Tim Linehan sells the Kootenai River on its rainbow trout. They may not all be 18-inchers like on the Missouri, he says, but pound-for-pound they’re some of the strongest, most spirited rainbows in Montana. So Linehan, owner of the Libby-based Linehan Outfitting Company, was none too happy this spring to hear that an angler had caught a brown trout on the river above Kootenai Falls.
“It has the potential to change my business,” Linehan says. “It would change the dynamic by which I do business, because people know and love the Kootenai for hard-fighting rainbows.”
In response to that brown — the first ever reported above Kootenai Falls — the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission on May 19 approved a kill order on all brown trout caught between the falls and Libby Dam. The commission also directed anglers to report any browns they catch, so the agency can determine the extent of the population above the falls. The primary reason for the order is the prospect of non-native browns establishing themselves on that stretch of river and out-competing and preying on existing rainbow and bull trout populations.
Linehan says that’s a “pretty big if,” but he plans to follow the new rule.
Dave Blackburn, who studied aquatic ecology in college and has owned and operated Kootenai Angler in Libby for more than 30 years, is adamant that he won’t. Killing a fish — even under state orders — goes against his entire philosophy (he’s a catch-and-release guy). Native fish are great, he says, and he actively promotes the Kootenai’s population of native rainbows. But he likens FWP’s reaction to a single brown trout to the tale of Chicken Little.
“The sky is not falling,” Blackburn says. “Brown trout are not going to destroy the Kootenai River as we know it today.” Blackburn adds that the biggest issue facing the river right now is the potential for increased selenium levels resulting from coal mining over the border in Canada.
As for how a brown got that far upstream in the first place, Linehan says there’s a slim chance it made it up the falls. FWP has recorded one tagged bull trout accomplishing that feat before. But the prevailing theory, Linehan adds, is that the brown was dumped there. Anglers will now have to “wait and see” if FWP’s solution works, and trust that the kill order won’t backfire. FWP notes that it’s possible fishermen might inadvertently kill bull trout, mistaking them for browns, since the species can look similar.
“For now,” Linehan says, “we’re just going to have to hope people educate themselves and don’t make that mistake.”