Hayden kokanee fishing, a pleasant surprise

In The Field

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There has been quite a buzz in the area lately about some great kokanee fishing on Hayden Lake.

Anglers have reported consistently catching kokanee this spring ranging from 14-16 inches, a meaty size for eating ... not to mention large enough to be a thrill to catch. Anglers have been asking why the Hayden kokanee fishery has become so good of late.

The Idaho Department of Fish and Game stocked 100,000 kokanee fry into Hayden Lake for the first time in 2011. The intent? To enhance fishing opportunity at the 4,500-acre lake just north of Coeur d'Alene. So far, the results have been outstanding.

Although those planted fish are only 2 years old, their growth has been very impressive. The growth has resulted in those frequent reports of kokanee up to 16 inches (and still growing) this spring.

IDFG stocked another 100,000 in 2012, and a few of the 1-year-old kokanee are showing up at 9-11 inches, so anglers can expect those to be providing the fishery next spring and summer.

The purpose of the stocking was simply to make fishing better on Hayden Lake. And has it ever! Everywhere I go anglers are talking with great excitement about the Hayden kokanee!

Hayden Lake has supported a very popular fishery for many years. According to IDFG Fisheries Manager Jim Fredericks, "The majority of the angling effort has shifted from open water trolling to shoreline oriented bass, northern pike and crappie fishing over the past 20 years." Fredericks attributes that change to an inconsistent trout fishery over the past 20 years.

"We haven't given up on trout and we're making some progress on refining our trout stocking program to improve the fishery," Fredericks said. "But even with improvements, there was no question that the open-water troll fishery on Hayden Lake left a lot to be desired."

Enter Hayden Lake kokanee. Fredericks said the kokanee were planted with the expectation that they would survive better and provide a more consistent troll fishery than trout. His expectation has proven to be true.

Most of these fish will likely mature as 2-year-olds, so there probably won't be any survivors from the original plant after this fall. That has led anglers to ask why there is a 15 fish bag limit.

The limit on kokanee in Panhandle waters (with some body of water exceptions) is 15 per angler per day. Hayden Lake is not one of the exceptions, so Hayden is included in that general limit.

Fredericks said, "When kokanee were stocked in 2011, there were no good indicators of what survival or growth would be. Therefore, there was no reason to make an exception to apply two years down the road." IDFG officers have checked dozens of boats and are seeing that most anglers are limited more by their own success rates at catching kokanee than they are by the 15 fish limit. Most are catching no more than six fish per day, with only an occasional angler reaching the 15 fish limit.

IDFG's intent is to manage this fishery by stocking fry from Cabinet Gorge Hatchery every spring. Numbers can be adjusted as necessary to provide the right balance of size and numbers.

The strain of kokanee selected for stocking in Hayden are early spawners (September) that lay their eggs in tributaries, not the shoreline like late spawning strains. It's likely that many of the 2-year-old kokanee that escape anglers and predators to survive into September will make their way into Hayden Creek to spawn.

IDFG biologists will walk the stream and estimate the number of spawners and monitor the population. The stream spawning strain was chosen because it's easier to monitor the number of spawning kokanee, and if they become too abundant IDFG will be able to control the number moving into the stream to spawn.

"Ideally, anglers will be successful in catching the vast majority of kokanee out of the lake before they try to leave the stream to spawn," Fredericks said. "Not only do we not need wild spawning kokanee, we really don't want them. Wild spawning kokanee populations are often subject to pretty big swings related to predation and environmental conditions. Given the size of the lake, we can maintain a much more consistent fishery through stocking."

Given the high productivity of Hayden Lake and the low likelihood of direct competition between kokanee and other species, it seems improbable that kokanee will compete with crappies in Hayden. Kokanee are filling a void by taking advantage of the rich populations of zooplankton and Mysis shrimp in the open water.

"Juvenile crappie, trout and now kokanee are the primary offshore feeders," Fredericks said. "While some anglers have speculated that kokanee will feed on and deplete Mysis shrimp to the detriment of crappie, gut content analysis of fish examined so far shows that kokanee are feeding almost exclusively on zooplankton and fly larvae."

If IDFG sees a decline in crappie growth rates and is able to determine that it is related to completion with kokanee, adjustments can be readily made to kokanee numbers by changing stocking plans and controlling any natural spawning. So ... for now, let's go fishing!

Phil Cooper is the wildlife conservation educator at the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

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