The northern pike explosion in the Pend Oreille River in the past seven years has spawned excitement for fishermen and a major headache for biologists.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Kalispel Tribe are conducting studies geared to managing the non-native predator known for its voracious appetite.
The pike, a threat to other fish species, are spreading down the Flathead, Clark Fork and Pend Oreille river systems after being illegally introduced to Montana.
Northern pike have previously shown up as transients in waters such as the Spokane River. But in the past decade, the Box Canyon Reservoir portion of the Pend Oreille River has become home to the first naturally reproducing northern pike fishery in Washington, said Marc Divens, WDFW research biologist.
Pike ranging to more than 30 pounds – and a bounty in the 5-pound range – are luring anglers from across the state. Tournaments popped up. The business is welcome in Pend Oreille County.
But biologists don’t have to look farther than Western Montana to see the future if northerns are left unchecked.
“Pike have a tendency to eat themselves out of house and home,” said Jim Vashro, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks fisheries manager in Kalispell. “We have some lakes where pike have eaten all the other fish and now they’re eating themselves.
“The lakes are full of hammer handles,” he added, describing the abundance of skinny 12- to 18-inch long pike.
Bruce Bolding, Washington’s warmwater fisheries manager, said the greater concern is the threat the pike pose to other fisheries if they continue downstream into the Columbia River.
“We don’t have money to eliminate pike, and it would be impossible even if we did,” Bolding said. “Pike are pretty much there to stay in the 55 miles of Box Canyon Reservoir. From that point it’s a question of how to manage them.”
Pike don’t flourish everywhere. They’re established in Noxon Reservoir on the Clark Fork River and biologists believe they got a big boost into the Lake Pend Oreille system by a big runoff in 1997.
“Our recent electroshocking surveys didn’t turn up any pike in the Pend Oreille River from the long bridge (at Sandpoint) down to Albeni Falls Dam,” said Jim Fredericks, Idaho Fish and Game Department’s regional fisheries manager. “Apparently the drawdowns and habitat there aren’t conducive to pike.”
“But that stretch is a great travel corridor for them,” said Chris Donley, WDFW fish biologist in Spokane. “They just keep going until they find paradise, like they did in Box Canyon Reservoir.”
Washington researchers shocked fishermen and even themselves with a gillnet study last spring that hauled in 755 northern pike, some of which were trophies that would have thrilled anglers.
“We didn’t expect to catch that many, especially out in the middle of the river during spring,” Divens said. “It was just a sample that told us there’s a heck of a lot of pike out there.”
Another round of research is getting started this month.
“The surveys we’re doing with gillnets are standard across North America for sampling pike,” Divens said.
“Our management responsibility doesn’t begin and end in the Pend Oreille River. Years have been invested in the Columbia system working for cutthroat and bull trout recovery – and of course, there’s all the effort for salmon and steelhead.
“All are high priorities with millions and millions of dollars at stake.”
Pike aren’t the only non-native predator moving in. Smallmouth bass are taking over waters and walleye are increasing in Lake Pend Oreille.
Anglers have started catching pike in the Boundary Reservoir just downstream from the better habitat found in Box Canyon Reservoir. Farther downstream, British Columbia researchers found a few pike during their Columbia River surveys.
Washington biologists have heard everything from approval to outrage for their efforts to study and eventually control the Pend Oreille River’s northern pike. They expect to get another earful at public meetings scheduled this week.
“The meetings are good because they give us a chance to go face to face with some of the myths being circulated,” Bolding said.
“If left alone, the northern pike in the Pend Oreille river won’t last as a trophy fishery. The boom will play out.”
Harveting limits of pike are the first thing anglers can do to help the situation, he said.
Donley said the meetings will be about sharing information and getting constructive suggestions for controlling the pike.
“Not controlling them isn’t an option,” he said. “This isn’t just about pike fishermen. It’s about every angler and every fishery in the Columbia system.”