For many traditional western Montana anglers, it was a sad day in 1998 when they learned Bull Trout, Montana’s largest native trout, were being added to the Federal list of Threatened Species under the Endangered Species Act. Opportunities to take home the biggest trout many people will ever catch in their lives or perhaps enjoy the occasional palate-pleasing sensation of smoked Bull Trout seemed to be going away forever.

But, in 2004, Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) worked with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to come up with an innovative way to keep anglers involved in Bull Trout fishing in Hungry Horse Reservoir and the South Fork Flathead River as well as Lake Koocanusa, where it was mutually agreed that Bull Trout populations remained healthy and not threatened by regulated traditional angling. The agencies settled on a Catch Card Program. Today, after 13 years, we can report that program has been an outstanding success.

Between 2004 and 2016 the Catch Card Program allowed catch and release fishing for Bull Trout with some limited angler harvest of Bull Trout (generally 2 per angler per year, in the Reservoirs only) from those two drainages. FWP issued over 16,000 catch cards on Hungry Horse Reservoir and the South Fork and 15,000 on Lake Koocanusa.

Images by Oregon Dept of Fish & Wildlife

Because the free but required Catch Cards allow for follow-up survey, an important component of evaluating these fisheries, we can estimate that those anglers legally fishing for Bull Trout enjoyed nearly 26,000 days of Bull Trout fishing on Hungry Horse Reservoir and the South Fork Flathead River and another 43,000 angler days on Lake Koocanusa for a total of 69,000 angler days over 13 years.

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 and enjoyed the satisfaction of taking home around 800 of these native trout, with a strict harvest limit of two fish per angler per year (Reservoir only). Similarly, in Lake Koocanusa, FWP estimated that anglers caught nearly 24,000 BLT, and put 2,700 on the table or the wall. As biologists expected, under this tightly regulated program most fish caught were released alive and the observed violations were few. More importantly, Bull Trout redd counts (counts of spawning nests) in the Kootenai and South Fork held up well. This result demonstrated that healthy populations of Bull Trout can still support some of the traditional uses, even while the fish are seriously threatened elsewhere in Montana.

“It’s important for people to have the opportunity to catch and harvest native fish like bull trout when possible,” says FWP Fisheries Program Manager Mark Deleray. “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.”

FWP Fisheries Biologist Leo Rosenthal adds that anglers in the program help collect important data for managing the fishery. “The benefit of the catch card and survey program is that we get annual angler pressure and bull trout catch/harvest estimates,” says Rosenthal. “This information is not readily available for most fisheries in Montana and allows us to closely follow trends in angler use as well as the overall status of the Bull Trout population.”

Because of the success of the Catch Card program, in 2017, FWP and FWS have completed the paperwork to continue the program for the foreseeable future. We all look forward to the day when the program can expand to cover additional waters, signifying progress in the road to species recovery.

Current Regulations

Lake Koocanusa: the harvest limit on Lake Koocanusa is one bull trout per license year, season opens June 1; extends through February 28, catch and release the remainder of the year

Hungry Horse Reservoir: the harvest limit is two bull trout per license year, season opens the third Saturday in May (May 20) and extends through the end of the license year;

South Fork of the Flathead River: catch and release only for bull trout, May 20-July 31. No fishing for bull trout after July 31.

Catch and Release Pointers: Most bull trout caught by catch-card anglers are released. Here’s what anglers can do to maximize fish survival:

–Land the fish quickly and do not play it to exhaustion.

–Wet your hands before handling the fish.

–Keep the fish in the water as much as possible where it gills can absorb oxygen.

–Minimize the time out of water for photos.

–Remove the hook gently. Use of artificial lures, single and barbless hooks can make hook removal faster and easier. Let the fish recover before release. If the fish is hooked deeply or bleeding, you may have to snip the line at the fish’s mouth, or consider keeping it if regulations allow. Consider limiting your catch. Even with catch-and-release, fish are stressed and some will die.

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