May
15

The Northwest War on Northern Pike

In the Upper Midwest, across Canada, and over much of northern Europe and Eurasia, where northern pike (Esox Lucius) are native, they are sought-after, hard-fighting game fish – prized for their flaky white, if a bit bony, flesh. Indeed, fishermen book trips from across the globe to fish for big trophy northerns. These pike may reach four and a half feet in length and weigh more than 60 pounds, although the average “big” northern is about half that.

Roughly three decades ago, when the last brood of Hucklings was just past toddler stage, we made an annual pilgrimage from Colorado to their grandparents’ summer cabin in northern Wisconsin. There, we would fish and hike and eat and fish and play in the water and fish. We caught crappies, walleye, the occasional sucker and a fair number of northern pike. The Hucklings shrieked and laughed at anything on the end of the line, but Ed Bossert (namesake for the last of the Hucklings) and I savored those 18 to 20 inch northerns. We delighted in all our meals of fresh-caught fried fish, but the pike were quickly pickled. Ed schooled me in the fine art of savoring well-aged scotch while snacking on pickled pike over pre-dinner conversation each evening. That was my introduction to, and relationship with, northern pike in their native waters.

In a different context – here in the Pacific Northwest and in other areas around the globe where they have been (mostly) illegally introduced – northern pike are anything but welcome. These quickly-multiplying and fast-growing fish are voracious eaters, feeding on almost anything that fits their mouths. Obviously, smaller fish are primary, but ducklings, rats, mice, squirrels, and even an occasional bald eagle chick are all welcome. Illegally introduced pike in Alaska and California have significantly damaged trout and salmon fisheries in those states, and Washington is in line.

It appears that northern pike were introduced into the Pend Oreille River around 2011 or ‘12. By 2013, the Kalispell Indian Tribe was so concerned about their rapid expansion that it held a May “Pikepalooza,” which brought in 80 anglers who caught enough pike to collect more than $4,000 in prizes. The Kalispells used gillnets to remove over 6,000 pike from Box Canyon Reservoir.

Pike are now found in Lake Roosevelt and have reached Grand Coulee Dam. The urgency to keep the fish from the anadromous fish waters below Grand Coulee is rising rapidly – war has been declared. The Spokane, Kalispel and Colville Confederated Tribes week are working with the Washington Invasive Species Council, the Department of Fish and Wildlife and both Chelan and Grant County Public Utility Districts to find solutions, and they are actively encouraging anglers to catch and kill pike.

The Colville Tribes are in charge of a bounty program on Lake Roosevelt. The bounty is $10 per northern pike. Here is how it works, according to the latest instructions: Catch a pike and cut off the head. Take that head, and as many more as you can catch, to one of two collection stations. One is at the Tribal Trails Noisy Waters deli and gas station (at highways 20 and 395 at Kettle Falls). The other is at the National Park Service’s Kettle Falls fish-cleaning station. Simply put the pike heads in a (supplied) zip-lock bag and fill out the label and information. Throw the bag in the freezer, and the Confederated Colville tribes will send you $10 for each head

There were very few northern pike in the lake in 2015, but with an almost-explosive growth rate, they have apparently now established a self-sustaining population in Lake Roosevelt. These are fast-growing fish; 20-inch fish are common and 15- to 25-pounders are not uncommon. Within the lake, the pike pose an immediate threat to populations of native fish such as redband trout, kokanee, white sturgeon and burbot. Then, too, some 60,000 anglers visit Lake Roosevelt every year, bringing around four million dollars to the region’s economy. Below the lake, the pike are seen as an imminent threat to the downstream recovery of ESA-listed salmon; so much so that Oregon biologists are now beginning to take serious notice.

All parties are asking that any pike caught downstream of Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee Dams please be killed and reported to the Washington Invasive Species Council immediately at (invasivespecies.wa.gov).

This is a big deal. Suppression efforts are planned into the next decade, although funding remains an issue. Most of the pros agree that not acting will lead to wholesale ecological changes to fish communities of Lake Roosevelt. And no one argues to risk to salmon recovery efforts downstream. As one official put it, “The possibility of movement downstream to anadromous waters is frightening.”

You can help fight the war: ten bucks a fish…

Oh, by the way. A second northern pike was caught last year in Lake Washington. And released. (Ouch. Please don’t do that…)

 

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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