By Kevin Davis
Fishing in North Idaho has been a way of life for hundreds of years. Native Americans of this area, specifically the Kootenai and Kalispel tribes, utilized fish from the lake to supplement their diet. Even in the past century, locals fished to help feed their families as well as make a living.
"My father would catch enough fish to feed our whole family right over there at the mouth of Lightning Creek," said one angler, a life-long Clark Fork resident. He pointed across the river as he explained how they used to feast on kokanee and trout caught from these waters.
To this day we still rely on the bountiful harvest local waters provide, but the focus is more on maintaining and renewing the fishery for sportsmen to enjoy. The most unique part of our fishery may well be Lake Pend Oreille, a veritable "inland sea" that is home to many native and introduced fish.
Many anglers fish patiently to feel the sudden tug of the elusive Kamloops, also known as a Gerrard rainbow -- a fish that can reach epic proportions. Kamloops were introduced here in 1941 and are endemic to Kootenay Lake in British Columbia, a lake of similar, natural qualities. Because of their beautiful coloration, tasty flesh and tenacious fighting, the Kamloops quickly became the prized fish of Pend Oreille. In 1947 Wes Hamlet caught the world record, a 37-pounder.
Another introduced species that has fared well, the lake trout, was brought here in 1925. They like deep, cold waters and adapted well to Pend Oreille's abysmal depths. The lake record, a whopping 43-pounder caught by Jim Eversol in 1994, is the largest fish ever caught in Lake Pend Oreille.
The lake also harbors the strongest population of bull trout in the Pacific Northwest. Adfluvial fishes, they reside as adults in the lake but return to the tributaries to mate. The state record bull trout was caught by Nelson Higgins in 1949, weighing in at 32 pounds. Bull trout harvest is currently closed since it was listed as a threatened species in 1995 under the Endangered Species Act.
What makes Lake Pend Oreille grow such big fish? The answer is kokanee -- a land-locked subspecies of sockeye salmon native to the Pacific Northwest but not to Lake Pend Oreille. They arrived in 1933 when a spring flood swept them out of Flathead Lake in Montana. Kokanee thrived on the abundant food source in Lake Pend Oreille, and few natural predators existed to control their numbers. By the '50s a commercial kokanee fishery evolved with 1 million fish harvested annually. Ultimately this species became a plentiful food base for prized game fish that were introduced later.
Kokanee populations are now at an all-time low in the lake. The decline started in 1966 when the Army Corps of Engineers changed the regulation of Albeni Falls dam from primarily flood control to production of hydroelectric power. Fluctuating lake levels came at a critical time when kokanee were spawning naturally in the lake. Early this year, the Idaho Fish and Game increased harvest limits for trout in the lake in an attempt to protect the kokanee.
Stream fishermen, on the other hand, may be rewarded with a feisty Idaho native, the westslope cutthroat trout. These fish prefer the cold, well-oxygenated waters that flow crystal clear from the mountains. Or local streams may yield a pretty little transplant, the brook trout.
Other introduced fish species to the Pend Oreille system include smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, crappie, sunfish, perch, northern pike and bullhead. These warm-water fish are found in the calm backwaters of the Pack River and Clark Fork deltas, the Pend Oreille River and shallow bays around the north end of the lake. Many of the smaller lakes in the area such as Shepard, Cocolalla and Gamble are also good places to go fishing for the warm-water species.
Other native fish to the Pend Oreille system include Rocky Mountain whitefish, pygmy whitefish, squawfish, tench, longnose sucker, large-scale sucker, redside shiner, longnose dace, sculpin and peamouth. White sturgeon and burbot, from the Kootenai River, round out the list of natives to be found here.
Fisheries resources still thrive in the Panhandle and excellent opportunities abound, but the integrity of these resources are at a critical stage.