The hammer is about to come down on northern pike that have invaded the Pend Oreille River.
Non-native pike will never be eradicated from the river’s Box Canyon Reservoir, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife officials say. But plans are being unveiled to dramatically reduce their numbers.
Agency officials say they will work with the Kalispel Tribe to control pike and minimize conflicts with efforts to restore native cutthroats and bull trout in the Pend Oreille River and tributaries.
John Whalen, WDFW regional fisheries manager, said the state also is concerned that pike will continue to increase numbers in Box Canyon, encouraging more pike to head downstream where they could impact Columbia River salmon and steelhead.
After several studies on the fishery dating back to 2004, it’s time to take decisive action, he said.
The state is encouraging anglers to catch and kill more pike this year and will be promoting pike-fishing tournaments, Whalen said.
Gillnets have been deployed the past two years to study the pike population.
This year, gillnets also will be deployed in March or April specifically to remove pike, he said. The netting could continue five or six weeks, depending on catch rates, he said.
Research shows the pike numbers have exploded to at least 11,000 in Box Canyon Reservoir in recent years.
“We’re looking at reducing the populations by a target of 87 percent to get it down to a workable population similar to what it was in 2004,” he said.
“We’re not trying to eliminate the pike, just control them.”
The Fish and Wildlife Commission clarified the state’s view of pike as an undesirable species in Washington by voting Saturday to declassify northern pike as a gamefish.
“But there’s no change in the regulations,” Whalen said. “There continues to be no bag limits or season on pike, and pike anglers still need a fishing license.”
The commission also added the Pend Oreille River to the list of waters open to an angler fishing with two rods at a time as long as a special “two-pole endorsement” is purchased in addition to a fishing license.
The agency has scheduled public meetings this week to explain results of last year’s Pend Oreille River fishery surveys and public comment gathered on the three-prong approach to controlling the pike.
Fishery surveys conducted by the Kalispel Tribe and Eastern Washington University have shown a rapid increase in northern pike in Box Canyon Reservoir, Whalen said.
The surveys also show a dramatic decline in mountain whitefish, native minnows, largemouth bass, yellow perch and other fish species that inhabit the 55-mile reservoir.
“Non-native northern pike are high-impact predators,” Whalen said, noting the agency’s concern for native trout and other species.
“The current pike population is not sustainable. It’s also inconsistent with our conservation objectives, both within the reservoir as well as downstream and in adjacent waters.”
Surveys the past two years indicate the pike already are peaking in terms of big fish and trending toward a large population of smaller pike.
Some anglers argue the state would be wiser to manage pike as a trophy species in ways that reduce pike numbers while maintaining a fishery that’s been luring notable numbers of anglers to Pend Oreille County.
Melodie Dowdy of YJ Guide Service cites studies suggesting that slot limits that encourage anglers to kill midsize fish and release the largest fish could offer a compromise that would be agreeable to pike anglers while managing the pike population.
“Studies conducted in similar bodies of water show that the big fish help control the small fish, since pike will eat their own kind,” she said.
Jason Connor, the Kootenai Tribe’s fisheries project manager who’s becoming a national authority on pike, said the first step must be reducing the density of pike. Fewer pike would allow a greater number of pike to reach the 18- to 30-pound trophy range, he said.
The state recognizes the economic activity the pike fishery has generated in Pend Oreille County, Whalen said. “We’re not trying to snuff that. We’re trying to encourage pike fishing, but on a lower density of fish. On the other hand there’s a lot of money involved in restoring native species,” he said.
“We’re looking at a long-term approach to controlling pike.”
State fish managers say they stock tiger muskies – a sterile cross between northern pike and muskellunge – to help fill a desire for trophy fishing while controlling overpopulated forage fish in at least seven Washington lakes.
Dowdy says the emphasis on controlling pike rather than managing them will ruin the fishing and the economic benefits of a pike fishery.
“If pike are managed, they’re not going to go downstream and harm the salmon,” she said. “They’ll stay in Box Canyon Reservoir, where they’ve found excellent habitat.”
Marc Divens, the Fish and Wildlife Department researcher keying on Pend Oreille River pike, said fish managers are reviewing applicable research across the continent and looking at all possible angles for managing pike.
But the bottom line, he said, is that Washington has officially declared it isn’t welcoming a non-native fish that poses a major threat to native species ranging from trout to salmon in the Columbia River system.