A once-popular Lake Pend Oreille angling season is making a comeback after a multimillion-dollar decade of controversial efforts to revive fabled kokanee and trout fisheries from the brink of collapse.
The evidence is at Granite Creek, a tributary 45 minutes by boat out of Bayview. About 130 bald eagles were hanging out near the mouth of the creek last week to feast on the remains of 200,000 kokanee spawners jamming into the tiny stream this season.
Kokanee, a delicious landlocked sockeye salmon, die after they spawn, usually at the age of 3 although some grow larger and spawn at 4.
“Most of the natural spawning occurs in the gravels along the lakeshore,” said Andy Dux, Idaho Fish and Game Department’s lead research
biologist for the Lake Pend Oreille project. But the returns to Granite Creek are among several reasons for this year’s surge of optimism.
For the first time since 2005, the goal of 14 million kokanee eggs will be collected at Granite Creek to be raised at the Cabinet Gorge Hatchery.
That’s up from lows of 500,000 eggs collected in 2007 and again in 2008.
After decades of decline, and hitting an all-time low in 2007, the kokanee population has been steadily increasing to a level higher than at the end of 1999, the last year anglers were allowed to fish for kokanee at the lake.
With predator fish apparently under control, IFG officials say kokanee can support a fishing season with limits lower than at other lakes. Pend Oreille’s first kokanee season in 12 years opens Jan. 1.
The kokanee fishery that boomed in the 1940s through the 1960s supported commercial fishing and provided forage that grew world-record bull trout and rainbows.
But the decline of kokanee confirmed in the 1970s was a threat to all the lake’s popular fisheries. Without kokanee, the giant Gerrard-strain rainbows that had been introduced from Canada’s Kootenay Lake couldn’t grow to trophy proportions.
Kokanee recovery would require rainbow fishermen to make a sacrifice, too.
“Each angler had his individual turning point on accepting the process,” said Jim Fredericks, who was named IFG’s Panhandle fisheries manager in 2008.
Fredericks replaced Ned Horner, the manager who took the heat for closing the kokanee fishery and confronting the acute threat to kokanee posed by predators.
A bounty was offered on the lake’s world-famous rainbow trout. But the fish are so prized by anglers, most of them were released after being caught despite a $15 per-head incentive.
The plan also called for a bounty on lake trout and contracting commercial netters to remove them by the thousands just about the time an emerging trophy lake trout fishery was gaining a following of anglers.
“There was no way a small number of kokanee could recover if there were a large number of predators after them,” Horner said when he retired, not knowing whether the controversial project would succeed.
“Most people didn’t come over until trends started coming out of the research,” Fredericks said. “It’s been a gradual understanding, not an epiphany.
“A lot of credit goes to the citizen committees and task force that helped us work through the issues and get to this point.”
Biologists didn’t disagree with anglers who argued that lake-level fluctuations behind Albeni Falls Dam and the 1960s introduction of mysis shrimp were the source of the kokanee decline.
“If we can keep the lake trout numbers down and keep the kokanee numbers up, we’ll be able to turn our attention back to both of those major issues,” Dux said.
“Introducing the shrimp was a mistake, but they’re here to stay.”
Anglers who went to Canada in the ’60s to catch 20-inch kokanee pushed to have mysis released in Pend Oreille, where the kokanee were plentiful but smaller. By the time biologists in both Canada and the U.S. realized the mysis shrimp eventually would outcompete with young kokanee for nutrition, it was too late.
“The mysis were a double-whammy for kokanee in Pend Oreille,” Dux said. The shrimp were flourishing by robbing zooplankton needed by young kokanee. Concurrently, the bountiful shrimp were ideal for nourishing the young lake trout, a fishery that had been existing in the lake fairly harmlessly since its introduction in 1925.
With no end to the kokanee decline in sight, kokanee fishing was closed at Pend Oreille in 2000 and trophy anglers were asked to abandon their conservation ethics and start killing the mackinaw and rainbows they caught.
Only this year did researchers collect enough data to be confident that kokanee were recovering and the pressure on rainbows could gradually be eased.
The reaction from anglers is generally positive, but Ross Milliken, president of the Lake Pend Oreille Idaho Club, knows fishermen are a difficult crowd to please.
“Ask 10 guys how the fishery is being managed and you’ll get 10 different answers,” he said.
The club has been a booster for the lake’s fisheries since the 1940s. In the 1990s, members pursued court action trying to force the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to avoid winter drawdowns that dewatered shoreline kokanee spawning sites.
That issue still hasn’t been resolved.
“We’re turning the corner,” Milliken said. “The club is glad to see some of the programs are working, although there are still challenges.
“With the kokanee season reopening, one of our major concerns is law enforcement. We don’t want to lose the ground we’ve fought for in restoring that fishery to some greedy people who won’t be satisfied with a six-fish limit. We need a cop on the lake.”
Milliken keeps records for the club’s year-round fishing contests, a sobering task for a man who knows the numbers from the lake’s heydays in the ’40s to the early ’70s.
Trophy anglers used to be delighted with a 300-rod-hour average for catching a trout larger than 15 pounds. “Now the average is in the thousands of rod hours because the big fish are mostly gone,” he said. “Our records only show one fish above 25 pounds since 2006 (in club-sponsored contests) and that’s a shame when compared to the lake’s history.”
Fish biologists say bringing back the kokanee forage base already is showing increased rainbow growth rates. Biologists want to go back to more restrictive rainbow catch rules gradually to promote trophy trout without tipping the predator balance against kokanee.
Many anglers have suggested that IFG return to the old practice of stocking some Gerrard rainbows to maintain genetics for the trophy-strain fish.
Fredericks said researchers are looking into the possibility that Gerrard genetics have been diluted by comparing Idaho and British Columbia stocks in the laboratory.
In the 1980s, IFG was annually stocking 10,000-50,000 Gerrard rainbows from Kootenay Lake stock into Lake Pend Oreille, Fredericks said. The last plant was in 1992.
“We’re certainly not opposed to stocking pure fish if we can get them,” Fredericks said, noting that he’s contacted British Columbia fisheries staff about the possibility of getting eggs this spring. “We know that strain of rainbows can grow very fast when conditions are right. The world-record 37-pounder caught in 1947 was only 6 years old.
“But we need to get a good sense of what we can expect in terms of benefits, since there are costs involved. How many? For how many years? Do we mark them?
“We want to do it thoughtfully and in a manner where we can evaluate whether it’s making fishing better.”
Just beefing up the prey base of kokanee might do the job, he said.
“The main point right now is that lake trout suppression efforts that began in 2006 are paying off, he said.
Only a scientist could appreciate all the numbers the research has provided over the years, but Dux points to the bottom line.
“Kokanee spawner numbers have increased since the population nearly collapsed around 2007,” he said. “But the more encouraging news and the driving force behind reopening the fishery is that we are seeing very strong year classes of younger kokanee. These younger fish will make up the fishery in 2013 and beyond.”