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Photo by Becky Reynolds Photo by Becky Reynolds

The season of the spawn

We call it fall—officially call it fall—when the autumn equinox arrives (September 23 this year) and the balance of light tips toward night until the winter solstice arrives to move us back toward longer days.

We also call it fall when the leaves begin to change colors; warm, sunny, ever-shorter days coupled with cooler nights trigger a resting period for trees, when they begin to eat the food they’ve been storing and their green pigment fades, leaving behind the yellows and oranges and russets and reds that make for spectacular color on the hills.

These signs that nature gives of the changing of the seasons are felt by the kokanee salmon as well. Cooling water temperatures and the amount of daylight tell the kokanee fall has arrived; they get the message and mature adults head home to prepare for the next generation, and die. It’s called the spawn, and is one of this area’s most spectacular signs of autumn.

Like Peter Pan, salmon don’t get old. The early spawners, autumn’s fish, are generally hatchery bred and return to their home creeks where they were first released, as were those pictured above and on our cover at Granite Creek. Late spawners (November/December) hatched along the many acres of Lake Pend Oreille shoreline. Kokanee hatch between November and January and, come spring (April/May) make their way into the lake. There they do whatever it is fish do in the water; those that avoid predators reach maturity at age three or four and, when nature signals, they return to their birthplace, following their nose until they get back home.

Once there the female kokanee, upon finding the right mix of gravel, water and sand, will create several nests—called redds—where she will lay anywhere from 250 to 400 eggs. The male, who has stayed close by, then fertilizes the eggs and then, following their only real act as adults, they die, choking the stream with dead fish and providing a much-appreciated, bountiful feast for area wildlife. The early spawn, when thousands of bright red fish fight their way upstream, is a dramatic and awe-inspiring look into this cycle of life.

At one time, Lake Pend Oreille was a fisherman’s paradise for kokanee, considered by some to be one of the best fisheries in the world, with an annual harvest of almost a million kokanee alone. Then the kokanee population dropped into such sharp decline that as the new millennium began, fishermen were told they could no longer take the tasty fish home. A moratorium was placed on fishing for kokanee.

“I don’t think people realized just how close we were to losing the kokanee,” explained Jim Fredericks, fisheries biologist for the Panhandle Region for Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game. “We were probably a year away from seeing the population collapse to the point it couldn’t recover.”

It was a two-pronged attack, experts believe, that threatened the kokanee. On the one hand were the lower lake levels caused by the operation of the Abeni Falls Dam on the Pend Oreille River, a level so low it left kokanee spawning beds along the shoreline of the lake high and dry. On the other hand were the predators: the introduced lake trout and rainbow trout for which the kokanee is an important food source. Growing trout populations were simply eating their way through a kokanee population that was already struggling to reproduce.

Recovery efforts were controversial; stakeholders from all sides were passionate about how to save a fishery that was estimated, even at its lowest end, to pour $17 million dollars each and every year into the local economy. The program eventually put into place by Idaho Fish and Game was, as Fredericks put it, “cutting edge fisheries management. Nothing had ever been tried this way on this scale.” Officials responsible for fisheries management on lakes throughout the West have been watching to see what happens on Pend Oreille.

The recovery plan targeted both threats to kokanee, and included an aggressive catch program that provided cash bounties geared at the kokanee predators along with netting. The program, funded by Avista and Bonneville Power Administration as part of the mitigation requirements related to relicensing the Cabinet Gorge Dam, has paid for commercial netters to remove close to 50,000 trout from the lake, plus paid individual fishermen $15 a head for the close to 75,000 rainbow and lake trout that have been caught in the last five years. The power companies have spent over three million dollars to date, and have been enthusiastic partners in preserving the kokanee.

In addition, considerable thought has gone into lake level management. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game believes lower lake levels due to the operation of the Albeni Falls Dam played a major role in the decline of kokanee salmon, noting the winter draw down to 2,051 ft corresponded with the onset of the kokanee decline, which began back in the 1960s. For almost 14 years now the Army Corps of Engineers has allowed the level of the lake to remain higher for approximately every two years out of three, in an attempt to protect those important spawning beds. This has been crucial, as the 30,000 to 50,000 kokanee seen swarming in lake tributaries are a small amount compared to the millions of kokanee who hatch along the shoreline.

Another weapon in the kokanee survival was the establishment, back in 1985, of the Cabinet Gorge Fish Hatchery in Clark Fork. The hatchery raises kokanee salmon to release into the lake, and has released an average of 9 million fry each year since it opened.

The result of these efforts has been ever-increasing numbers of kokanee in local waters, leading Fish and Game to be cautiously optimistic that a true kokanee fishery in Lake Pend Oreille is making a comeback.

“What we’re seeing is improvement in the numbers of juvenile fish,” Fredericks said. “Three years ago we were seeing a survival rate of about 10 percent. Last year, our best estimate was a survival rate of about 70 percent. This is very exciting. If things continue to improve this way, then we may well be able to say we’ve saved our kokanee fishery.”

The Department’s management plan into next year remains the same, but if they continue to see high rates for juvenile kokanee survival, Fredericks says fisherman might be pulling these tasty fish out of the water again as early as 2013.

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Landon Otis

Tagged as:

Lake Pend Oreille, Avista, fishery, kokanee, bull trout, spawn, Idaho Fish and Game, Jim Fredericks, dam relicensing

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