Big and Brawny: Montana Bull Trout

The bulls are making a  run

By David Reese, Montana Living

“Daddy, I’ve got another snag,” my 12-year old daughter called out to me from the front of our raft.

As I rowed closer to where her fishing line was stuck, the snag moved downstream. It was readily apparent that this was no snag — this was a large fish. After some 20 minutes of fighting it, my daughter screaming ecstatically the whole time, I was now holding the fish: a 40-inch bull trout, probably about 16 pounds. We released the big fish back into the cold, clear waters of the Middle Fork of the Flathead River, while the morning sun peeked over a ridge. Smoke from our campfire wafted across the water.

lou kis with bull trout on north fork flathead river


On a fishing trip later that summer, this time on the South Fork of the Flathead River, I caught a small cutthroat trout on my fly line only to witness a large bull trout inhale the fish as I reeled the cutthroat to boat.

You hear them all the time; fishing stories like these, of more anglers hooking more bull trout every year. They beg the question: if bull trout are being caught so readily in northwest Montana, have they recovered enough that they should still be on the Endangered Species list?

taste of montana


In 1998, under petition from several local environmental groups, bull trout became protected by the Endangered Species Act and listed as a threatened species. In the nearly 10 years since bull trout in the upper Columbia River Basin were listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, there is still no formal management plan for the recovery of the species. Bull trout seem to be a political football, tossed about among environmental groups, anglers, and the state or federal agencies that oversee them.

While portions of the upper Columbia River basin certainly had struggling populations — and the Flathead River system was one of them — other populations in northwest Montana were thriving, and still are today, biologists say.

Scott Rumsey, a biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Kalispell, said he would have preferred that bull trout be listed as specific populations, rather than taking a regional approach to listing, so that they could be removed from the Endangered Species list when appropriate — or not listed at all. “I think the blanket listing was a big mistake,” he said.

One small thing — only a few centimeters long — is the reason for the decline in bull trout in parts of the Flathead River system: a small invertebrate called opossum shrimp.


These tiny creatures, also known as mysis shrimp, were introduced by state fisheries managers into Whitefish Lake and Swan Lake between 1968 and 1975 as a food base for kokanee salmon. The mysis shrimp eventually drifted downriver into Flathead Lake. While similar introductions of mysis worked well in British Columbia, it turned out that the mysis shrimp in Flathead Lake out-competed the kokanee for the kokanee’s own food source — zooplankton.

What was meant to help the kokanee turned out ruining the salmon population. Lake trout, meanwhile, began to thrive on the mysis, and with only so much room for large predators in Flathead Lake, the gregarious lake trout edged out bull trout. This had a cascading effect on other wildlife in the Flathead River basin, even forcing the hundreds of bald eagles, which migrated to Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park each year to feed on kokanee, to find food elsewhere.

Biologists now fairly cringe at the mention of “mysis,” realizing the mistake their former colleagues once made, but wanting closure on the topic. “That’s how things were managed back then, by introductions of species,” says Rumsey.

 creston fish hatchery mark maskill

 Mark Maskill at the Creston Fish Hatchery in Kalispell (Dave Reese photo)


IN HUMAN life the timeline of history is tracked by two acronyms: B.C. and A.D. In Flathead River basin biology, there is “pre mysis” and “post mysis.” That’s how much of an impact the introduction of mysis shrimp had on existing fisheries like bull trout, cutthroat trout and kokanee salmon. In the years “post mysis,” kokanee salmon have all but disappeared from Flathead Lake, although the fish remain in places like Ashley Lake, Lake Mary Ronan, Middle Thompson Lake and Lake Koocanusa — bodies of water where lake trout aren’t thriving.

Bull trout in the Flathead system reach adult size in Flathead Lake, then in four or five years return to their birth streams — tributaries of the Middle, South and North forks — to spawn. When those offspring reach juvenile stage, they head downstream, and the cycle begins again.

While this cycle reflects the intricate web of nature and the natural lives of bull trout, those lives are complicated by politics.

With the listing of bull trout as a threatened species, state fisheries managers now have their hands tied. While the federal government dictates bull trout management, it’s up to the state to actually do the work. As FWP research specialist Tom Weaver says, “Every time we want to go out there and touch one, we have to call them (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) first, and get a letter from your mother.”

Like grizzly bears or wolves — other wildlife species on the Endangered Species List — bull trout are managed by the federal government, “but the state does all the work,” Rumsey adds. “It’s the sport fishermen paying for what we do for bull trout, even when we can’t fish for them.”

The federal government provides no direct funding for bull trout management, with the budget obligations falling onto the shoulders of outdoor recreationists who buy Montana hunting and fishing licenses. Of course, Montana also receives federal money through taxes on fishing equipment, but the money is not specifically earmarked for bull trout recovery. (It will cost taxpayers roughly $17 million for the recovery, according to estimates from the Fish and Wildlife Service.)

BULL TROUT are now thriving in parts of the Flathead River system and the Swan drainage. In 2004, Montana fisheries managers asked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to allow limited sport fishing of bull trout in three distinct waters of northwest Montana: Swan Lake, Lake Koocanusa and Hungry Horse Reservoir. Catch and release fishing for bull trout is now allowed in the South Fork of the Flathead River also. Seeing that these populations of bull trout were viable, the Fish and Wildlife Service agreed.

Anglers were allowed to keep up to two bull trout per year, with the only additional regulation be that they register with Fish, Wildlife and Parks for a “bull trout catch card” that anglers use in the field to document where they caught the fish.

In 2004, just over 2,700 anglers signed up, FWP reports.

Of all the states where bull were listed as threatened, Montana was the first state to get sport fishing re-established.

“We think it’s working very well,” Rumsey says.

But while they’re thriving in certain parts of northwest Montana, bull trout in Montana are tied into the endangered species listing that includes parts of Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Getting them off the endangered species means all the populations must meet recovery goals.

After nearly 10 years there is no firm management policy in place — only a draft version —leaving some fisheries managers wondering if the fish will ever be removed from the Endangered Species List, even though their populations are expanding, or at least maintaining, in northwest Montana.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates it could take three to five bull trout generations, or 15 to 25 years, before identified threats to the species can be significantly reduced and bull trout can be considered eligible for removal from the Endangered Species List.

Has listing of bull trout helped them? In some ways, yes, says biologist Rumsey, who has spent 31 years with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, and who has watched bull trout regain their stature as a dominant predator in many parts of northwest Montana.

“Politically, it helped get us some leverage that we might otherwise not have gotten,” he said, referring to the fact that major landowners like the U.S. Forest Service and Plum Creek now had a whole set of new regulations to comply with, when it came to land management that could affect bull trout. “Beyond that, I’m not sure how much more the listing has helped.”

Things have changed in bull trout management — and in nature — since the arrival of opossum shrimp in Flathead Lake. Rumsey, who is set to retire this year from FWP, wonders: “Is it realistic to get the lake back to where it was before mysis? Probably not,” he says.

While mysis shrimp contributed to the demise of kokanee salmon and bull trout, they did just the opposite in Swan Lake. There, bull trout are able to feed on the shrimp because the lake is much shallower. And in nearby Lake Koocanusa, bull trout populations are thriving too, biologists say. Lake Koocanusa, an impoundment on the Kootenai River behind Libby Dam, harbors Montana’s largest bull trout fishery. It’s also America’s strongest bull trout fishery, Weaver says. “Now that we’ve got 10 years of data behind us, we’re just starting to realize this is a great bull trout population.”

Some streams in the Swan drainage, like Elk Creek, Goat Creek and Squeezer Creek are at or near their 25-year highs for bull trout redd counts, while other redd counts in the Swan have been stable over the last 25 years of study, according to figures from Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The Kootenai drainage is almost off the charts with redd counts, numbering over 2,200 redds in certain areas.


lou kis with bull trout 

Lou Kis with a bull trout in the 1950s on the Flathead River

ON THE FEDERAL side of the bull trout management equation is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Mark Maskill, hatchery manager at the service’s Creston National Fish Hatchery near Kalispell, agrees that management of bull trout has not been cohesive.

He says “when management decides on a management plan” then some actual work with bull trout can be accomplished. Meanwhile, most of what’s being done is work on habitat, such as removing barriers in streams where the fish spawn. With much of the bull trout management being decided in the courts or by bureaucrats in places like Denver or Washington, D.C., Maskill says upper-level management of bull trout “creates obstacles to itself.”

The Creston Hatchery sits alongside Mill Creek and just downstream from Jessup Mill Pond, a prime water source that feeds 30, 80-foot raceways where rainbow trout, cutthroat trout and bull trout are raised. The cutthroat trout and rainbow trout that are raised here are for stocking in the wild, with nearly 75 percent of them going to tribal waters, according to Maskill.

While the rainbow trout and cutthroat trout will eventually see an angler’s worm or fly, the 200 bull trout will not. These bulls, which average four pounds each, are descendants of a mere four fish extracted from the Swan River drainage in 1993. Each fall the fish over the last 15 years, the bull trout in these raceways had been artificially spawned and their eggs fertilized. That was not exactly genetic purity taking place, so these fish — all of them related to each other — will be destroyed at the end of this year, or planted in areas like the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

The bull trout at the Creston National Fish Hatchery — the only hatchery in the United States that has a captive bull trout population — initially were captured so that studies could be done on raising bull trout in captivity, and how they would react to radio-transmitter implants. The hatchery also supplied eggs to out-of-state research requests, though much of that has dwindled. Now that the research is finished and egg requests are dropping off, “We’ve reached the point where we need to move on … to the next point in bull trout restoration activities,” Maskill said. “We’re getting out of the brood stock business.”

Last year, about 600 members of the original bull trout brood stock had to be destroyed. Those fish averaged 12 to 16 pounds, Maskill said.

Although cutthroat trout and rainbow trout are routinely planted throughout Montana, bull trout are the one species that is self-supporting in the wild; no bull trout planting takes place in Montana. That’s good news for groups like the Friends of the Wild Swan, which Maskill said threatened court action in 1993 to stop planting of bull trout in the wild.

Duck Lake on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation will receive some of the bull trout that must be removed from Creston this year, but only after policies of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) are followed, Maskill said. The tribes, he said, are “very excited” to receive the predatory fish, which could help reduce the sucker population in the reservation lakes.

When those fish arrive at Duck Lake, they might encounter a man named Lou Kis, a longtime Kalispell resident who once enjoyed fishing for bull trout in the Flathead River. Now retired, Kis, 80, was a longtime law enforcement officer for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. Back in the day, each spring Kis would head to the Flathead River to fish for big bull trout with his stout rod and wooden lures. He found the big, fighting fish a keen opponent to his rod and reel.

“You’re on prime time when your rod is bent on a nice bull trout,” says Kis, who is now far from the politics of fisheries management but still, somehow, connected to the magical pull of a bull trout on a line.

 (This article appeared in the September 2007 issue of Montana Living magazine.)



















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