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Friend or Foe

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all photos courtesy Spokane Walleye Club all photos courtesy Spokane Walleye Club

Will the little-known walleye hurt kokanee in Lake Pend Oreille, or co-exist well enough to constitute a sports fishery of their own? No one knows.

Al Lindner caught his first walleye as a kid and ever since that day more than a half century ago he has pursued the toothy, lake bottom dweller with a passion that became a career.

Introduced in the 1960s his Lindy Rig, a monofilament, snap, sinker and hook contraption meant to be baited with leaches or minnows, revolutionized walleye fishing. It opened the door for a boatload of Lindy products used by anglers who target the glassy-eyed fish that is a staple game fish in the Midwest.

The rigs made fishing heroes of the Lindys.

But, Pend Oreille Lake isn’t exactly the Corn Belt.

The 148-square mile Pend Oreille that stretches 65 miles north to south and drops to depths of 1,150 feet is the home to a small silver fish called kokanee.

Kokanee are a landlocked version of the briny water sockeye salmon whose declining numbers in Pend Oreille have been priority number one for state fishery managers.

Kokanee have been targeted by anglers here for as long as many of them can remember, and when it comes to tossing a barb into the backside of a kokanee fisher just mention mysis shrimp or lake trout.

Mention the Idaho Department of Fish and Game in the same breath in a sportsman’s café and the coffee will get cold for a dearth of sipping and a plethora of jaw wagging.

The mysis shrimp introduced by the game department in the 1960s in an effort to provide food for kokanee did the opposite, the argument goes. It provided a rich diet for mackinaw (also called lake trout), which in turn grew fast and big and began killing and eating kokanee en masse.

The lake’s kokanee population, once a fat fishery that fueled a lucrative regional sport fishing industry floundered and finally hit rock bottom, resulting in Idaho Fish and Game closing the kokanee fishery on 2000 and frantically seeking ways to reduce the number of mackinaw—or lake trout.

Enter the walleye.

Back under the midwestern moon, where a lot of anglers fish for the predatory night feeders, walleye are called “walleyed pike,” but they aren’t a pike. They are the largest members of the perch family with record size fish reaching 25 pounds.  Their favorite food is their smaller cousin the yellow perch.

That doesn’t preclude a tinge of anxiety by Fish and Game, which discovered walleyes in Lake Pend Oreille about the same time it realized its kokanee couldn’t stand yet another predator snapping its maws at the few remaining land locked sockeyes in the lake.

Andy Dux, a department of Fish and Game fishery biologist, said his department has been so busy trying to keep the kokanee population afloat that it hasn’t spent a lot of time and dollars studying walleyes.

“There’s a lot we don’t know,” Dux said.

He’s not the only one.

Since their introduction into the fish pot of Lake Pend Oreille about a decade ago—no one knows for sure when or whence they came—walleye have been caught in nets during population surveys and by anglers, usually bass fisherman, along the north end of the lake.

Walleye fishers who have come to ply the lake for their favorite game fish often walk away empty handed.

“A few fisherman catch them but they are not really consistent,” Calvin Fuller of Sandpoint Outfitters said. “A lot of them are fluke catches by people fishing for bass or perch.”

Not long ago a 14-pound walleye was sacked in the Clark Fork River.

That leads people like Alan Roberts to believe the fish have been in the system a long time and are getting bigger. The bigger they get, he says, the more likely they will become part of the deep lake fishery, chasing kokanee as they are suspended 40 feet off the surface.

Roberts is a member of the Spokane Walleye Club who regularly fishes for his number one game fish in Lake Roosevelt. A walleye aficionado, he says that the glassy-eyed game fish (walleyes are named after the mirror-like reflection of their eyes, which looks like an opaque wall instead of a retina) are usually caught around reefs, inlets and outlets and along rocky points: places that kokanee only inhabit during the spawn. Sometimes though, as in the Great Lakes, huge walleye are caught suspended in much deeper water, the same place you’ll find Pend Oreille kokanee most of the year.

“The concerns about kokanee are valid,” he says.

Yet, he points out, walleye and kokanee coexist in Washington’s Lake Roosevelt, and they do well together. Both the walleye and the kokanee fishery bring big bucks to the area because of their viability.

George Allen, the club’s vice president, grew up in the middle of South Dakota where he caught his first walleye as soon as he was big enough to lob a worm and a sinker into the lake. When he moved west, he fished for many species but stuck with walleye after discovering the Lake Roosevelt fishery decades ago.

“It’s all I fished ever since,” he says.

He is among anglers who think kokanee and walleye can live together just fine in Lake Pend Oreille. What’s more, he says, it’s too late to do anything about the walleye in the lake.

“The Fish and Game department is so afraid of all the mistakes that have already been made, that they don’t want anything else introduced,” Allen said. “But they aren’t going to get rid of them so they better start managing them.”

Walleye, he suspects, were brought to the lake either by bucket biologists who wanted to fish for walleye in their home lake and dumped a bunch of fry into its fertile waters, or they came down the Clark Fork River, washed over the dam at Noxon.

“They probably don’t belong there, but they are in there now, so they need to do something with them,” he says.

The fishery department doesn’t presently have the resources to concern itself with walleye, Dux said. Right now anglers targeting walleye can keep as many of the fish as they catch.

Returning the lake’s kokanee to fishable numbers in the face of the many predators that already exist in the lake, including macs, rainbows and bull trout, is already a difficult assignment.

“If we throw walleye in the mix it would certainly complicate things,” he said.

His department has caught walleye in gillnets that had kokanee in their stomachs, he said. Some of the walleye have been in the 10- to 15-pound range, and all of them have been caught in the shallower water along the river deltas and near Sandpoint’s big bridge.

“We don’t know if they will do well in the open water environment,” he. “There is a potential and that is why we’re concerned.”

The concern is lost on Fuller, who thinks walleye will target kokanee primarily when they move into shallow water to spawn and that the impact on kokanee will be minimal.

Because walleye tend to feed on the bottom—usually around shoals and structures like rock outcrops—while kokanee tend to stay suspended in deep water, he doesn’t see a problem.

Johnny Booey agrees. Booey is a walleye fisherman who operates the fishing department at Post Falls’ Cabela’s.

“Walleye is a night feeder,” he says “I’ve taken walleye at night in two feet of water. Kokanee might move into 25 or 30 feet of water at night, so their paths may cross, but not consistently.”

Like other anglers looking for a new species to chase, Fuller welcomes walleye, and the fishery if there ever is one, to the lake.

“I think there is a place for them in this lake,” he says. “There are so many different aspects to Pend Oreille, I think it can support it.”

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Ralph Bartholdt Ralph Bartholdt is a freelance writer and editor

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