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bull trout

An angler releases a bull trout in the upper South Fork of the Flathead River in the summer of 2016. Bull trout must be released unharmed in the river, but anglers may keep up to two fish per year through the catch-card program on Hungry Horse Reservoir and Lake Koocanusa in Montana. 

In what sounds as tangled as a spilled tackle box, a free punch-card program has allowed a federally threatened fish species to remain legally catchable for Montana anglers.

“In most waters in western Montana, you can’t intentionally fish for bull trout,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologist Mark Deleray. “The catch card gives us some safeguards to protect the bull trout. And people understand the value of providing angler opportunities where possible. It builds support for bull trout conservation, because whatever species they’re most interested in, they’re most protective of.”

The program has worked so well that state and federal wildlife managers have decided to extend it for another five years. The cards are free for the asking at FWP offices, but must be in possession when fishing for bull trout and must be physically clipped whenever a fish is caught and kept. By nature, bull trout are vulnerable to specific fishing tactics and at certain times, making them easy to over-fish.

Bull trout are often referred to as the grizzly bears of the cold-water angling world: large, powerful and rare. Like landlocked salmon, they grow to maturity in big rivers or lakes but migrate to lay new eggs in the same tiny creek where they were born. Sediment from collapsing forest roads, as well as a warming climate and historic over-fishing and habitat destruction put the bull trout on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s threatened-species status.

But good populations of bull trout remain in a few Montana locations. They include Lake Koocanusa above Libby Dam, and the South Fork of the Flathead River where it pools into a huge reservoir above Hungry Horse Dam. For the past 13 years, Montana FWP and the federal FWS have allowed anglers to go after bulls there, monitored by the catch card program.

“It opened up fishing in a restricted and protected way,” Deleray said. “Other states use this for monitoring harvest of salmon and steelhead. It’s a way to restrict the harvest and record it when harvest occurs. If the impact gets excessive, we’d stop or change those fisheries.”

Between 2004 and 2016, the catch card program allowed anglers to keep up to two bull trout a year in those two reservoirs. FWP issued more than 16,000 catch cards on Hungry Horse Reservoir and the South Fork, and 15,000 on Lake Koocanusa. Surveys of the cardholders show anglers caught more than 14,000 bull trout in Hungry Horse Reservoir and the upper reaches of the South Fork Flathead, but kept only about 800. Koocanusa anglers caught close to 24,000 bulls in the same period, keeping 2,700.

Some other strongholds of bull trout have had to come off the table.

Deleray said the alternatives were to prohibit all bull trout fishing, or to fold bull trout limits into the general fishing regulations (which typically allow multiple fish per day). Either method would be hard to enforce, whereas the catch card program allows anglers to voluntarily become part of the conservation and education effort.

“Without the catch card, we wouldn’t have a fishery for bull trout,” Deleray said. “If we opened it up and crashed the population, or didn’t open it and didn’t provide an opportunity, we would have failed on either account. This way, we’ve been able to provide the opportunity and our populations of bull trout remain strong.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.