Despite the contentious start, a new Coeur d’Alene Tribe research program that’s paying a bounty on northern pike could be a boon to fishing in Lake Coeur d’Alene.
Fishermen already have proven they can have their non-native pike and eat them, too.
Now researchers are merely looking into whether it’s also possible to maintain the native cutthroat trout fishery.
The three-year study opened to public involvement on Oct. 1 after the tribe surprised everyone – including Idaho Fish and Game officials – by announcing a $5 reward for each northern pike caught in a targeted area.
The reward period runs through May 31, with bonuses of $50-$500 for turning in pike researchers have captured, tagged and released at the south end of the lake. Anglers need a tribal fishing license in order to participate.
Pike-fishing enthusiasts felt blind-sided by the bounty and criticized the tribe for using $12,000 in rewards to lure fishermen into suppressing the pike population.
“Anglers had the same lack of information we had for understanding the study,” said Andy Dux, Idaho Fish and Game’s regional fisheries manager. “That was avoidable if the tribe had met with us first. The department and the tribe share jurisdiction on the lake.”
State biologists had no involvement in designing the study, Dux said.
“This has the potential to collapse an economic and recreational benefit to our local economies,” said Brock Morrow of the North Idaho Pike Association. “We’re especially upset because we’ve worked with Fish and Game as well as the tribe, and we thought we had communication.”
The tribe told Dux that internal lack of communication was the cause for leaving Idaho Fish and Game and the public out of the loop.
So that’s all water under the bridge.
Upon getting a chance to examine the research goals, Dux said useful management information should come from the study.
“Only the first 1,000 fish are eligible for the reward,” he said. “It is unlikely that there will be a noticeable effect on the lake-wide pike population.”
Angling accounts for 30 to 40 percent of the pike that die in the lake each year, he said, noting there’s no bag limit. Even though just 34 percent of the lake’s pike survive each year, they’re still considered overpopulated in some areas.
Meanwhile, anglers have turned in more than 50 pike at the Heyburn State Park check since Oct. 1 and researchers will be processing fish and scanning for tags on Fridays through May.
“We hope the number of pike turned in will increase,” said Angelo Vitale, the tribe’s fisheries research director. “The reward program is timed for the period when the interaction between pike and cutthroat at the south end of the lake is most likely.”
The marked pike – the ones that pay anglers bigger cash rewards – will help document seasonal movements of pike as well as their diet across the study area, Vitale said.
Previous research already has provided insight on the impact of pike that were illegally introduced into the Coeur d’Alene system several decades ago:
– A study that ended in 2013 pegged the pike population in Benewah Lake (the very south end of Lake Coeur d’Alene) at about 1,800 fish.
– Only about 2 percent of the cutthroat trout survive after coming out of Benewah Creek to overwinter in the lake environment.
Idaho Fish and Game is collaborating with the tribe in a three-year study to address pike predation on cutthroats coming out of Lake Creek into Windy Bay. During seven weeks in March and April, 311 pike were captured in nets and 234 of those fish were relocated to Cougar Bay, Dux said.
“Early results indicate that a high percentage of the fish estimated to be using Windy Bay were captured during the effort.” he said.
“We’ve had several reports from anglers who have caught tagged pike on the north end of the lake that were moved from Windy Bay.”
The study, which will continue next spring, is looking into whether pike can be removed from where they’re hammering cutthroats out of Lake Creek and relocated to the north end of the lake where they’re still available for anglers with less impact on native fish, Dux said.
“We’ll also be monitoring to see if tagged fish stay on the north end of the lake or if they return to Windy Bay.”
Organized pike anglers say they support the research.
“Nobody in our club is against restoring the cutthroat fishery,” said Morrow. “We say that as fishermen and as Idahoans in general.
“But pike are here, weaved into the fabric of the area. There’s no way to get rid of them. It would be nice to work together on this.”
Tribal researchers say that cutthroat fisheries are near a critical juncture. The number of fish impacted as they come out of the St. Joe River to winter hasn’t been calculated, but they know the population in Benewah Creek is in jeopardy.
“We’re looking for a targeted strategy for recovery,” Vitale said.
“None of us thinks the new study will hurt the pike population,” Morrow said. “If anything, we may get some bigger fish out of it.
“The South end has high numbers of pike. As the population exploded in the past four years, we’ve seen the average size of fish in our tournaments at the south end of the lake go from about 7 pounds to 4 pounds.
“Taking out smaller fish would increase the size of the trophy fish.”
But the pike anglers don’t like the idea of a bounty on their favorite fish. “We won’t participate in that,” he said.
If a targeted method can be found to curb pike that are impacting cutthroats in the key areas where they overwinter in the lake, it’s possible that trophy pike anglers would benefit.
It’s also possible that fly fishers one day might regain the cutthroat fishery they traditionally enjoyed in the lake during the spring mayfly hatch.
Everybody could benefit.
Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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