Even with wings spanning seven feet, the bald eagle could not lift the trout out of Hayden Lake.
Five times it swooped in, grabbed the fish with its talons and strained to fly the feast ashore.
Five times it failed.
“That’s a sign of good fishing when the trout are too big for an eagle,” said Rich Lindsay, a Hayden-based fishing guide.
With the eagle still flapping and splashing that day last week, Lindsay boated on toward the opposite shore. He cut the engine a hundred yards from a small bay. On the bank was yet another new mansion-sized beach-front home, now the signature of this North Idaho lake.
He slipped into the bay using his electric trolling motor. No wake. No sound to spook the fish. The second cast along a private dock hooked a brutish crappie a foot long and nearly that deep.
We were poor boys living like kings on a rich man’s lake.
“All that trolling I do guiding for mackinaw on Priest Lake pays the bills,” said Lindsay, releasing the crappie back in the lake. “This is the type of fishing I personally like to do. This is the fun stuff.”
A few casts later, he hooked and released a largemouth bass of more than 3 pounds. Two northern pike in shallow water refused his offerings. But several smallmouths, including one of more than 3 pounds, gave his 10-pound test line a workout on their way to the boat. Plop! Back in the lake they went.
The fishing isn’t always that fast, but the fish - regardless of whether they are trout, squawfish or warmwater species - generally are large.
Hayden is a trophy lake, with tough regulations to keep it that way.
Unlike most Eastern Washington lakes, Hayden has inlets with good spawning habitat for wild trout. All of these tributaries are closed to fishing.
In addition, the lake is stocked with hatchery-raised Kamloops rainbows and westslope cutthroats.
High water this winter and spring has taken a temporary toll on the trout. A spillway 50-feet wide was gouged at the outlet this winter as an emergency measure to spill water and prevent a dike from being washed out.
Schools of mature rainbow and cutthroat trout have followed the lure of moving water and left the lake, said Ned Horner, Idaho Fish and Game Department regional fisheries manager.
“The lake has definitely lost some quality trout,” he said.
On the other hand, the impact on bass should be minimal.
“If the lake level recedes slowly, there should be enough time for bass fry to hatch and move out of shallow areas before the nest areas are left high and dry,” Horner said.
Trout, crappie and largemouth bass have been in the lake for many years. However, the newest neighbors on the block - both in and out of the water - have added some spice, chaos and concern for the fishery.
“If I had it to do over again,” Horner said, “I wouldn’t introduce smallmouth bass to the lake. They’re having a bigger impact on the crappie than we expected.”
Smallmouths were brought to Hayden in 1983 and 1984. Lindsay was among the volunteers who helped the Fish and Game Department release the fish around the lake.
Smallmouths have fulfilled the expectations of colonizing the rocky areas formerly empty of warmwater fish. “Smallmouth fishermen are quite happy,” Horner said.
Unfortunately, the smallmouths also have developed a taste for young crappies.
“Generally, all you see now are large individual adult crappies,” Horner said. “That’s not promising.”
While the smallmouth was a planned introduction, the appearance of northern pike a few years ago was a surprise. Most likely the pike were an illegal introduction by someone who thought the trophy fishing at Hayden Lake wasn’t quite good enough.
Several years ago, during the outcry over the population explosion of northerns, the public demanded that pike be treated as unwanted species in Hayden Lake. They called for a year-round season and no limits on the toothy predators.
“We’ve had a couple of winters with solid ice for winter fishing,” Horner said. “Anglers have done a good job of keeping the pike in check. They caught about 2,000 pike in two months last year.”
Keeping the heat on pike is necessary if the current fisheries are to stay in some sort of balance, Horner said.
“Northerns grow at a much more rapid rate than the other fish,” he said. “A 5-year-old pike will be over 20 pounds. The same age bass will be around 12 inches.”
But pike definitely have found a permanent home in Hayden. “Pike are a gee-whiz fish,” Horner said. “They get big, fight hard and taste good.”
The greatest long-term threat to the lake’s fishery could be from the people who have the most invested in the lake.
“Currently, Hayden still has good water quality,” Horner said. “But people need to know that each incremental addition of nutrients adds to the total.”
Large mounds of earth that must be moved to build ever-bigger homes, and tons of fertilizer to feed pastures of new lawn are contributing to a deterioration of the lake’s fish-friendly nature.
Samples taken by the state Division of Environmental Quality have shown declines in deep-water oxygen levels attributable to nutrients.
Hayden isn’t the only North Idaho lake that holds nice bass. Although the flooding might redistribute the fisheries in the lakes along the Lower Coeur d’Alene River this summer, fishing for warmwater species can be terrific there, as well as in Lake Coeur d’Alene itself.
Spirit Lake has a good warmwater fishery, and many smaller lakes hold surprises.
However, Hayden is unique. At 4,000 acres, it’s the only North Idaho lake of any size in which trophy fish survived the introduction of mysis shrimp.
Decades ago, anglers and biologists thought the shrimp would be a food source that would add bulk to any fish. Turns out the shrimp gobble up the zooplankton that young fish such as kokanee need to grow.
In a nutshell, that’s the reason for the crash of kokanee in Priest and and Pend Oreille lakes, with impacts that ran up the food chain.
But in Hayden, the shrimp have been a boost to trout and bass.
“The reasons the trophy fishing has held up in Hayden is a combination of protective regulations and people’s attitudes,” Horner said. “Most anglers are releasing their big fish even when the regulations allow them to be kept. Hayden has a good clientele.”
There’s yet another factor that helps maintain the trophy fishery: Hayden’s anglers don’t have all day to plug away at fish during summer.
Beginning this weekend, the best fishing generally will be from 4 a.m. to 9 a.m. After that, anglers are virtually bounced off the lake by powerboats, Jet Skis and water skiers.
“That’s not so bad,” Lindsay said, releasing another bass near a dock of sunbathers. “Fish early, and enjoy the scenery the rest of the day.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 Color)
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: The limits There’s a limit to the good fishing at Hayden Lake. The strict rules by species include: * BASS Daily limit: two, but all bass 12-16 inches long must be released. Season: July 1-Dec. 31. * CRAPPIE Daily limit: 15, all of which have to be at least 10 inches long. Season: year-round. * PIKE No daily limit. Season: year-round. * TROUT Daily limit: two, all of which must be at least 14 inches long. Season: Last Saturday in April-Nov. 30.