he said.

A few people come to fish for lake trout, as an economy that has sprung up with trophy fishing and for the Mack Days tournaments, McDonald said.

Placing a bounty on lake trout is another way to help reduce numbers, McDonald said. However, the state Legislature must approve such a move, he said, adding the tribe and Fish, Wildlife and Parks are open to suggestions.

Regardless of the method used to lower lake trout numbers, the management plan will remain flexible, McDonald said. For instance, if the environmental impact statement bears out that a certain number of lake trout should be removed from the lake per year and that number is reached without using netting, then netting wouldn’t occur, he said.

For more information about Mack Days and the tribe’s fisheries management plan, visit www.mackdays.com.

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