State sharpens gaze on walleye

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The Idaho Depart-ment of Fish & Game is taking an even closer look at walleye in Lake Pend Oreille. (Courtesy photo)

SANDPOINT — Walleye are falling under an increased level of scrutiny by the Idaho Department of Fish & Game as more of the fish turn up in Lake Pend Oreille.

Walleye have been regarded by the department as a vaguely tolerated house guest that needed to be closely watched.

But walleye appear to be wearing out its welcome as far as Fish & Game is concerned.

“Despite being a great sport fish, they just aren’t really welcome here,” Andy Dux, regional fisheries manager for Fish & Game, told members of the Idaho Lakes Commission late last month.

Fish & Game has been a keeping sidelong view as more and more walleye were turning up as bycatch in nets aimed at suppressing the lake trout population so the kokanee population could be restored.

The department has also been conducting standardized population surveys every three years via indexed netting.

“The population roughly doubled each time we counted it,” Dux said.

Dux said walleye density is still low, but is tailing toward more moderate densities, which is raising questions about whether walleye now have a self-sustaining population in Idaho, what they’re eating, where they’re spawning and what impact they could have on kokanee restoration and other fisheries management goals.

“We weren’t seeing very many of these fish at all — hardly any — up until about 2012 and we’ve seen that gradually climb,” said Dux.

The department also tagged approximately 450 walleye and plans to install 25 transmitters that use telemetry to track fish movements in Lake Pend Oreille.

Biologists examined the stomach contents of fish caught in lake trout netting and discovered that they have been foraging on kokanee, although the extent of which is unclear.

“Frankly, that’s concerning,” said Dux.

Walleye in Lake Pend Oreille are regarded similarly as northern pike. There are no harvest limits on walleye and the department allows harvest-only fishing derbies for the fish.

Walleye are an aggressive non-native predator which can dominate a fishery under certain conditions, according to Fish & Game.

Walleye fishing is extremely popular within segments of the angling community. State Rep. Sage Dixon said a local guide has encouraged the state to allow the population to flourish.

“People are coming here and being taken out specifically looking for walleye,” Dixon told the commission.

Fish & Game acknowledges the popularity of walleye fishing, but still regards them as a potential threat to kokanee and other managed species in the lake.

“Our stance is based on our understanding of what the public had wanted out of the Pend Oreille fishery historically,” said Dux.

Nevertheless, Dux said Fish & Game might discover through its research that walleye can integrate into the fishery without turning it upside down.

Keith Kinnaird can be reached by email at kkinnaird@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow him on Twitter @KeithDailyBee.

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