Even though ice still lingers in a few sloughs, Pend Oreille River northern pike are feeling the heat.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Kalispell Tribe announced their plan in December to drastically reduce the number of non-native pike from the Newport area downstream 55 miles to Box Canyon Dam.
The plan has been launched.
Starting last week, gillnets are being soaked to snag pike primarily in the southern half of Box Canyon Reservoir from Newport to Riverbend.
Observing the placement of the sets is instructive for anglers. Biologists anchored the nets where years of research have indicated the biggest concentration of pike should be this time of year.
The hot spot is in the sloughs from Dalkena downstream to Riverbend.
I should say, the hot spot WILL BE in that area. Quickly rising cold water has not provided great fishing conditions this week, even for the gillnetters.
“We’re fishing 16 nets a day,” said Jason Connor, tribal fisheries biologist and project leader.
“So far we’re averaging only about 10 fish per net, but we expect that to pick up. The water was fairly low with ice in the sloughs when we started and then the water came up about 3 feet in the last week.”
Once ice-off is complete, the sloughs will start warming and luring the pike into temperatures that will get them thinking about the spawn.
Based on population estimates from previous studies, the state and tribe plan to use nets and anglers to reduce the number of pike by a whopping 87 percent this season.
Fish managers have traced the movement of northern pike into the Pend Oreille River for more than a decade from the Flathead and lower Clark Fork rivers in Montana, where they were stocked illegally.
Washington officials say they have to take a stand against the spread of pike to help prevent them from moving through the Pend Oreille system to the Columbia, where they could have serious impact on recovering salmon and steelhead fisheries.
Even though fish managers are encouraging anglers to help the effort by catching and keeping more pike, the sportfishing catch through April is likely to be only about 300 pike, Connor said.
“The weather doesn’t cooperate this time of year and only the diehard pike anglers will be out there,” he said.
But the fish mangers plan to be out there, too, with the goal of caching about 5,700 pike by the end of April.
“Once we hit that target, we’ll stop netting and conduct spring pike index survey,” Connor said.
That means they’ll put out the nets again, but in a random fashion rather than targeting areas where pike concentrate.
The index survey estimates the total pike population as well as the age and size range.
Researchers say they’ll have reached the 87 percent reduction target if they catch fewer than two pike per net in the index survey.
“When we achieve that goal, we’ll be done netting for the year,” Connor said. “If we don’t meet our target abundance in the spring survey, we’ll continue netting through the month of June.
“We don’t think it’s feasible to eradicate pike from the river. The 87 percent reduction – that’s basically the population level we’re comfortable with.”
Anglers who wait until the nicer weather of May and June will find fewer pike in the river, but they’ll still be there, he said.
“People probably won’t be having the 40-fish days we’ve heard about in the past,” Connor said, “but they’ll still be able to catch pike.”
Pike are starting to move out of the cold river swollen with runoff and into the warmer water of the sloughs.
“Most of the fish will move into the weedy shallows until the reservoir level peaks in June,” Connor said. “Then the levels drop fairly quickly toward base flows in August and September.
“As the water drops, the pike will move out to the mouths of the sloughs and the main channel of the river where they’ll remain much more dispersed than they are in spring.”
Pike movements are affected by the rate of spring runoff.
In 2010, when the cold, dry spring left the reservoir level relatively low, researchers caught nearly as many pike in the main river channel as they did in the sloughs.
“The river nets and the nets in the sloughs both averaged about 12 fish per net,” Connor said.
In 2011 – a flood year that kept the reservoir level high longer than normal – the pike were much more concentrated back into the shallow sloughs.
“That spring we averaged seven fish per net in the river and 19 fish per net in the sloughs,” he said.
This spring is shaping up more like 2011. The river has been coming up fast. The water released from Albeni Falls Dam increased 20,000 cfs just in the last week.
“There’s still a relatively high snowpack in the Clark Fork and Flathead basins,” Connor said. “And the snow’s still falling up high.”
So the nets will be targeting the sloughs, and anglers shouldn’t be shy about joining the cause.
State fisheries officials are encouraging anglers to get out and participate in the harvest of the pike, which are delicious once you learn the art of cutting the Y bone out of a fillet.
There’s no limit to the fun, as the state Fish and Wildlife Commission recently demoted pike from gamefish status. And the two-pole endorsement has been extended to Box Canyon Dam.
The Kalispell Tribe is organizing several pike derbies on the river this summer in June, July and August.
Fish managers are trying to transform their sense of urgency into something positive for the Pend Oreille Valley.
Last spring, Canadian anglers reported catching pike in the Columbia River near its confluence with the Pend Oreille, just north of the border between Washington and British Columbia.
This year, guides I contacted at the Castlegar Fly Shop already have reported catching a half dozen northern pike, some ripening with eggs.
That’s why Washington fisheries officials are wasting no more time.
And that’s why Inland Northwest anglers who’d like to feel the savage smack of a pike taking their lure had better stop procrastinating on a northern trip in their backyard.
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