In an effort to blunt the incursion of non-native northern pike in Washington waters, a line's been drawn by state and tribal biologists at Box Canyon Dam on the Pend Oreille River. The Pend Oreille Public Utility District reservoir in Northeast Washington will be where the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in concert with the Kalispal Natural Resources Department mounts an effort to reduce pike numbers to keep them at a level that will not spin-off migrant numbers sufficient to gain finholds in downstream steelhead and salmon waters.
Lucys, as northern pike are affectionately called by some of their admirers, a nickname taken from their species moniker, lucius, are the bane of aquatic life in many waters where they did not evolve. There is concern now - and not just in Washington state - over the havoc they have and will in the future wreak on native fish populations. But pike do have their supporters and as John Whalen, WDFW's region one fish program manager noted that has tempered the agency's response to the pike threat. "There was concern voiced at public meetings about offering a bounty for them," said Whalen of an option managers have for the time being ruled out. A reward program for squawfish was operated for a number of years elsewhere in the Columbia Basin. However, WDFW's campaign against these pike will be more a war of attrition than one of eradication. The effort stops short of using all-out means to drive pike numbers into the ground, opting instead to employ tactics such as encouraging a greater angler harvest of them and targeting larger pike in limited control gill-netting in their breeding areas. Following anticipated action by the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission in January, northern pike also officially will be stripped of their gamefish status. They will, legally speaking, be classed as a deleterious exotic species that are prohibited in Washington State. A FEW GOOD FISHERMEN Even before these final administrative actions were proposed, the stops were taken off the pike harvest engine in previous rule changes that enabled anglers to catch as many as they wanted, whenever they wanted, Whalen said. Anglers are especially asked to catch and remove pike in the 20- to 30-inch range. Being able to attack and swallow fish about 1/3 their length, pike in this size range can do considerable damage to wild trout including the Pend Oreille's native west slope cutthroat trout and bull trout. Extension of the two-pole endorsement (with its $20 fee) to Box Canyon Reservoir potentially will double the angling fire power aimed at pike. Besides that organized fishing contests or tournaments targeting northern pike in Box Canyon Reservoir will be allowed, Whalen said. Another element of the department's effort to thwart pike will be to intercede in the illegal inter-lake transportation of them. Clandestine introductions into Newman and Liberty lakes near Spokane have compromised those waters and clouded future fish management prerogatives. Whalen said managers are hoping that individuals willfully bent on practicing their own form of fish enhancement will think twice when presented with the facts about the threat pike present being brought out in this campaign. The department also is counting on the general public to watch for suspicious activities and report indications of the illegal planting of any fish, wildlife or plant species immediately to the agency's fish and wildlife enforcement program directly or via their local Washington State Patrol, said Whalen. The pike's existence in places like Box Canyon and Boundary reservoirs as well as other aquatic habitats has a second less obvious but equally deleterious effect, said Whalen. Much good will, public effort and mitigation money that could be used to do positive things for native fishes may not be exploited because in the long run the pike would thwart those benefits. LUSTER WEARS OFF THE LUNKER Though many anglers, especially from North American regions or continents where native pike naturally run amok, love their lucys, unless there are mitigating behavioral or environmental factors such as innate cannibalism or limited breeding habitat that will exert some influence on their numbers, pike will proliferate. Pike populations that forever generate a supply of trophy-sized fish are not the norm. WDFW biologists say that there are many case studies where after their introduction and period of trophy fish production, pike populations degenerate into aggregations of smaller, skinny 'stunted' fish. In these 'showcase' lakes, having in effect eaten themselves out of house and home, subsequent pike generations do not fare well but they still rule their domain suppressing desirable native fishes. Further meddling in the ecology of the lake by putting another forage fish species will not bring any relief or restore the lunker lucys. BROADER ECO-IMPLICATIONS If you advocate for the natural production of ducks in shallow, weedy lakes or marshes, it is not a good idea to have northern pike around. Such is their hunger-driven nature, that pike can be said to operate on the basic impulse; if it splashes, they'll try to gnash it (between their teeth). Besides indiscriminately marauding indigenous fish populations, larger pike will feed on young waterfowl, native amphibians and even small mammals. A 1956 study focusing on pike feeding habits at Michigan's Seney National Wildlife Refuge, cited in Alaska's pike report, estimated that the pike population at Seney ate an average of 1.5 million waterfowl annually mostly in the form of ducklings and goslings. Studies of pike/duck interactions in Scandinavia found a similar significant impact to waterfowl production. Though mainly anecdotal evidence in the form of eyewitness reports, observers have seen larger pike and muskellunge make predatory strikes on adult birds. Another problem for apex predators including pike is that they inevitably become what they eat. If the animals they eat contain minute or trace quantities of heavy metals, pesticides, PCBs or mercury, these pollutants almost always concentrate in the body of the predator. Some muskellunge populations in Wisconsin now have health warnings regarding associated with them regarding their consumption as food. Whalen says preliminary tests of pike in the Pend Oreille River have found detectable levels of mercury in them. He said that further testing will be done and the results analyzed by the Washington Department of Health to determine if eating pike may be a health concern for any segment of the human population. If warranted, appropriate advisories will be issued. Under those circumstances anglers will still be encouraged to keep and retain pike if they are willing compost them or use them as garden fertilizer, said Whalen. WDFW is now evaluating its body of regulations as well as state statutes to make sure either practice is permissible under current game and fish wastage laws. IF YOU WANT TOOTHY AND BRUTISH Given their popularity with some anglers, a version of these big toothsome predators roaming selected waters is desirable, but under certain key stipulations. There is such an alternative in the form of the hybrid, mulish tiger muskie. As big and bad their parental progenitors, tigers have one key distinction and difference, these crosses between northern pike males and female muskellunge are infertile. Known numbers can be released in a lake with the assurance that once they live out their lives, they will not become the gift that keeps on giving the way the lucys in Pend Oreille have become. Like pike and muskies, tigers prey heavily on their fellow fish, which in lakes with runaway sunfish or other fish populations is good because they get big at the expense of their overly-productive and often stunted prey. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game has experimented with tiger muskies as a biological control for non-native eastern brook trout in certain Gem State mountain lakes. For a time, when they were affordable and available, WDFW put them in Fazon Lake in Whatcom County to take a bite out of its burgeoning bluegill numbers. Also as with purebred pike and muskellunge, tiger muskies are not a good and proper fit in waters with native trout, steelhead and salmon, especially threatened and endangered populations, as they are apt to focus their predaceous habits on the desirable fishes. Lake Samish was one such water body where the stocking of tigers was ruled out because of the likely adverse impact to a robust native cutthroat trout population. In Washington, getting tiger muskies are carefully chosen and state-introduced tiger muskie populations are protected by gamefish rules to foster their existence. EYEING BIGGER PREY Anglers who target these toothsome fish know well, the wounding capability of the pike's stiletto-like teeth. Get too close to their mouths with bare hands and under-estimate the fishes' strength or reflexes and a nasty gash or gashes will be your reward. At the very least the big fish can affect with a fling of their head the transfer of the hook to your finger. Pike and muskellunge also have joined a fraternity of freshwater fishes such as the Wels catfish and the Himalayan Goonch catfish that are suspected of or have been confirmed as being unprovoked attackers of humans. It's important to establish that these pike attacks are likely cases of mistaking-the-splasher-for-prey on the part if the big fish who may rely less on vision and more on other sensory inputs to foment lightening quick strikes. Remember, too, that as far as the pike and some other predators are concerned, in cases where the intended meal is too large to swallow, they can always just let go of it. Nevertheless, bite wounds inflicted are no less painful because the fish didn't actually mean to try to swallow them. One YouTube video, youtube.com/watch?v=GuGRr2XqEJ8, shows just how quick a pike strike can be. Other pike and muskellunge bite cases have been documented in news stories some with photographic or video images of the bite marks left on the victim's arm or leg that match exactly the dentura of these toothy suspects. Doug Huddle, the Bellingham Herald's outdoors correspondent, since 1983 has written a weekly fishing and hunting column that now appears Sundays. Read his blog and contact him at pblogs.bellinghamherald.com/outdoors.