Sport fishermen who base out of Hope, Idaho, during summer have made it their job to purge mackinaw from Lake Pend Oreille.
Since 2006, the Idaho Fish and Game Department has been paying anglers $15 for the head of any lake trout they catch out of the lake to reduce predation on the struggling kokanee population.
The financial incentive has transformed mackinaw into a cash crop for the mix of working stiffs and retirees who park their campers at Jeb & Margaret’s Trailer Haven.
“During summer we have a friendly daily competition to see who can catch the most lake trout,” said Pete Comstock, 58, of Moscow. “I’m not the best angler there, but I catch more fish than some of them because I fish longer. That’s what I go there to do.”
He’s had some 30-fish days, which figures to about $450 for the effort. “It pays for the gas,” he said.
Comstock is a 12-month-a-year angler who didn’t need a profit motive to go fishing. He focuses on the Hanford Reach in the fall, Snake River steelhead in winter, then spring chinook. He was a Lake Pend Oreille regular for 30 summers, long before there was a bounty on predator fish.
Bull trout were his first attraction, until 1996 when it became illegal to harvest the lake’s big, bruiser natives.
He re-rigged mostly for kokanee until that fishery was shut down in 2000.
By then, anglers were discovering the lake trout that had found ideal conditions – feeding on introduced mysis shrimp as juveniles and then on kokanee as adults – to grow into trophy proportions.
“It didn’t take long to figure out how to catch them,” he said.
In 2003, he began fishing for Ron Sharp of Oakesdale, one of nine anglers permitted for the first rod-reel commercial season on Lake Pend Oreille since commercial kokanee fisheries were closed in the 1960s. at the end of the ’60s.
“When we first started fishing for lake trout, we would consistently catch 15-22 pounders, which were perfect for commercial smoking,” Comstock said. “But the purpose of the program was to crack down on big lake trout, and it was effective, especially when they opened it to the commercial netting (in 2006).”
IFG contracted Wisconsin- based Hickey Brothers Fishery to target lake trout with gillnets. “They learned a lot of the areas from us,” Comstock said. Once the netters dialed into the mackinaw hot spots, their harvest soared to more than 17,000 a year in 2009 and 2010.
“For all years combined, the cost of removing lake trout by netting is about $47 per fish compared with $23 per fish by angling,” said Andy Dux, IFG’s lead research biologist. But he said both methods are important to controlling lake trout, at least for the time being.
Anglers get paid only for fish they catch while netting involves operational costs that occur whether they catch fish or not, he said. “As the population declines, cost per fish from netting will increase,” he said.
“Eventually, we’ll start to reduce netting effort, but we aren’t quite to that stage,” he added, noting that for the first time in four years, anglers caught more mackinaw than the netters this year – 7,101 to 6,279.
Netting is more efficient at targeting lake trout juveniles and catching lake trout in spawning areas while angling is a cost-effective way to fill in the gaps, he said.
The profitable supply of big mackinaw Sharp needed for the smoked fish business faded away as the anglers and the netting operation became more efficient. So did Sharp’s company, Oakey Smokes.
But Comstock and the trailer park crew have continued fishing.
“Vertical jigging was the best method for the big lake trout, but now that we’re going mostly after the smaller fish, trolling is the most productive,” he said.
Focusing on hot spots from Hope to the Green Monarchs, his summer tactics include trolling the bottom with various spoons, and plugs or sometimes with flies and hoochies behind dodgers.
“Once I find the depth they’re at, I find areas where I can consistently contour at that depth. We share the 2- to 5-pound fish, some go to the food bank and I smoke any of the 8- to 10-pounders I catch,” he said.
Even with 30 years of experience, Comstock’s fishing success can range from a couple of fish a day to having to quit because he’s filled both of his coolers.
“There’s still plenty of opportunity out there,” he said, noting his summer totals of lake trout have been bringing in $5,000-$6,000 a year at $15 a head. “That money pretty much stays in the lake’s local economy to pay for trailer space, moorage, food, gas and supplies.
“You could say lake trout fishing became something like a second job,” said Comstock, who retired five years ago. “In January I get a Form 1099 so I can pay taxes on the reward money.
“But my accountant pointed out that qualifies me to play by the IRS rules. I can write off my fishing expenses. I call that a win-win.”