Bucket Brigades by John McPherson

May 7, 2020

Bucket Brigades by John McPherson

For years now Montana has been trying to stop illegal fish introduction or “bucket brigades”. This isn’t a new fight, it has been going on for decades. 

  I have very strong feelings about “ bucket brigades”. I personally witnessed the decimation of Yellowstone Cutthroat trout by the illegal introduction of Lake (Mackinaw) trout. In 1997 I began working as a Yellowstone Park fishing guide. The Cutthroat population in the lake was still healthy with an estimation of over 2 million fish, possibly as many as 4 million. In 1994 our guides caught the first Lake trout on a guide trip. According to later studies of the Lakers biology and inner ear, samples revealed that they came from Lewis Lake just southwest of Yellowstone Lake. 

  For the first few years after the Lake trout introduction we didn’t notice much of  change in the fishery. That didn’t last long! In just 5 years of catching that first fish we saw a dramatic decline in the Cutthroat population. Guides went from catching triple digit numbers of Cutthroat in a few hours to maybe catching a dozen during a full day trip. At the same time we began catching more and more Lake trout at the mouth of every spawning tributary. Over 20 years later it has become a never ending fight just to keep their numbers in check. 

  Across Montana the same thing is happening as non-native fish, Pike and Walleye for example, are”bucket brigaded” to new water bodies. Lake Mary Ronan in Montana reminds me a lot of what I witnessed in Yellowstone Park. 

  In 1992 Yellow Perch were illegally introduced into Lake Mary Ronan. Prior to this the lake was an amazing Kokanee Salmon fishery. More important than how good the fishery was, this fishery was used to supply salmon eggs to maintain the stocking of Kokanee in other waters across the rest of Montana. 

  At first, the affects of an illegally introduced species of fish may not be noticeable. Eventually the change to the fishery can seem like it’s happening overnight. Your favorite lake or river could be changed forever. Sometimes the damage is irreversible. It’s the job of all of us, not just game wardens, to help protect Montana’s fisheries. More information about illegally introduced fish can be found on the Montana F.W.P website and Yellowstone Park releases annual reports about their fishery.

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