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Fish & Game staying the course on walleye suppression

by KEITH KINNAIRD
Hagadone News Network | February 12, 2021 1:00 AM

SANDPOINT — The Idaho Department of Fish & Game is staying its course on the suppression of walleye in Lake Pend Oreille through netting and angler harvest incentives.

Andy Dux, the department's principal fisheries research biologist for the Panhandle, said kokanee have made a solid comeback and the lake's rainbow and bull trout populations are flourishing.

"When you factor in both trophy potential and diversity of angling opportunity, the LPO fishery is about as good as it's ever been," Dux told the Idaho Lakes Commission during a remotely-conducted meeting on Thursday. "We're trying to keep walleye from disrupting that."

Walleye were illegally introduced in Montana in 1991 and began turning up in fishery surveys in Idaho by 2005, according to Fish & Game. The department began standardized monitoring in 2011 and saw the walleye population roughly double itself every three years.

"This was concerning to us because this population was on this rapid increase. And not only was it rapidly increasing, but it was starting to reach a density that was more in line with some of the other places that have notable walleye fisheries," Dux said.

Dux said the Fish & Game's concerns are rooted in walleye biology. They are highly effective predators of trout, kokanee and soft-rayed fish species. They have a high reproductive potential, can switch diets quickly and can spawn in a variety of habitat types.

"They’re just really pretty well built to come into a new environment, exploit that environment and reach high population density," said Dux.

The department used telemetry to target spawning grounds and began doing short-duration gill netting in 2018. Cash prizes to anglers began being awarded in 2019 if a tagged fish was caught.

In 2020, the nets collected 576 walleye, 547 of which were removed and distributed to food banks and 29 of which were released, Fish & Game said.

Catch rates were eight walleye per net box in 2018. The rate fell to approximately five fish in 2019 and slipped further to around three fish per box in 2020, according to Dux.

"It’s early to conclude that this is a product of what we’re doing out there with the suppression netting and angling program, but it certainly suggests that that is playing a big role," Dux told the commission.

But Fish & Game is facing growing calls to take its foot off the neck of the walleye population in the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille watershed. The North Idaho Sportfishing Association is circulating a petition calling for an end to gill netting and allowing anglers to keep the population in check.

"We’re concerned with the current management actions against the Lake Pend Oreille walleye fishery," Chad Landrum of NISA told the commission.

Landrum asked the Lakes Commission to join the campaign to halt gill netting of walleye for the next three years. He said the petition has hundreds of signatures and the support of scores of fishing groups in Idaho, Washington and Montana.

"That list continues to grow," said Landrum.

The commission, however, remained silent on NISA's request.

NISA argues the watershed can be successfully managed for walleye and other species and is asking Fish & Game to conduct an economic analysis on the amount of money the walleye fishery can generate.

"Anglers have shown a tremendous interest in and effectiveness at managing this low-density, habitat-specific fishery we currently have," Landrum added.

Dux acknowledged that there is a robust group of anglers pushing for a walleye fishery. However, a panel of walleye experts who huddled with Fish & Game in 2018 unanimously recommended suppression efforts.

"It can be difficult to sustain existing recreational fisheries once walleye are introduced. They can have impacts on native species and they can make it difficult to sustain the prey base in certain water bodies," said Dux.

Moreover, a majority of anglers support the current management approaches on Lake Pend Oreille, according to Fish & Game.

"The information we have suggests there’s far more support for maintaining the traditional LPO fishery than there is for promoting a walleye fishery," Dux said.

Keith Kinnaird can be reached at kkinnaird@bonnercountydailybee.com and followed on Twitter @KeithDaily Bee.