By Robert Lucke
On the shore of Flathead Lake between Somers and Lakeside is the site of the oldest of Montana's nine state-owned hatcheries. Flathead Lake Fish Hatchery is the only hatchery in the state that from scratch produces kokanee salmon for Montana rivers and lakes.
There are two types of salmon in Montana kokanee, which reside in many Western lakes and rivers, and chinook salmon, which live in Fort Peck Lake and the Missouri River.
Landlocked sockeye kokanee salmon, which is their official name, are considerably smaller than the chinooks. They will get to the three-pound range, depending on feed and water quality, while the chinooks will get to 15 pounds in eastern Montana.
Stewart Kienow and Brian Strohschein must love fish in general and salmon in particular, for they have been at the Flathead hatchery for 34 and 18 years, respectively.
The hatchery, which has been running since 1912, sends workers out each October to collect salmon eggs to incubate, hatch and raise.
"I imagine that I have taken over a hundred million kokanee eggs since I have been here," Kienow said.
Their collection site is Lake Mary Ronan, located west of Flathead Lake. In October Kienow and Strohschein head to the lake looking for redds or salmon nests on the lake bottom. They are easily seen through lake waters.
Workers use a large Merwin trap that holds mature salmon. The workers then spawn the salmon, which resembles the act of milking a cow. They collect about 4.9 million eggs from October to the time the lake freezes over.
They bring the eggs back to the hatchery and through a complicated procedure that lasts until the end of January, they hatch the fish.
"I should be raising around 1.1 million salmon from those eggs," Kienow said. "But there is such a demand for salmon that I am running around 1.5 million fish. That means that I have to start planting fish earlier or we will run out of room in the hatchery."
In some cases, that means cutting holes in frozen lakes to plant early salmon.
In times past, the Flathead Lake Fish Hatchery used to hatch out 8 million fish. These days, with biologists insisting on larger fish, that is not possible. Fish size for planting now is about 2 inches.
Hatchery workers use some other lakes for collecting eggs. But they've lost some of their best salmon fisheries, including Flathead Lake, McDonald Creek in Glacier National Park and Whitefish Lake, due to hard fishing pressure, dam fluctuation, and introduction of a shrimp that feasted on the same food as salmon.
Attempts to reintroduce salmon into fisheries like Flathead have met with little success. The federal hatchery at Creston had a plan to introduce a million salmon into Flathead Lake each year for five years. Studies indicated they soon lost 30 percent of their introduction. Most were being eaten by lake trout.
This time of year Kienow and Strohschein are out with their fish truck delivering salmon to lakes and rivers. That includes some 22 fisheries on the west and east side of the Continental Divide.
Salmon season being over, the hatchery concentrates on collecting eggs and raising grayling and westslope cutthroat until the end of August. September is catch-up month at the hatchery and then it is back to Lake Mary Ronan and the cycle starts up once again.
Both Kienow and Strohschein love their work. And they love working with salmon.
"Salmon are popular because they are a big meat fish. They are easy to catch and people could even snag them for a while," Kienow said. "They fight, are sporting, and who doesn't like smoked salmon. At seven to eight dollars a pound in the grocery store, it is much better to catch your own."