Plenty of Midwesterners use their vacation time to head west. While we have flat lands, corn fields and perhaps the chance of seeing a whitetail deer, once you get cross the Great Plains there are mountains, sagebrush filled valleys and the chance to see elk, antelope and maybe even a grizzly bear.
Where to go for sure is up to you, but a trip to Idaho is sure to please. They have plenty of mountains, fields full of potatoes and grizzly bears to spare. They also have something, somewhat similar to here, but totally different. They have a lake full of walleyes.
The difference is in their lake full of walleyes, the fish have a price on their head — actually a price IN their head. Catch one and you might win a hundred bucks, catch the right one and you might win $1000. That will buy you a lot of gasoline to fuel your cross country road trip.
The lake is named Pend Oreille, the largest lake in Idaho and one of the deepest lakes in the United States. There are native game fish present in the lake, notably cutthroat and bull trout, but it also hosts plenty of introduced species as well. Most important and most sought after is the Kokanee (the landlocked variety of sockeye salmon).
There is now a booming walleye population, as well. Walleye were essentially non-existent in LPO ten years ago, but numbers have been rapidly increasing since 2014, likely from an illegal introduction in the early 1990s.
For most lakes a burgeoning population of walleyes would be good news. Fishermen love to catch them for the challenge of getting them to bite and to provide the makings for a fried walleye dinner. Few freshwater fish are better to eat.
But the Idaho Fish and Game department doesn’t like them — at least not in LPO.
IGF Biologists fear walleye may cause a decline in kokanee and other higher-demand sportfish, such as rainbow trout, native bull trout, cutthroat trout, and bass.
Walleye have dramatically changed fish communities in the western lakes. Canyon Ferry Reservoir in Montana provides a cautionary look at how walleye can eat themselves out of house and home. Illegally introduced in the 1980’s, walleye depleted the prey base in the reservoir, collapsing the population of rainbow trout and other species in the next decade. Following the loss of prey, walleye condition and size dropped until ultimately, angler satisfaction in the entire fishery declined.
Most states have strict regulations against moving or stocking fish from one body of water to another. Some places take it so far as restricting the use of live minnows lest one of the bait fish is really just a juvenile game fish mixed in with the shiners or other bait minnows at the tackle shop.
To encourage anglers to fish for walleyes at Lake Pend, the Idaho F&G department tagged 50 walleyes — worth $1,000 each — into Lake Pend Oreille. Catch one of the tagged fish, turn in the tag and eat the fish. It’s an effort to encourage people to spend more time fishing for walleyes at the lake and to keep each walleye they hook and land or boat.
The “hook” in the scheme is the tags are invisible to the naked eye. The tags used are tiny wires injected into the walleye’s head. So you can’t just catch a winner and toss back the rest. You have to keep them all. Only the biologists have a special scanner to detect the wire tag.
Each walleye, however, is a potential winner. Catch a walleye, bring the head to one of several business located around the lake and turn it in. Each head is a raffle ticket which enters anglers in a monthly drawing for 10 cash prizes of $100 each. If the head turns out to be from a tagged fish, it’s instantly worth a cool grand.
Walleyes aren’t the first non-native introduction threatening LPO’s kokanee fishery.
Just over a decade ago, lake trout posed a similar problem. Similar to walleye, lake trout are an introduced, top-level predator in the lake ecosystem. Since 2006, fish managers used a combination of angler rewards and commercial netting to reduce lake trout abundance.
That program is a success, as kokanee are now highly abundant and the trophy rainbow trout fishery is outstanding. It’s hoped a similar management approach may work to suppress LPO walleyes.