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by Suzanne Vernon
For the Pathfinder
Anglers will find better fishing now in area rivers, streams and high mountain lakes, while catch rates are slowing at lower elevation lakes due to warm weather.
The temperature of surface waters at some valley bottom lakes is approaching 70°, according to fisheries biologist Scott Rumsey with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Kalispell. "That's a little warmer than what fish prefer. They come up to the surface less frequently now," he said.
Rumsey said that surveys conducted in the Swan Valley this summer showed healthy populations of trout and kokanee at area lakes. However, earlier this year anglers were frustrated by unusually high water which cleared more slowly than normal.
At Swan Lake, kokanee salmon have been more difficult to catch. Typically, kokanee fishing picks up after the lake stratefies, Rumsey explains, and the fish "layer out" enabling anglers to find them. This year, he said, the kokanee are more scattered throughout the lake.
The kokanee salmon population at Swan Lake is healthy, and the fish are reproducing naturally there. "We're seeing a small percentage of the kokanee population get pretty large," Rumsey said. Ten percent of the adults measure in excess of 20 inches, while the standard population (mostly three-year-old fish) averages 10 to 11 inches in length.
Northern pike also reproduce naturally in Swan Lake, and anglers are finding some lunkers in the 20-pound class. Best fishing for pike is usually during June and July.
FWP personnel stock cutthroat trout at Swan Lake and other area lakes annually. Cutthroat numbers have steadily decreased in the Swan River as a result of competition with rainbow and brook trout. Stocking cutthroat in the lakes rather than rivers has been successful, Rumsey said. This year, 25,000 four-to-six inch cutthroat were released in Swan Lake.
Swan Lake is also home to bull trout-and it's the only lake open to fishing for bull trout. Anglers should read the regulations carefully. They are allowed one bull trout daily and in possession in the lake only. The Swan River is closed to fishing for bull trout. New wording on the fishing regulations states that rivers and streams in the Swan are "closed to the taking and or intentional fishing for bull trout."
What is 'intentional fishing'? "People bait fishing with large hooks, plug fishing with large plugs-things that are more inclined to catching bull trout," Rumsey said, adding that there is some crossover, but game wardens will ticket anglers who appear to be fishing for bull trout in closed waters. "If you're using a four-inch plug, you're probably fishing for bull trout."
FWP also stocks cutthroat trout and kokanee at Lindbergh Lake and Holland Lake in the Swan Valley. Perch can also be found at Holland Lake. FWP received an uncomfirmed report of northern pike being caught at Holland, also. Pike were illegally introduced to Swan Lake many years ago, and according to Rumsey, there's nothing to stop the fish from traveling upriver, though they aren't, by nature, a river fish. Pike prefer quiet waters.
Biologists warn sportsmen that "bucket biology" (illegally introducing fish into area waters) can cause huge problems for native trout populations and will eventually lead to reduced fishing opportunities for anglers.
FWP also releases rainbow trout in several closed basin lakes (Van, Shay, Metcalf, and "the potholes") in the Swan Valley near Condon. (Closed basin lakes are mainly spring-fed and have no inlet or outlet.) Van Lake gets "lots of fish" annually, Rumsey explained. "It's basically managed as a put and take, high yield fishery," he said. The lake receives 4,000 rainbow trout per year, along with large, surplus brood stock from the Arlee fish hatchery when they are available. Netting this spring showed pretty good numbers of fish at Van Lake, Rumsey said.
Shay Lake is also doing well, along with Metcalf Lake. However, since Metcalf Lake is managed as a trophy fishery and stocked with rainbow trout, special regulations apply. Anglers are allowed only one fish over 22-inches long per day. "That lake is patrolled regularly," he said, and violators will be ticketed.
Special regulations also apply to the Swan River, where fishing is quite good right now, since the water has cleared, Rumsey said. Catch and release rules for cutthroat trout are in effect downstream from Piper Creek. The purpose of the catch-and-release regulations is to help biologists understand whether or not they help protect trout populations. "We like to address whether or not regulations are working," Rumsey said. "We don't want to have a regulation that's not doing what it's intended to do." Biologists survey alternate sections of the river annually, and compare fish populations in catch-and-release sections versus open waters. "It's interesting, but catch and release is not applicable everywhere. Other things affect fish populations, such as winter habitat and weather conditions," he said.
The Swan River and its tributaries are also home to healthy populations of brook trout. In some sections of the river, brook trout grow quite large. However, access to the river is difficult, in many areas. "Ambitious anglers might be rewarded though," Rumsey encouraged. Fishing is good right now in small creeks and streams. Fly fishermen will be rewarded during early morning and evening hours.
Many high mountain lakes throughout the Swan Valley are stocked with native cutthroat, and fishing in those areas "should be good" through July and August, Rumsey said. However, he was quick to point out that access may be difficult due to the above-average blowdown. Main trails in the Mission Mountains Wilderness west of Condon have been cleared, but hikers are still warned to expect heavy blowdown around lakes and in less-traveled areas. Water levels at stream crossings may also be unseasonably high, due to last winter's heavy snowpack.