MISSOULA — As fish tales go, this one’s long and fuzzy.
Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear manager Jamie Jonkel’s morning routine follows a regular pattern. He opens his email and hurriedly sorts through the piles of photos and videos people have sent him from their remote game cameras the night before. He has to be quick, before the daily load crashes his mailbox.
“I’m getting pictures from hundreds of cameras and videos,” Jonkel said. “It’s great, because instead of someone calling to say, ‘Hey, there’s a grizzly in the area,’ they’re sending pictures of the lion feeding on a dead deer, or a skunk squeezing through to get the chickens. We’re getting incredible footage from all over Montana.”
He’d been waiting for images from a certain tributary of the Blackfoot River near Seeley Lake, where FWP fisheries biologists knew rainbow trout went to spawn. A few people had set up a night camera on a spawning stream, and Jonkel was hoping to see if the area bears were using the food source.
He got black bears chasing trout, all right. Then he caught a mountain lion.
“I’ve never heard of a mountain lion fishing,” Jonkel said. “There are fishing cats in South America — they will dive in and grab fish out of the water. And it may be pretty common in places like Alaska and Vancouver. But I did a quick search, and couldn’t find anything on mountain lions fishing around here. This may be the only time in Montana that I know of where it’s been documented.”
One infrared video shows an adult mountain lion peering into the shallow stream and then pouncing into the water. The second clip shows the lion with a good-sized trout wriggling in its mouth.
FWP fisheries biologist Ladd Knotek said rainbows often hover above their redds, or egg nests, for a while before and after spawning. That makes them good targets for fishing predators. But he’d never encountered a lion on that list.
“It’s just not something you hear abut,” Knotek said. “It’s extremely rare.”
Kerry Foresman, retired University of Montana biologist and author of “Mammals of Montana,” said that “when preferred prey are not available, the mountain lion will opportunistically take whatever is available, including small mammals, birds, fish and insects.”
But the Seeley-Swan area isn’t hurting for prey animals, and has plenty of lions, too.
“We live in fairly good mountain lion habitat,” said Adam Lieberg, who works for Northwest Connections in Condon and manages an extensive game-camera archive. “They’re very elusive, so you don’t see them very often. And we’ve got no images of mountain lions eating fish.”
Jonkel said the behavior was likely limited to a single lion or lion family that had discovered the extra source of seasonal protein.
“It’s learned behavior, where mama said, ‘Hey, let me show you something,’ ” Jonkel said. “It’s no different than one guy figuring he can get half a cigarette from an ashtray if he goes there every day. It definitely knows what it’s doing. And it’s a unique thing and kind of a wonderful thing we’re able to capture.”