The great kokanee comeback

Glory days of popular fish might be near again

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COEUR d'ALENE - Pete Thompson remembers when kokanee were so abundant in Lake Pend Oreille, when they fed in the evening, it looked like the water's surface was boiling.

"Lake Pend Oreille was one of the best fisheries in the world, with huge numbers of kokanee," said Thompson, who has lived in Sandpoint since 1960. "People came from all over the world to fish here."

But it has been decades since kokanee swam so rampantly, decimated by predator fish since then.

In fact, it has been around 10 years since anglers could take one home from the lake, although that may be changing in the future, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game said.

Fishermen could even start pulling kokanee from the lake again in two or three years.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed," said Chip Corsi, IDFG regional supervisor. "If we maintain the survival rates that we have, it's looking up."

The rebirth is attributed to the success of the netting operations and the bounties paid to fishermen that suppress predator populations, as well as good lake level management.

Implemented four years ago and primarily funded by Avista and Bonneville Power, the spring and fall expeditions have thinned lake trout populations dramatically, allowing kokanee to flourish - again.

The best mark of success is the rise in kokanee survival from 1- and 2-year-old fish populations. Those younger fish had a 10 percent survival rate in 2007. In 2009, Corsi said, it jumped to 69 percent.

Last year, the 1-year-old age class was still pretty weak, so getting high survival is particularly important, said Jim Fredericks, IDFG regional fishery manager.

And Fish and Game is keeping a close eye on how those younger fish do.

If they survive a couple more years, they'll be able to spawn, Fredericks said.

"This will be a very big year for the fish," Fredericks said. "If they make it, then the population by-and-large should be stable."

It won't be the 1 million or so annual harvest that the lake used to offer, but it could be a roughly 200,000 harvest, which could boost the $17 million sport fishing brings to the area each year.

"I think it would be very, very popular," Tina Padgitt of Black Sheep Sporting Goods in Coeur d'Alene said of fishing in large numbers for kokanee on Lake Pend Oreille.

The rise in kokanee could be thanks to netting and angler incentive practices.

"We are essentially crushing the adult lake trout population," Corsi said of the non-native fish known to be feasting on kokanee.

This spring IDFG pulled out more than 10,000 juvenile lake trout through netting. The 2009 kokanee population was near 80,000 for the first time since 2006. During that rise, lake trout spawning population has declined by more than 70 percent.

Since 2006, more than 99,000 lake trout have been removed from Pend Oreille. About half of those were taken by anglers, but the net catch has been taking the biggest portion in the past year.

As part of its licensing agreement with the Cabinet Gorge Dam, Avista and BPA will pay around $700,000 this year between the netting and bounty programs.

The Avista agreement is 10 years into the 45-year accord and netting and monitoring will likely continue for that time, the IDFG said.

Not on the IDFG radar for either method is walleye fish - at least not yet, the department said.

"We're concerned about walleye," Corsi said, adding that they netted 42 walleyes last year, and a couple dozen in 2010, but the fish is far down on the predator list.

Recently, a commercial fishing contractor retained by Fish and Game has been setting up a gill net overnight at the mouth of the Pack River to gain some insight on the influence of walleye in Pend Oreille.

"They're more of a peripheral issue for right now," Corsi said. "We'll just have to see how it plays out."

Of particular concern to the department is the potential impact walleye could have on rainbow and cutthroat trout, in addition to endangered bull trout emerging from the Pack and Clark Fork rivers. Walleye are piscivorous, which means they like to eat other fish.

But Thompson, an Idaho Fish and Game commissioner from 1972 -1983, said the department should lay off collecting walleye.

They're non threatening to kokanee populations, he said, hanging out in the shallower waters while kokanee swim in deeper parts of the lake. The two species co-exist in plenty of other waters, he added, and walleye make great fishing, a pleasure since the kokanee catch is off limits now.

"I love fishing for them," he said of walleyes. "They're pretty challenging fish to catch, but they're the best eating fish you'll ever catch."

More on the radar for IDFG is how the 1-year-old kokanee class does this year.

That population could be the key to whether Lake Pend Oreille has another kokanee harvest in the future.

"We're very, very encouraged," Fredericks said.

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