POLEBRIDGE – The skull and crossbones hanging from the light pole on the back of the 18-foot fishing boat has worn to tatters.
So has the population of lake trout in Quartz Lake.
Twice a day, Kevin Perkins and Carter Fredenberg string 1,800 feet of gill net through the waters of Juvi Bay – their name for the most productive summertime corner of this 869-acre Glacier National Park lake where juvenile lake trout linger. They come to pillage. The name of their pirate boat is unprintable.
The boat itself is almost unimaginable. No road goes to Quartz Lake. A helicopter had to airlift the 4,000-pound skiff and its 50-horsepower motor, along with a half-dozen grizzly-bear-resistant gear boxes to the Quartz Patrol Cabin. That’s a big infringement on Glacier’s recommended wilderness status, which generally prohibits mechanized tools of any sort – even wheels.
And that says something about how serious Glacier Park takes the job it sent Perkins and Fredenberg to do.
Every other big lake on the park’s west side has fallen victim to lake trout infestation. As a 2003 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report noted: “In just 30 years, the native bull trout populations of Glacier’s wild westside lakes have plummeted to the point that fisheries biologists fear for their ultimate survival.”
“Quartz was the last lake remaining with a complete stock of native fish and no lakers,” GNP fisheries biologist Chris Downs said. “We built the fish barrier to keep it that way. Then when they caught a lake trout in Upper Quartz in 2005, they were totally disheartened.”
Lake trout were introduced to Flathead Lake in the early 1900s. They didn’t have much impact until state fisheries biologists added mysis shrimp to Swan Lake as a fish feed stock in the late 1960s. The shrimp were supposed to boost numbers of the popular kokanee salmon fishery – a tactic that had shown success in Canadian lakes.
Unfortunately, the shrimp spread downstream to Flathead Lake, where differences in depth and ecosystem had an unpredicted outcome.
The shrimp acted like a steroid boost to the lake trout fishery in the early 1980s. The lakers in turn went after the kokanee, virtually wiping out that population in a couple years. Then they turned on the harder-to-catch native bull and cutthroat trout.
In addition, lake trout started following the Flathead River’s three branches to new homes. Hungry Horse Dam stopped their progress up the South Fork of the Flathead. Harrison Lake inside Glacier Park is the Middle Fork’s only significant lake, and lake trout made it there in 2000.
But the North Fork of the Flathead allowed the lakers access to McDonald, Logging, Quartz, Bowman and Kintla lakes. According to the FWS report, a 1969 gill net survey in the four western lakes caught 250 bull trout and 11 lake trout. In 2000, a repeat survey caught 138 lakers and 26 bulls.
Genetic analysis of Glacier’s lake trout show Kintla and McDonald fish come from similar family lines, while Bowman Lake (between the other two) has a different strain.
That could be because it's harder for lake trout to negotiate the climb up Bowman Creek than it is to reach the other two lakes, resulting in a more isolated population. That could be good news for future control efforts on Bowman. It’s not so good for McDonald and Kintla, which keep getting resupplied from Flathead Lake.
Last year, the Quartz Lake boat crew captured and killed about 2,000 lake trout in their five-month season. In 2013, it was 2,500.
“It’s getting harder and harder to catch an adult lake trout,” Downs said. “This is one of the most productive bays and we got about 25 lake trout on that last catch. We seem to be catching fewer each time. That’s good.”
To aid the hunt, Downs invites a group of volunteer anglers to come to Quartz each spring and catch lunkers for radio-tagging.
Early in the program, Downs was able to attract several notable Mack Days competitors from Flathead Lake. They tended to catch either a bull trout or a lake trout every two hours.
Now it takes about 10 hours to hook a big laker. Needless to say, Downs has found flagging interest in hiking all the way to Quartz for such slow action.
The bleached and nibbled set of antlers mounted over the Quartz Patrol Cabin door is one of the stranger things Perkins and Fredenberg have caught in their nets since they started hunting lake trout in 2008.
“We always wonder if we’re going to haul up a mammoth skull or something,” Perkins said. A few years ago, a volunteer angler lost his favorite chartreuse “Deep Diver” lure to a lunker. Three days later, the same fish turned up in the nets, still hooked to the Deep Diver.
Both lake trout and bull trout are slow-growing, late-maturing top predators. But their life cycles are quite different. That allows humans to target one species without too much risk to the other.
The spring fishing season lasts about three weeks and hammers the shallow areas like Juvi Bay where the juvenile lake trout prowl. The bulls tend to hunt around the inlet and outlet of Quartz Lake, so Perkins and Fredenberg avoid those areas.
The pirate skiff may have a motor, but Perkins and Fredenberg rely on the same technique fishermen have used for centuries to recover their nets. They grab hold and pull.
“You’re crushing doorknobs by the end of the season,” Fredenberg said of the exercise. They stand together at the side of the boat and haul, one on the lead-lined bottom and one on the floating-line top. When a fish comes up, both put a foot on the net to hold it in place while they untangle it.
Any bull trout caught has a full emergency room service ready for it. There’s a live well with chilled water and an oxygen supplement on board. Bulls tend to freak out when netted, tangling themselves so tightly they tie their gills shut and suffocate.
Lake trout don’t struggle as they come aboard. Fredenberg squeezes them out of the mesh like a hot dog from a bun and tosses them in a bucket for later analysis. Most of the juveniles range between 8 and 12 inches long. Once their details are recorded, their swim bladders are popped and they’re sunk back in the lake.
The suckers they catch react very differently. They struggle in the mesh, wriggle as they’re released and swim away immediately when tossed back overboard. It’s easy to imagine them making obscene gestures with their tails as they depart.
In the fall, 7-year and older bull trout leave the lakes for their natal spawning streams. Lake trout look for big rock piles to deposit their eggs. In Swan Lake, that’s often where highway crews have dumped waste loads of concrete. In Quartz Lake, it’s where avalanche chutes funnel debris down to the water.
“We’re at 50 meters now,” Fredenberg said, looking at his fish sonar monitor as the boat eased toward the north shore where avalanches had left three bright green slashes in the forested mountainside. “Now we’re at 15. Now we’re at 5 meters. It’s like a reef right here.”
As they move from spot to spot, the netters watch for white mountain goats high in the cliffs of Cerulean Ridge. They’ve seen occasional grizzly bears roaming the shoreline. Nesting loons emit a surprisingly wide range of calls, sometimes sounding like wolves howling.
“I never get tired of the view,” Perkins said. “This is the best job I’ve ever had.”
Quartz Lake gets few visitors in the summer, and it's virtually deserted by fall. That’s the netters’ busiest season.
“The second the spawn hits, we stay out until it’s done,” Fredenberg said. “It can go 12 or 13 days straight. We turn into vampires – net all night, sleep until noon, and then it gets dark again about 4 p.m. It’s either still and dark and cold with huge stars all over the place, or it's dark and cold and blizzarding and you get a little wet.”
“Pulling net in the waves is not fun,” Perkins added. “The storms just shoot down the lake and we’re stuck and can’t do much until we’re done. You just have to work backwards, watching the waves.”
Glacier Park is trying other tactics as well. Two falls ago, biologists raided Logging Lake’s spawning streams and captured 115 bull trout and every egg deposit they could.
The fish were moved up to Grace Lake, a mile farther up the Logging Lake Valley and protected by waterfalls that most fish can’t climb. It has a stocked population of Yellowstone cutthroat trout from 1920s fish-planting efforts. The bulls there will become an isolated community, feeding on the non-native cuts and safe from the lakers downstream.
The bull trout eggs were sent to the Creston Fish Hatchery, where they are being raised in isolation as future stock.
“It may have been our only chance,” Downs said. “We found no bull trout spawning in Logging Creek last year. We may have caught the last spawning age class. Last year, we only caught one bull trout in Logging Lake.”
While Quartz Lake is showing signs of a turn-around and work on Logging Lake is just getting started, Glacier officials aren’t sure there’s any hope for Kintla, Bowman, or McDonald lakes' infestations of lake trout. This summer, a research team is camped at high-altitude Akokala Lake, checking if its native population remains secure.
A couple things have changed since Perkins and Fredenberg started netting Quartz Lake in 2008. Their appetites have declined in step with the invasive species population.
In the beginning, the lake trout catch was a bonus to be rolled in pancake mix, fried in a skillet and wrapped into a burrito with rice and beans. Or steamed in tinfoil.
“They’ve got bright orange meat and they’re great eating, as far as lake trout go,” Perkins said. “The first two years, it seemed we ate fish every other night. Then it was two nights a week. Then we were done.”
They still get inquiries from friends about surplus fish.
“I say sure,” Fredenberg said. “You can hike in 6 1/2 miles and I’ll load you up. I have yet to have someone take my offer.”