Anglers attached to fishing Priest Lake tend to fall into two camps that are being asked to make a decision.
One group favors a return to the good old days of fishing for abundant kokanee and cutthroat trout.
The other group generally prefers the current abundance of delicious shrimp-fed mackinaw averaging 15-25 inches long, and maybe a shot at catching a trophy mack.
After years of research and discussion, Idaho Fish and Game Department fish managers are asking anglers to guide them on a management direction that will make a majority of anglers happy.
“It gets controversial as hell, but there’s a lot of ways to look at it,” said Delbert Jepson, who’s fished North Idaho lakes for 54 years.
Jepson is among a dozen diverse members of the Priest Lake Fishery Advisory Committee, which has been hashing over the fisheries research since 2013 in order to come up with three alternatives for future management.
Most anglers fishing Priest Lake are after mackinaw, also known as lake trout, because that’s currently the most abundant fishery. But Jepson and other anglers recall the heydays of kokanee fishing and the flocks of anglers bent on catching them.
The successful revival of the collapsed kokanee fishery in Lake Pend Oreille helped sway Jepson’s opinion on the course that should be taken at Priest Lake.
“I might have had different thoughts if I hadn’t seen first hand what they did in Pend Oreille,” he said. “It’s kind of unbelievable what they did there in 10 years – now I think they can do it in Priest Lake, too.”
But the Pend Oreille recipe for reviving kokanee numbers at Priest would require gillnetting and long-term suppression of mackinaw, a fish that pleases many anglers.
“The lake trout fishery in Priest Lake doesn’t take one single red penny to maintain,” said Rich Lindsey, who’s been guiding anglers primarily for mackinaw since 1986. “The best thing they could do for this fishery is pack their bags and leave it alone.”
Lindsey also is on the advisory committee and has listened to the same reports on studies and surveys, but he longs for the days of a trophy mackinaw fishery that attracted clients looking for the lunker of their dreams.
“They set the daily limit at six lake trout with no size restrictions,” he said. “I’d like to see them go back to a limit of two or three with a slot limit to protect the trophy fish.”
Lindsey said his job is becoming increasingly difficult. “I wouldn’t be busy if we didn’t catch a lot of big fish, but it’s not easy.”
Jepson said reviving kokanee is the only hope for anglers who would like to see more trophy lake trout in Priest Lake.
“We need a food base in there to grow bigger lake trout,” he said. “The way it is, mackinaw don’t have the food base to grow beyond a certain size. I would like to see suppression of lake trout to get the kokanee numbers back up.”
Priest Lake’s main native fisheries were westslope cutthroats, bull trout and mountain whitefish before lake trout were introduced in 1925 and kokanee – landlocked sockeye salmon – were successfully introduced with releases in 1942, 1943 and 1944.
Kokanee boomed and attracted throngs of anglers while also providing an abundant food source that spawned trophy fisheries of bull trout and mackinaw.
That fragile balance of predators and prey fish lasted into the 1970s. Priest Lake produced Idaho’s state record 57.5-pound lake trout in 1971, but that fish essentially marked the end of an era. The fishery anglers had come to expect was falling apart.
Mysis shrimp, a small freshwater shrimp, were introduced into Priest Lake in the late-1960s as sportsmen and fisheries biologists sought to beef up trophy fisheries on the model of what proved to be short-lived bonanza in Canadian waters.
“These shrimp provided an improved food source for juvenile lake trout and their population grew rapidly,” said Andy Dux, IFG’s regional fisheries manager in Coeur d’Alene. “More lake trout led to increased predation and the eventual collapse of kokanee numbers in the 1970s.”
Kokanee have shown signs in some years that they can come back, but they’ve never recovered.
The fishery soon shifted from a diverse yield and trophy fishery to one dominated by lake trout, which have averaged out to smaller sizes. Lake trout feed and prosper on mysis shrimp for their first five years, but after that they need more forage fish to continue growing.
The average lake trout currently is roughly 15 to 25 inches, and it generally takes 10-20 years for them to reach those sizes, IFG research shows.
The smaller lake trout remain abundant and provide anglers with high catch rates, according to Fish and Game biologists, but Lindsey says increasingly sophisticated anglers are thinning them out.
“In the last 10 years I’ve seen a huge change,” the fishing guide said. “Fish and Game has had nets in the lake and there’s a recent explosion in the number of anglers jigging and drop-shoting on what used to be large schools of juvenile fish. There used to be clouds of lake trout on the bottom. Now we’re looking for single fish.”
While the fisheries can be manipulated to some degree, the mysis shrimp introduction is irreversible, fisheries managers say.
In the 1990s, IFG zeroed in on the smaller Upper Priest Lake to make a stand for native fisheries. The upper lake is linked to Priest Lake by the 3-mile-long Thorofare. An annual netting program started in 1997 to remove lake trout from the upper lake to improve survival rates of westslope cutthroats and bull trout.
The success of bringing back the kokanee fishery in Lake Pend Oreille prompted many anglers to ask the state if the kokanee fishery in Priest Lake also could be revived, Dux said.
“Lake Pend Oreille is a case study that provides us with the confidence we can bring back a fishery like what Priest Lake previously supported,” Dux said.
Surveys in 2012 found the public divided on whether to stay with the existing lake-trout dominated fishery or whether to suppress lake trout and evolve to a fishery emphasizing kokanee, cutthroat and bull trout, he said.
Instead of making management changes, IFG formed the Priest Lake Fishery Advisory Committee in 2013. The group of locals met regularly with IFG biologists and helped develop three management alternatives that are being presented at public meetings for broader public input:
1. Maintaining existing management, which favors lake trout in the main lake.
2. Enhancing kokanee, westslope cutthroat trout and bull trout, which requires managing against lake trout in the main lake.
3. Striking a balance that allows all species to be present at fishable levels, which is considered the most challenging course of action.
While the third alternative seem like the best compromise, it’s also the least predictable, IFG biologists say. It’s difficult to know how much of a reduction in the lake trout population would be needed to produce a corresponding gain in kokanee, or how long it would last, Dux said.
“We don’t have a great track record of being able to manage for a balance between predator and prey in these big lakes systems, particularly without the level of resources we had available on Lake Pend Oreille,” Dux said, noting that the option could be expensive.
However, if there’s an overwhelming desire for that option, biologists would do their best to make it happen, he said.
“Stakeholders expressed strong support for conserving native species in Upper Priest Lake, so each of the management alternatives includes continued lake trout suppression in the upper lake,” Dux said.
Other strategies have failed in the past for improving the fishery in the main lake.
Millions of hatchery- raised kokanee fry and hundreds of thousands of juvenile cutthroat were stocked by IFG crews to no avail.
“You have too many lake trout mouths to feed, and the kokanee disappear as soon as you put them in,” Dux said.
Lindsey points out that predatory smallmouth bass have infiltrated the Priest Lake system, adding even more mouths to feed and another factor to fish management.
“I recommend that we leave the self-sustaining fishery as it is and revisit the situation in 10 years,” he said.
Another advisory committee member, Steve Booth, who was raised near Priest River and has lived at Priest Lake since 1974, said he favors Alternative 2, focusing on restoring kokanee and cutthroat fisheries.
“I’m not prejudiced against lake trout, but I think they compete with the native bull trout and they’re overpowering the kokanee and cutthroat,” he said.
“Kokanee are a non-native species, too, but they don’t impact the other fisheries. We’ll always have lake trout, but controlling them seems to be the be course.
“The fisheries people have done a good job of presenting what they know from research over the five years I’ve been on the committee.
“Regardless of where people stand on the future of the (Priest Lake) fishery, I recommend that they go to one of the upcoming meetings. They’ll learn something.”
Idaho Fish and Game Department writer Roger Phillips contributed to this story.
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