COLUMN: New approach may be needed for bucket biology

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Bucket biology. That term strikes fear into the heart of local fish managers.

According to state law, the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks is the only agency responsible for the management of our fishery resources in Montana.  

The agency has similar responsibility for managing our deer, elk and moose. There is very little one person can do to dramatically impact the populations of those game species. One irresponsible bucket biologist, however, can forever affect fishing and fish management over an entire lake or river basin.

Bucket biology is the common term used to describe the action of someone who, without legal authority, moves live fish from one lake or river to another lake or river. I have to assume the perpetrators of bucket biology is unhappy with state fish management so they take fish management into their own hands.

Almost every new fishing boat comes with a live well, so transporting live fish from one lake to another is now much easier than transporting fish in a five-gallon bucket.     

Every year I fish in other states and Canada. When I discuss fishing with other fishermen in those areas, nobody has ever heard the term bucket biology. It seems to be a unique Montana or Western U.S. problem.  

Statewide, Fish, Wildlife and Parks claims 600 instances of bucket biology. Essentially any unwanted fish that shows up in a lake is classified as an act of bucket biology. Efforts to catch bucket biologists or stop bucket biology have fallen short. Perhaps some new thinking is needed.  

The latest case of local bucket biology occurred when walleyes were discovered in Swan Lake last fall. Walleyes are known to be aggressive fish predators and are assumed to be threatening to the native bull trout in Swan Lake.

In response to the discovery of walleyes in Swan Lake, Fish, Wildlife and Parks has instituted a new regulation that all walleyes caught in Swan Lake must be immediately killed, retained by the angler and the carcass turned in to the agency. This rule is designed to prevent the bucket biologist who planted walleyes in Swan Lake to reap rewards. But the new rule tends to punish all anglers. So some angler backlash may occur.   

I believe this new rule will work against the goal of getting rid of walleyes in Swan Lake. First, if there are truly walleyes in Swan Lake, if left alone they may simply die out. Swan Lake is a deep cold-water lake that is not good habitat for walleyes, so they may not reproduce or survive. Walleyes have occasionally been found in Lake Five, Flathead Lake and some Flathead River sloughs for many years. Yet none of these waters produced an expanding or viable walleye fishery. The chances of walleyes thriving in Swan Lake seem to be very remote.

Perhaps the new anti-walleye rule for Swan Lake is not needed.

Another aspect of this new rule is that it is really not enforceable. Let’s say you are fishing Swan Lake and catch a walleye. When you bring your fish alongside the boat and identify it as a walleye, you have two choices. First, if you want to follow the new regulation, you will net the fish, then kill the fish, then have to keep the dead fish, then haul it 35 miles to Fish, Wildlife and Parks headquarters in Kalispell. That is a very inconvenient process. Americans like convenience.

Your other option, especially if you tend to like walleyes, will be to reach over the side of the boat and release the walleye back into Swan Lake. Unless you happen to have a game warden in your boat, who will ever know? Another option is to kill the walleye, take it home, fillet it, eat it and throw the bones in your garbage. Again, who will ever know?

A more angler-friendly technique would be to allow anglers to keep the walleye, enjoy the good tasting walleye fillets and just turn the bones in to Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The agency only needs the bones to do its testing. The agency could also offer an incentive to anglers to turn in walleyes. They could give a free Super Tag for a special moose or sheep permit for any walleye turned in. This incentive wouldn’t cost Fish, Wildlife and Parks a nickel. I know a lot of biologists in Fish, Wildlife and Parks and they are all good folks. But I think they may need some training in public relations, diplomacy and tact. They will likely get more angler cooperation with a carrot instead of a stick.

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