This Ain’t No Normal Fishing Tournament

Mack Days are winding down. What’s that mean? It means hundreds of fishermen plying the waters of Flathead Lake to see who can reel in the biggest pile of lake trout, a non-native fish that can grow to the size of one of Katie Couric’s legs. Will these hale and hardy sportsmen eat their catch? Oh, hale no—they will likely fill the Dumpsters at the Polson boat launch with tons of dead trout, which will then putrefy, filling the air with a stench not unlike the one that will be emanating from the Adams Center when Toby Keith appeared in Missoula five years ago.

The idea of the trout tournament is to help control the population of the predacious lake trout, which feed on the smaller, more fun-loving native cutthroat and bull trout. If you’ve ever fished Flathead Lake, you know when you’ve caught a lake trout. It has a large underbite, sports a leather jacket, has a number of crude, prison-style tattoos. Also, it is probably smoking a cigarette. I hauled one into my canoe last summer, and it had three Daredevil spoons hanging off its lower lip, and one eye was frosted over. It spit out its cigarette, grunted, smacked me in the face with its caudal fin, and flipped back into the water. Tough fish.

In order to lure (sorry) fishermen into the tournament, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes is offering huge cash prizes for the most fish caught. Top prize is over $1,000, so you can bet there is a veritable navy of anglers out there every day, harvesting the lake trout.

(I’m sorry, but when sportsmen use the term “harvesting” as a euphemism for hooking, shooting, stabbing, spearing, trapping or otherwise killing wildlife, I picture them driving around the woodlands in a New Holland combine or something. Harvesting. Psht.)

Curious, I drove up there this morning to find out how the tournament was going, and to check out the action for myself. I cajoled a ride out to one of their boats, which was anchored just off the north side of Wildhorse Island, away from the prying binoculars of tournament officials. I had contacted them on their marine band radio (I first tried my Marine Band harmonica, but got nothing), and told them I was a journalist. They invited me aboard. Once my water taxi was gone, I asked them about their totals for the day.

 

Note to fishermen: Chumming for lake trout is illegal.

 

“Been kinda slow today,” said Marshall Watson, the skipper, opening the lid of a coffin-sized Styrofoam ice chest. “Maybe 20 so far, but we’ve only been here for about”—he looked at his digital wristwatch—“two cold-packs.”

Wading through the ankle-deep pile of crushed Hamm’s cans, I peered into the cooler. They were lake trout, all right. The tattoos are unmistakable. But something was wrong. All the fish seemed to have been burned or scorched somehow. As I turned to ask Watson about the fish, his partner, Oliver Klosov, handed me a stick of dynamite. The fuse was lit and spitting sparks.

He burped in my face. “You gonna yap, or you gonna fish?”

After the Search and Rescue helicopter dropped me off back at the boat launch, I wandered over to the weigh-in table on the main dock, where the officials were tallying the catch of another boat. It was a large Pro-Line cabin cruiser dubbed the Perspicacious Princess. I watched as the fishermen transferred their catch from the boat’s hold onto the dock.

“Hold it!” yelled Howard Skin-So-Soft, the tribal marine biologist in charge. “These fish are illegal. They are definitely NOT lake trout.” He indicated a pile of flat, orange-colored objects in a 5-gallon plastic bucket.

“Oh, they’re lake trout, we just, uh, field-dressed them,” said the Perspicacious Princess’s first mate, with a thick but indeterminate accent. “We filet them special and coat them in a corn meal breading, Norwegian style. It’s how we always do it in the old country.”

Shaking his head, muttering about “that asshole Columbus,” Howard Skin-So-Soft took the bucket of fish sticks and emptied it into the Dumpster. He returned to the Princess just as the fishermen were carefully pulling a mounted, 8-foot-long blue marlin from the boat’s cabin.

Skin-So-Soft looked at me sadly, and said, “You know, I’ve been a marine biologist for 13 years, and I can tell you that the blue marlin is rarely seen in a land-locked body of fresh water 500 miles from the nearest ocean. I’m pretty sure we won’t count that.” He looked back at the boat’s crew, which was now struggling to open a huge bag of frozen calamari. “Perspicacious my Indian ass.”

I had seen enough. On the drive home, I thought about the futility of it all. Flathead Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake in the Lower 48. It’s 28 miles long, and as much as 15 miles wide. And judging from my one-hundred-foot anchor rope, it’s at least 101 feet deep. That’s a lot of water. By my calculations, it’s, well, it’s more than a thousand cubic feet of water. A lot more. I doubt that any trout tournament that allows a limitless number of fish to be plucked from the lake is going to make a significant dent in the population of said fish.

On the contrary, it’s pretty much a given that the fish who are stupid enough to believe they can eat something that looks like a fork that got caught in the garbage disposal are not the sharpest hemostat in the tackle box. So what these anglers are doing is simply culling the dumbest specimens from the lake, leaving behind a smarter, craftier population. The Superior Lake Trout, if you will, are going to continue to chip away at the native cutthroat and bull trout populations, like so many Sunnis car-bombing a Shiite fish market.

Indeed, we are probably at the tail-end (sorry) of the Golden Age of Trout Fishing in America. Up until recently, daily limits have been easily filled, and the mercury level in the fish was somewhat less than that of a gas station thermometer. I’m one of the lucky ones whose youth was filled with fishing trips that ended with a photo of the anglers holding a sapling dripping with a dozen decent-sized rainbow or cutthroat trout, which we would frequently cook and eat on the spot. Now, catch-and-release is the M.O. of most fishermen, and the trout numbers have dwindled due to whirling disease, dammed tributaries, and widespread use of the fearsome Eagle Claw™ Quintuple-Hook Super Deadly Lethal Trout Killer Special© lure.

So the Mack Days tournament is probably hastening, not forestalling, the demise of natural trout populations in Flathead Lake. This summer when you’re hanging out at the Lake, take a closer look at those water skiers skimming past your waterfront cabin. If they’re wearing leather jackets and smoking cigarettes, better high-tail it (sorry) back to town.

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