SANDPOINT — After a year of liberalized trout limits for Lake Pend Oreille, there are a lot of world-class rainbows still are out there, said Lake Pend Oreille Idaho Club president Levi Hubbard.
LPOIC is sponsoring the annual Thanksgiving Challenge Derby, which concludes Sunday.
Hubbard said he doesn't expect to know whether the rainbow-reduction program under way is working for another few years.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game contends that reducing the number of trout in the lake now, before their food source disappears, will be best for the fishery in the long run.
"I haven't caught a lot of big fish this fall," Hubbard said. "It's not because they aren't out there."
He noted that a fishing partner on his boat last year won the Thanksgiving Challenge Derby with a 23-pound, 12-ounce rainbow.
This year, there were three fish larger than that caught with two days left to go in the derby.
The derby leader as of Friday afternoon was Randy Herron of Laclede with a 30-pound, 8-ounce Rainbow
"This has been a big-fish derby," Hubbard said. "There hasn't been a 30-pound fish in the Thanksgiving Derby since 1989."
Kamloops trout is by far the biggest consumer of kokanee. The trout, which has a higher metabolism than other predators eats 10 times its weight in kokanee every year.
Idaho's largest lake can't sustain a viable fishery of the Kamloops trout if its prey base collapses.
Kokanee — landlocked sockeye salmon which grow to be 10-14 inches before they spawn and die — have been on the decline for decades. The population is now down to a critical point in which predators such as Kamloops trout could wipe out what is left.
IDFG wants the Kamloops population reduced by 80 percent through increased harvest.
Fish managers say they can rebuild a Kamloops fishery through re-stocking and regulation changes in as few as six years once the kokanee population is stabilized.
No agency has been able to revive a kokanee population from collapse. Examples of kokanee collapses include Priest Lake in North Idaho and Flathead Lake in Montana.
Last year, IDFG liberalized trout limits from two fish over 20 inches to six trout of any size.
IDFG removed the mackinaw limit and allowed year-round boat fishing, including the mouth of the Clark Fork River.
The department also eliminated the kokanee harvest. The limit just two years ago was 25 kokanee per angler per day.
There is no limit for native pikeminnow, a nongame fish formerly called squawfish, which also preys on
The harvest of bull trout, a fourth predator, is prohibited because the native char is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
The catch-and-kill recommendation for rainbow trout has been a tough sell to the LPOIC which also credits the trophy rainbow fishery to the club's promotion of catch-and-release.
LPOIC reluctantly endorsed IDFG's new regulations except for opening of the mouth of the Clark Fork River to boats year round.
IDFG rears kokanee at its Cabinet Gorge Hatchery from eggs collected at Sullivan Springs on the east shore of Lake Pend Oreille.
The department released a record 17.7 million fry last summer. IDFG trawling estimates also indicate a strong class of 1-year-old salmon. This year's egg take from mostly 4-year-old spawners has gone well. However, the classes of 2- and 3-year old kokanee are among the weakest on record.
That means there will be few spawners for at least the next two years — longer if predators aren't reduced.
The Cabinet Gorge Hatchery can rear up to 20 million kokanee fry.
But the hatchery alone can't sustain the run.
The IDFG goal is to see an additional 100 million kokanee spawning in the wild.
Other factors also must fall into place to save kokanee. Chief them is the availability of spawning habitat.
For decades, the kokanee population declined while the Army Corps of Engineers held the winter pool elevation at 2,051 feet above sea level. That's 11 feet below the normal summer elevation.
The corps controls the lake level at Albeni Falls Dam on the Pend Oreille River.
IDFG and LPOIC contend the winter level leaves prime kokanee spawning habitat high and dry. They convinced the Bonneville Power Administration's Northwest Power Planning Council to approve a three-year experimental study leaving the winter pool level at 2,055 feet for increased spawning habitat.
During that time, the 100-year flood of 1997 flushed most of the entire kokanee population from the lake, dashing any potential increase from improved spawning habitat.
Last year, the corps intended to bring the winter pool level back down to 2,051 feet. But a lawsuit brought by LPOIC resulted in a compromise to hold the level at 2,053 feet. LPOIC reached a similar agreement to hold the lake at the same level this winter, Hubbard said.
While LPOIC says saving kokanee will also benefit bull trout, the Bonneville Power Administration says it needs the water from Lake Pend Oreille for chum salmon hundreds of miles downstream in the Columbia River.
A recent biological opinion from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Fish and Wildlife Service proposes a split-the-baby approach which would hold the winter lake level at 2,055 and 2,051 feet on alternating years to benefit Lake Pend Oreille kokanee one year and Columbia River chum the next for a total of six years.
Hubbard is hoping for a court resolution by August. "All we are asking for is a play into how the lake level is managed," he said.
While angler pressure dropped by 75 percent on Lake Pend Oreille over the summer, Hubbard said he's seeing a "normal" number of boats for the fall derby.
He said he was hearing new boat names over the marine radio. "Hopefully, we're getting more boats out here."
Hubbard said an economic study of the Kamloops and kokanee fisheries is under way.
"With no kokanee season, there were a lot of trailer parks and campgrounds with no people," Hubbard said.