Since the introduction of mysis shrimp in Priest Lake almost a half century ago, the big lake in the most northwestern tip of Idaho’s Panhandle has been in transition.
Rick Horey thinks it has finally reached a plateau on its own. He doesn’t think more human intervention will bolster the lake’s fishery.
Horey, a Priest Lake guide who also operates an excavation business, has fished the lake for decades. Three years ago he bought the guide business with clientele that come to catch lake trout, a fish also called mackinaw.
The state’s record lake trout — a 57½ pounder that measured more than 4 feet long and was fat as a person’s thigh — was caught in Priest Lake.
“It’s what most people come up here for,” Horey said.
A recent proposal by Idaho Department of Fish and Game to suppress the population of the popular gamefish, however, has Horey scratching his head.
Fish and Game has proposed managing the big lake for native species such as bull trout and cutthroat trout, or for other game species such as kokanee.
Similar proposals five years ago were contested by anglers who wanted to maintain the lake as a mackinaw fishery.
The latest proposals developed by the Priest Lake Fishery Advisory Committee, which was formed by Fish and Game, revisit the issue as the department seeks to update its 2019-2024 fisheries management plan.
Since the late 1990s, the department has been managing for native bull trout in Upper Priest Lake, a 4-mile long waterbody connected to the main lake by a 2-mile channel. The successful program requires netting and removing lake trout that move through the channel from the main lake before they reach the smaller lake to feed on immature bull trout.
So far this year, Fish and Game removed 1,871 lake trout during the removal period in May. According to Fish and Game data, the department’s efforts have curbed lake trout populations in Upper Priest Lake resulting in better fishing for native species there.
The Upper Priest Lake mackinaw removal project is funded through grants from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bonneville Power mitigation funding allocated to the Kalispel Tribe, which promotes native species restoration.
The latest proposals for managing the Priest Lake fishery include promoting populations of kokanee, Westslope cutthroat and bull trout, by netting and removing lake trout.
Another option — and likely the costliest — includes managing for all species. In the final option, Fish and Game is asking anglers to consider leaving things as they are.
“Stakeholders expressed strong support for conserving native species in Upper Priest Lake, (so) each of the management alternatives include continued lake trout suppression in the upper lake,” regional fisheries manager Andy Dux said in a news release. “Alternatives that involve reducing lake trout in the main lake would make it easier to attain management goals in the upper lake.”
To Horey, the status quo seems to make the most sense.
Mackinaw in Priest Lake have red meat — unlike Lake Pend Oreille macks, which have white meat. The red-meat lake trout taste better, and are therefore sought after by anglers, Horey said.
The mack’s red meat also indicates they feed on mysis shrimp, not kokanee. Feeding on the shrimp that compete with kokanee for zooplankton — kokanee’s main food source — has helped maintain kokanee populations in Priest Lake, Horey said.
“It’s taken 40 years to get where it is now, and it’s a real good fishery,” Horey said. “We’ve got decent numbers of kokanee, we have cutthroat and bull trout. We have them all.”
The management options for Priest Lake will be discussed at public meetings slated for this month. The first meeting is set for 6:30 p.m., July 13, at The Inn at Priest Lake in Coolin. Additional meetings are scheduled at 6:30 p.m., July 24, at the Priest River Events Center and at 6:30 p.m., July 27, at the IDFG Panhandle Region Office in Coeur d’Alene.