Fish and Game will likely continue managing Priest Lake as primarily a lake trout fishery while also protecting native cutthroat trout and bull trout in Upper Priest Lake.
Over the past several years, F&G fisheries managers have done extensive public outreach to see if a management change was warranted at Priest Lake, but found there was not clear public sentiment that favored it. Fisheries staff have worked with stakeholders to develop a plan for managing Priest Lake, which will be presented to the Fish and Game commission next fall as part of the State Fisheries Management Plan.
“Simply put, fishing opportunity in the foreseeable future is likely to be about the same as it has been in recent years,” regional fish manager Andy Dux said. “Lake trout will continue to be abundant, kokanee will persist at low densities, but large in size. Cutthroat trout will also be present in moderate densities, and smallmouth bass will remain abundant.”
Fish and Game, with help from the Priest Lake Fishery Advisory Commitee, presented anglers and the public with three management choices: status quo, reducing lake trout populations to boost the kokanee fishery and other game fish species, or slightly reducing the lake trout population in an attempt to get a corresponding increase in other species.
Fish and Game did several surveys and multiple open houses to gauge public interest in changing management for the lake.
- The random mail survey of anglers showed 52 percent did not want change vs. 48 percent who wanted change.
- An email survey of anglers showed 45 percent did not want change and 55 percent did want change.
Resident anglers who frequently fish Priest Lake showed the most support for maintaining the existing fishery. Anglers who used to fish Priest Lake, but don’t now, were most likely to support change. In general, resident and nonresident anglers had similar opinions, and so did anglers from all the counties surveyed.
“We were clear from the start that unquestionable support for change was necessary in order for a drastic shift in management to be publicly accepted and successful,” Dux said.
Changing the management of the Priest Lake would require substantial time and resources from the department and patience from the public. Without a clear mandate for change, fisheries managers decided to recommend to the commission continuing with the current management.
“We had tremendous participation from the public during this process, which gives us confidence that we understand public desires for the Priest Lake fishery,” Dux said. “The Priest Lake fishery is a public resource, so periodically it is important to ask the public how they want to see it managed. We learned there isn’t quite enough support to justify major change, but we didn’t have a good read on that until we asked the question.”
Priest Lake’s fisheries have steadily changed over time. The lake’s native sport fish are cutthroat trout, bull trout and mountain whitefish. Non-native lake trout and kokanee were introduced decades ago, and for many years, kokanee supported the lake’s most popular fishery.
Kokanee were also an important food source for bull trout and lake trout, which attained trophy sizes. That balance between predators and prey fish lasted into the 1970s, then fell apart. Mysis, a small freshwater shrimp, was introduced in the late-1960s to provide more food for kokanee. Unfortunately, young lake trout feed on shrimp until the fish switch their diet to kokanee.
Mysis allowed the lake trout population to grow at the expense of kokanee, which also happened to a lesser extent as lake trout preyed on, or outcompeted, cutthroat and bull trout.
Fish and Game has curbed lake trout population growth in Upper Priest Lake to relieve pressure on those native fish.
Fisheries managers have in the past attempted to boost kokanee numbers by stocking more, but those efforts were thwarted by lake trout predation. Millions of kokanee fry, as well as hundreds of thousands of juvenile cutthroat, were stocked without a noticeable increase in the populations of either species.
While fishing at Priest Lake is different than decades ago, it’s still an attractive place for anglers who enjoy catching lake trout.
“Plenty of fishing opportunities lie ahead for Priest Lake anglers,” Dux said. “Anglers looking for unique fishing opportunities in a scenic location will find them at Priest Lake.”