Back in 1998 when bull trout were first put on the Endangered Species List, there was a local problem. The popular bull trout fishery in the Hungry Horse Reservoir and South Fork of the Flathead was healthy.
But because of the listing, the fishery was shut down.
Anglers were not happy.
So the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks got together in 2004 and wrote a plan to allow a heavily regulated, but legal program that would still allow fishing for bulls in the reservoir and river, while conserving the fish.
The rules were pretty simple. Anglers could keep up to two fish per season in the reservoir; in the river, a short season allowed only catch and release of the fish. Fisherman also had to fill out a catch card, which recorded where and when they caught a bull trout.
The same program is in place in Lake Koocanusa near Libby. In that case, bull trout fishing is limited to the reservoir and the limit is one fish per season.
Thirteen years later, the program has been deemed a success.
Biologists estimate there’s between 3,000 and 4,000 adult bull trout in the South Fork system and roughly 10,000 total catchable bulls, said FWP Region 1 fisheries manager Mark Deleray.
Anglers participating in the free catch card program have caught over 14,000 bull trout in Hungry Horse Reservoir and the South Fork Flathead River since 2004. On an annual basis, that’s about 2,000 fish days a year. A fish day is defined as an angler fishing, on average, about four hours.
Since its inception, anglers have kept about 800 fish, or about 60 a year.
“Very few people are actually keeping fish,” noted Wade Fredenberg, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s a fish of a lifetime for many fishermen.
Not only are bulls rare compared to other fish, they’re big. The average bull trout in the reservoir is 24 inches and in Koocanusa, 27 inches.
“That might be the biggest fish of their life,” Fredenberg said.
In the reservoir, anglers generally go after bulls with hardware — spoons and other lures fished deep.
But in the river, fly fishers lob streamers. The season is short in the South Fork and restricted to the mainstem from the opening of trout season in May to July 31.
That’s designed to protect spawning fish. The habitat in the South Fork is superb. Bull trout spawn in the fall in brutally cold streams, where water temperatures hang in the 40s on warm days and stay in the 30s in the winter.
The system has been embraced by most anglers.
“I get quite a few positive comments,” Deleray said. “They (fishermen) want to be legal.”
With tight controls, the season can be adjusted if need be. In Koocanusa, when bull trout numbers dropped, anglers weren’t allowed to keep any fish for a while. Now the limit is back to one.
The program has proven so successful that the agreement between FWP and the Service was renewed for another five years, Deleray and Fredenberg said.
“It’s important for people to have the opportunity to catch and harvest native fish like bull trout when possible,” Deleray said. “It’s a unique experience and it connects anglers to bull trout. If anglers benefit, they are more likely to support conservation efforts for the species.”