By RALPH BARTHOLDT
In spring, when the hills around Lake Coeur d’Alene are snow skimmed in places, under green canopies of fir and pine, and the sky tells of rain, fishery biologists will prepare for a new ritual.
Technicians and biologists from the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and Idaho Department of Fish and Game will load nets into boats as they ready for three weeks of catching northern pike in Windy Bay as part of a relocation project.
The ritual is three years old, and with each new batch of pike netted by biologists and fishery technicians in the bay on the lake’s west side, anglers miles away in the northern end of the lake will have a new passel of pike to chase.
“The tribe and the state have been working together to gillnet and capture pike prior to spawning and moving them to Cougar Bay,” Coeur d’Alene Tribe fishery manager Angelo Vitale said. “It’s happened every spring for three years, now.”
In an effort to limit the predation of native cutthroat trout as they start their spawning migration into Lake Creek on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, the Tribe and state teamed up in 2015 to relocate pike that lurk in the bay in spring, feeding on migrating cutthroat.
Tribal and state fishery managers hatched a plan to catch the pike using gillnets. hold and transport them to Cougar Bay — where the toothy predators, a favorite game fish, will be available for bank fisherman.
“In an attempt to keep those fish available to anglers, we decided to (relocate) them,” biologist Carson Watkins of Fish and Game said. “We put them on a truck and move them to Cougar Bay.”
The 2007 state record pike, a 40-pounder that was more than 48 inches long, was caught in Cougar Bay, one of the lake’s most popular spring pike fishing destinations. The record has since been broken by a Twin Lakes pike.
Vitale said the Tribe has been working for years on establishing a strong native cutthroat trout population that focuses primarily on native reproductive stock in Benewah Creek at the lake’s southernmost end, and Lake Creek, which flows into Lake Coeur d’Alene at Windy Bay across from Harrison.
In the first year of the pike relocation project, 330 pike — ranging in size from 13 to 41 inches, with an average size of 23 inches — were caught and relocated.
The second year, the number dropped to 160 pike caught and moved, and last year 105 pike were gillnetted and moved to Cougar Bay.
“It seems to be working,” Vitale said. “We’ve been able to reduce the number of pike a lot and the (numbers) of cutthroat are improving.”
In a Coeur d’Alene Tribe survey of more than 400 Lake Coeur d’Alene anglers, the majority of fishers said pike were a problem species and that, although the anglers didn’t target cutthroat trout in the lake, they thought the native fish should be preserved.
Of the pike netted in the spring project, 75 percent survive and are released in Cougar Bay. Of those fish, between 18 percent and 34 percent are caught by anglers, according to Fish and Game.
The fish are fitted with a floy tag — a small plastic tube smaller than a piece of pipe cleaner — and can be tracked using a number on the tag. Anglers who catch one of the tagged fish are asked to report the pike to Fish and Game.
In addition to the relocation project, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe has a pike catch-and-keep project in the lower lakes including Benewah Lake and Lake Chatcolet in Heyburn State Park. The Tribe pays anglers for each pike caught and turned in at the Heyburn State Park headquarters. Anglers earn $5 per pike, and between $50 to $1,000 for catching pike tagged with another type of tag, an electronic, non-visible tag the size of a kernel of rice. The rice-size tags are placed under the fish’s skin and located with a hand scanner. Last summer an angler caught one of the $1,000 pike.
Spring is a busy time for cutthroat trout, as many fish move in tributaries downstream into Lake Coeur d’Alene, while other populations move from the lake into tributaries — including the St. Joe and Coeur d’Alene Rivers, as well as Evans and Alder Creek (a tributary of the St. Maries River).
Idaho Fish and Game, after consulting anglers several years ago, decided to join in the gillnetting and relocation efforts of Windy Bay pike as part of a temporary three-year project. The groups are continuing the work to determine if predation is the main limiting factor for Lake Creek cutthroat trout.
Watkins said over the years fewer pike are being netted because pike tend to be sessile and don’t migrate a lot.
“They mostly stay put,” he said.
However, some pike probably move from nearby bays into Windy Bay as others are removed.
“In general, they aren’t making large movements.”