Slowing the Northern Pike Population Expansion

Feb 21, 2012

Non-nativSPOKANE VALLEY, Wash. – The northern pike population has exploded in eastern Washington’s Box Canyon Reservoir. These non-native fish have gone from a few hundred to around 10-thousand over the past five years. As correspondent Courtney Flatt reports, the increasing numbers can damage native fish populations, like salmon and steelhead.

Throw your line out in Box Canyon Reservoir, and you’ll likely find a northern pike on the other end. Over the past several years, the northern pike population has increased so rapidly that it’s hard to catch anything else.

An avid angler, Newman Lake resident May Propst goes fishing two or three times a day. She’s fished for 30 years now, but it was only last year that she learned to hook northern pike. And since then, that’s pretty much all she’s caught.

Propst: “Last year I caught a big pike, and when I cut it open and gutted it, it had three small perch in its stomach. I used to be able to catch a lot of perch and trout, and now it’s not hardly there at all anymore. I think I caught one brown trout last year, period. Rest was all pike.”

Northern pike are not native to Washington. And they can really harm fish that traditionally call these waters home – like protected salmon and steelhead.

A little more than 20 years ago, anglers illegally stocked some lakes in Montana with the fish. From there, the pike spread out through the rest of the state, across to Idaho, and now they’re in northeastern Washington.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife would like to keep it that way. The department is working with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians to make sure northern pike do not make it into the Columbia River. Jason Connor is a fish biologist with the tribe. He says he’s already seen native fish populations decreasing in Box Canyon Reservoir – and that’s why it’s important to get control of the northern pike population soon.

Connor: “They’ve seen this scenario play out in dozens and dozens and dozens of water bodies across the United States. And they will essentially consume everything in a water body, until there’s nothing left but pike. And they cannibalize and then control their own population. We would like to avoid that scenario in Washington state and the Columbia River Basin.”

That’s why biologists have come up with a plan to help reduce northern pike populations in Box Canyon Reservoir. They’re hosting public meetings to help inform anglers about problems northern pike can cause.

The biologists’ goal: lower the current population by 87 percent. That’s about how many were around in 2006. Their secret weapon: anglers.

John Whalen is the regional fish program manger with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He says although northern pike cannot be eliminated from Box Canyon, their numbers can be controlled.

“Folks are very interested in this type of fishery because it’s a large bodied fish that can get over 30 inches. So it’s created a very significant opportunity for localized anglers and people that will come.”

But Box Canyon’s northern pike fishery cannot sustain itself. Joe Maroney directs fisheries and water quality for the Kalispel Tribe of Indians.

Maroney: “One of the difficult things is the residents of Pend Oreille County have been starved for a tremendous fishery for quite some time. This pike fishery has really taken off. However, this fishery is going to be short lived. The size of the fish that people are seeing right now are decreasing.”

To fix that problem, biologists are asking anglers to fish more. This may sound a bit backwards, but right now northern pike are competing for food – that is, the native fish in the reservoir. If there are fewer northern pike, they’ll have more food to eat. And they’ll grow bigger and fatter.

At a recent public meeting, visitors asked biologists questions about the fish. One suggestion to help reduce northern pike numbers: eat them.

Angler: “If you have never tasted northern pike, it’s delicious.”

Whalen: “You bring up a good point, and that’s to get people interested in, ‘Hey, let’s go fishing for pike.’ One of the things we’ve talked about is: what’s the best way to filet them, so you don’t have to deal with all those little bones.”

Angler May Propst doesn’t eat her catches. She’s not much of a fish eater, but she does give them to friends. Propst says people are already asking for more this year.

So far, the largest northern pike she’s caught was 48 inches long and weighed 24 pounds. There’s a picture to prove it.

After the meeting, Propst says she won’t mind catching more northern pike on her own time.

Propst: “I asked some questions about limits and size and stuff, and nope. They just want ‘em out of the water. I said, ‘That, I can do for you.’ I’ll give it my best shot.”

Whalen says the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife plans to host northern pike fishing derbies later this summer.

Copyright 2012 Northwest News Network