In his 60-plus years fishing Lake Pend Oreille, Kevin Sawyer of Sandpoint has seen the introduction of mysis shrimp into his home waters.
He has witnessed the surge and crash of the Gerrard rainbow fishery, and its rebirth, and has watched kokanee — big and small — populations fluctuate between almost nonexistent to abundant.
He has seen gill netters ply the lake, and the state place bounties on a variety of fish, including Gerrard — also called kamloop, rainbows and lake trout, or mackinaw.
He was here when the bass fishery burgeoned into national prominence and watched the boom of mackinaw numbers, and the state’s efforts to eradicate the species.
“And we haven’t even started talking about pike,” Sawyer said.
The Sandpoint native has hooked his share of walleye too, mostly in the past two years, although walleye have inhabited the lake for at least a decade.
The glass-eyed fish are reportedly flushed during high water years into Lake Pend Oreille from Cabinet Gorge Reservoir in Montana, where they were illegally introduced.
It isn’t known how many or how frequently the predators fin into Lake Pend Oreille, where more than a century ago, the slate of lake fish could be counted on one hand:
Peamouth, whitefish, pikeminnow, bull and cutthroat trout were the norm.
So, what’s the big deal?
Sawyer isn’t so sure.
The introductions of foreign fish into Lake Pend Oreille began long ago with lake trout and Lake Superior whitefish in the first part of last century. Gerard Rainbows, known as kamloops came later, along with kokanee, which Sawyer calls the lake’s crop.
Everything feeds on kokanee, and the small landlocked red salmon are the foundation of the lake’s trophy kamloops fishery.
Mysis shrimp were introduced too, in an effort to make kokanee bigger and fatter, but instead competed with them.
Bass have been a strong fishery for years in Lake Pend Oreille and northern pike have grown fat and long in the lake’s northern, more shallow, warmer waters.
Large German brown trout, also introduced, are another addition to the lake’s angling smorgasbord.
“I just throw stuff into the water and if something bites it, I reel it in,” Sawyer said. “I like to be surprised.”
The introduction of walleye, though, and their abundance and massive size, has surprised Idaho Department of Fish and Game fishery biologists, who started gillnetting the fish this spring.
Hiring the Hickey Brothers, a Wisconsin-based gillnetting enterprise, to cull the lake’s mackinaw, was an anomaly a decade ago, but anymore the company’s boats are a common presence in North Idaho as Fish and Game attempts to balance the effect of introduced species on a once pristine ecosystem.
These days the Hickeys are after walleye.
At the behest of Fish and Game, 1,284 walleye were netted last spring and 1,233 were removed from the lake. The difference, 51 fish, were released as part of a tagging study, Andy Dux of Fish and Game said last week in a report.
“Walleye, like lake trout, are a top level predator, and even though they are a popular sport fish that benefits fisheries elsewhere, they pose a significant risk to the Lake Pend Oreille fishery,” Dux said.
Incidental catches included 59 bull trout — 27 died, and 33 pike. All of them were removed. And 452 smallmouth bass were caught in the nets between Denton Slough and the Long Bridge. All of them were released.
In a community so closely tied to its fisheries, the gillnetting didn’t go unnoticed by fans of the warm-water fish.
Fishing guide Chad Landrum of Sandpoint’s Go Fish Charters thinks the state fishery department overstepped its reach when it opted to kill a slew of walleye without consulting anglers.
Or, at least allowing anglers a chance at the walleyes, which are sought throughout the continent as a highly palatable sport fish.
“They are an amazing fishery resource and not shown to be detrimental to our fishery one iota,” Landrum said.
According to Fish and Game, walleye eat kokanee, and having another predator eat away at the lake’s foundational food source may not be feasible.
Last spring, Sawyer said he and a bunch of fellow anglers pulled walleyes of more than 10 pounds from the confluence of the Clark Fork River.
“The ones we were catching were lifetime fish,” Sawyer said. “We were regularly getting 12 to 15 pounders. They were huge.”
He doesn’t view the interlopers with animosity, but he wonders what effect they will have on the kokanee population.
“They got to have something to feed on,” he said. “It comes down to which species gets to eat the kokanee.”