Sunday, February 5, 2012
What's the beef with Pend Oreille River's pike fishery?
OLD TOWN — North Idaho’s Highway 2 is an ambling two-lane that follows the Pend Oreille River downstream like a yarn being spun at a roadside café.
The road has its share of logging trucks, freighters and vintage sedans; none of them in much of a hurry to go anywhere.
At Old Town, a driver daydreaming to country songs on the cassette player can cross the border into neighboring Newport, Washington without knowing it.
A set of traffic lights reflect in the big windows of a few roadside stores in this North Idaho border town and the landscape doesn’t change much on either side of the state line.
This is where John Campbell built the Pend Oreille Valley Sportsman, a sporting goods store just off the intersection of highways 2 and 41 in what could be considered the heart of this scant community.
The area is considered a destination for hunters and anglers due mostly to nearby Priest Lake, which draws anglers for its mackinaw and hunters for its big whitetails.
With a small population of German browns and rainbow trout, and more recently, bass, the Pend Oreille River was known more for its minnow fish - peamouth, northern pike minnow and other less desirable species.
It didn’t draw a lot of anglers.
"You were lucky to see a boat out there,” Campbell said.
Then something unforeseen happened. Northern pike - probably introduced into the river system during high runoff years of the late 1990s that required area dams to open their flood gates - started showing up in the sloughs and backwaters of the Pend Oreille River.
That’s when the fireworks started.
“When the pike showed up, it was just incredible,” Campbell said.
The river, especially the 25 miles from Old Town to Washington’s Box Canyon Dam is a perfect place for pike. The shallow Pend Oreille averages 15 feet and the tepid water temperature doesn’t change much from top to bottom.
Once they showed up, Pend Oreille River pike replaced bass as the area’s target species for anglers from across the Northwest.
“There for a while, it was probably the best pike fishing in the U.S.,” Campbell said. “We had people coming from everywhere.”
The sleepy burgs of Old Town and Newport became rock stars in the world of fishing towns.
The pike chasers still come every year, but Campbell isn't encouraged about the fisheries future.
“It won’t last,” he said.
That’s because the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, along with the Kalispell Tribe have drawn the line on pike.
In the name if preserving the area’s cold water fishery, and fears that pike will enter the Columbia River and wreak havoc there, as well as other reasons that seem meritless, WDFW and the Kalispells are netting and killing the area's pike by the trailer load.
Campbell thinks the killing is unwarranted because pike already exist below the Box Canyon Dam as well as other places in the Columbia watershed.
“The record Washington Pike came out of Long Lake,” Campbell said.
Long Lake is a tributary of the Columbia River east of Spokane that has had pike for more than 30 years. And Lake Coeur d’Alene, which drains into the Spokane River, and the Columbia, has a tremendous pike fishery – as well as topnotch salmon and trout fisheries.
The game department and the Kalispells want to be rid of non-indigenous species yet both entities continue to support raising non-native largemouth bass, a voracious predator, at the Kalispell’s hatchery on the Pend Oreille River at Usk, opponents of the department’s pike management plan point out.
“It’s redundant to put one predator in and try to annihilate another,” Campbell said.
He and his fellow pike hunters have many similar questions that they say aren’t being answered by WDFW.
See this story in the February issue of Northwest Sportsman Magazine.
—Ralph Bartholdt/Skookum foto
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