Strategy shift on Priest irks some anglers

PRIEST RIVER — Unease is brewing in some circles as the Idaho Department Fish & Game contemplates a change in fishery management at Priest Lake.

The department is hosting a meeting Thursday to discuss the possible changes and answer questions the public has. It starts at 7 p.m. at the Priest River Senior Center, 339 West Jackson Ave.

Fish & Game contends lake trout have dominated the Priest Lake fishery since overpopulating the lake in the 1980s, which effectively collapsed the lake’s kokanee and native bull trout populations.

The department concedes the lake trout fishery is popular with many anglers, although others are calling for the restoration of kokanee, bull trout and cutthroat trout by sweeping the legs of the lake trout population.

Fish & Game conducted a random survey through the mail and said the responses were evenly divided, with some advocating for status quo and others in favor of suppressing lake trout so other species can flourish.

Rich Lindsey, an outfitter and guide on the lake whose livelihood depends on lake trout, opposes any change in management and doubts the veracity of the angler survey.

“They need to leave the lake alone,” said Lindsey.

Lindsey and others contend kokanee are rebounding on their own and the most effective way to restore bull trout is to address their spawning tributaries.

Lake trout supporters further contend that there’s not enough lake trout to impact the densities of mysis shrimp in the lake, which is a primary food source for kokanee.

While it would be great to have nothing but indigenous fish such as mountain whitefish, cutthroat trout and bull trout, opponents of the management change say that ship has long since sailed.

“This fishery on Priest Lake is a self-sustaining resource and it absolutely costs not one stinkin’ penny to maintain it,” adds Lindsey.

Amid the spirited discussion over management of Priest Lake is an abiding mistrust among some over of how Fish & Game has managed other Panhandle fisheries. The introduction of mysis shrimp in Lake Pend Oreille in the 1960s is widely blamed for the crash of its kokanee stocks.

The department, however, declines to take full credit for the debacle because there was considerable pressure on Fish & Game from the angling public to introduce mysids to enhance the kokanee fishery and bring in more anglers.

There is also suspicion that Fish & Game’s mind is already made up on management at Priest Lake and Thursday’s meeting is being held to merely give the impression that public has influence in the issue.

Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Jim Fredericks, Fish & Game’s fisheries manager for the Panhandle.

“The purpose of the meeting on Thursday is, in part, to address some of these notions,” said Fredericks, adding that there was no manipulation of the survey results.

Lindsey fears a change of strategy would eliminate a fish species for which the lake is famous, which would cause economic impacts on the guide services and resorts.

“I’m up against a wave here and it’s going to wash me away,” he said.

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