Coeur d’Alene Lake managers will aggressively target northern pike in the southern end of Lake Coeur d’Alene starting this month.
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe will deploy gillnets in Benewah, Chatcolet, Round and Hidden lakes. The suppression effort hopes to aid the recovery of native cutthroat trout that spawn in Benewah Creek.
“The spawning run in Benewah Creek has just plummeted over recent years,” said Angelo Vitale, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s fisheries program manager. “We’re really at a tipping point for recovering that population. So there is some urgency in terms of the timing.”
No more than 25 adult cutthroat have returned to Benewah Creek watershed in the past six years, Vitale said.
Meanwhile, it’s estimated there are a minimum of 2,500 northern pike in the shallow waters of southern Coeur d’Alene. The tribe hopes to reduce the population by up 80 percent. Pike have razor-sharp teeth and ambush their prey.
The goal is not to make the southern end of the lake trout habitat, Vitale said.
“This shallow weedy habitat in the south end of the lake is really just a migratory route that cutthroat trout have to pass through,” he said. “The intent is just to make that migration a safe one.”
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe is paying for the suppression work and has received funding from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bonneville Power Administration. How much the effort will cost isn’t known, although Vitale guesses it will be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
This year, the tribe spent $140,000 to buy a new boat that will be used to net the pike.
Gillnetting could start as early as Monday, depending on the ice, and will go until May 24. Netting won’t occur between Memorial Day and Oct. 1, so as not to conflict with recreational users.
Idaho Fish and Game supports the effort, said Andy Dux, Idaho Fish and Game’s regional fisheries manager.
“This is certainly not an incremental step toward trying to take on lake wide pike suppression,” Dux said. “We (do not) anticipate trying to suppress pike on a lakewide basis.”
The Coeur d’Alene Tribe manages the southern third of the lake, while Idaho Fish and Game manages the northern two-thirds. This spring, IDFG will conduct a bass survey to “make sure there aren’t going to be any negative impacts on the bass population,” Dux said.
IDFG and the tribe presented the plans at a public meeting in Plummer, Idaho, on March 26.
“We’re against them gillnetting for anything or anywhere in the lake,” said Brock Morrow, the chairman of the North Idaho Pike Association. “Gillnets are not species-specific. Anything that gets in the way gets trapped.”
Since 2015, the tribe and IDFG have used gillnets in Windy Bay. They reduced the pike population in the bay by 80 percent during that time. Meanwhile, the survival rate for juvenile trout increased from an average of 1 percent to 4.5 percent, Vitale said.
“It’s still lower than we hope to see it. But it’s pretty steep increase,” Vitale said. “We’d be pleased to see 10 percent return. We think that would be a good target.”
Adult survival went from an average of 30 percent to nearly 60 percent, he said. The tribe removed 674 pike from Windy Bay between 2015 and 2018.
As for accidentally killing other fish, Vitale said that rarely happened although exact numbers were not immediately availble.
“The mesh size is designed specifically to capture larger fish,” Vitale said.
It was a similar story for bass. Those caught in the nets mostly survived, Dux said.
“They’re a pretty hardy fish and bass just don’t fit into a gillnet,” he said. “Their gills don’t get impinged the same way.”
The decision to expand gillnetting comes on the heels of a 2017 survey of anglers finding general support for suppression of pike on the lake.
According to the survey, one-third of the 404 anglers surveyed called northern pike an “undesirable” species. Of those who consider northern pike to be undesirable, 74 percent believe so because the pike “eat other fish,” while 13 percent of all those surveyed said pikeminnows were undesirable in the lake.
Of those surveyed, 50 percent said they placed “high value” on recovering the cutthroat trout population.
In the same survey, 68 percent of anglers said they supported the 2015 gillnetting program, if it proved effective.
The random survey of fishing license holders was commissioned by the tribe and Idaho Fish and Game and was conducted by Robinson Research.
During the height of the Windy Bay suppression, live pike caught in Windy Bay were taken north to Cougar Bay, where pike are less likely to prey on native cutthroats.
The translocation appeased many anglers, who love the fish for the thrill of the fight and the tasty meat.
The fish may also be donated to the St. Maries food bank or other local organizations.
“We’re looking whether we can make fish available to human consumption,” Vitale said. “We anticipate a lot of fish.”
The North Idaho Pike Association wants the pike to be relocated, Morrow said.
“Our stance is we disagree with it and we wish they would consider relocation when the nets have large numbers of fish,” he said.
Dux said IDFG and the tribe will see if translocation is possible in the future.
Despite disagreeing with the decision, Morrow said he and the North Idaho Pike Association understand the reasoning. Throughout the process, IDFG and the tribe communicated well with anglers, he said.
Not all anglers took such an even tack.
“I make a living helping people find and catch fish,” said Rich Lindsey, a fishing guide on Priest Lake and Lake Pend Oreille. “I don’t make a living if I kill those same fish off. I am very protective of our resources. I am outraged that gillnets are in our waters.”
Lindsey worries that reduced northern pike fishing on Lake Coeur d’Alene will send anglers north overcrowding Priest Lake and Lake Pend Oreille.
Northern pike originated from illegal introductions in Montana. The pike found their way down the Flathead River and into the Clark Fork. By the early 2000s, they were in the Box Canyon Reservoir reach of the Pend Oreille River.
In the 1970s, the fish were found in Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Upper Spokane River. By 2004, they’d made their way into the Pend Oreille River.
In 2018, Spokane Tribe of Indians fish biologists caught a 45-inch-long, 27.5-pound northern pike in the Spokane arm of Lake Roosevelt . At the same time, the Colville Tribe caught a pike 10 miles from Grand Coulee Dam. The 2017 survey made the expanded gillnetting decision easier to make, Dux and Vitale said.
“I think it certainly made us more comfortable supporting what the tribe wants to do with this program,” Dux said. “Because we knew the majority of Coeur d’Alene Lake anglers were supportive of this.”
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