Trout Unlimited Others 'tagging' lake fish to better understand endangered salmon

by Dallas Cross

Issaquah Press, June 17, 2009

If you listen carefully with your head underwater or place a sonic microphone in Lake Sammamish you might hear some clicking fading in and out.

No, it isn’t freshwater submarine sonar. Rather the clicks are from acoustic tags emitting information from fish recently caught and released. Tagging was conducted by a task team lead by the Bellevue-Issaquah chapter of Trout Unlimited working with the King County Dept. of Resources, the WA State Department of Fish and Game, and the Save Lake Sammamish Group.

In a continuing effort to understand different life-cycle elements of the possibly endangered kokanee salmon-trout, Trout Unlimited volunteers, and members of the public initiated a program to tag several fish species in the lake. The local Trout Unlimited chapter has initiated an “Adopt a Kokanee” fund raising program described on its website,

I recently joined volunteers and kokanee sponsors to fish in Lake Sammamish with barbless hooks for kokanee and cutthroat trout. When a fish was caught it was placed in a container with aerated water. A cell phone call was then made to a pick up boat to which the fish was transferred and ferried to a fish biologist’s work station on shore.

At the work station fish were examined and fitted with an acoustic device that broadcasts continuously. After holding fish overnight to assure their fitness, they were released back into the lake for monitoring.

Listening monitors have been strategically placed in the lake to record the position of each tagged fish and its ambient temperature. Task team members regularly download data from the monitors for processing. Trout Unlimited plans to catch and tag additional fish during the summer, including Northern pike-minnow (nee squawfish) and bass

Biologists hope to fill in missing pieces of the life cycles and habitat preferences of the tagged fish. Kokanee in the lake are alarmingly decreasing in numbers. It is hoped that this study might show the proportion of adults that choose to spawn on gravel beaches in the lake instead of in creek beds.

A complimentary study is underway, manned by Trout Unlimited volunteers. They are wrapping up a month of cold and rainy nights when trapping, counting and releasing newly hatched kokanee fry returning to the lake down Lewis Creek. This census will add to the two year data base of returning fry on the creek for biologists to determine the extent of decline of this genetically-unique run of fish.

This spring, 187 returning kokanee fry have been counted to date; as compared to 195 in 2008 and 2,232 in 2007 when the survey was made daily instead of three timer per week. Only a few fry have been seen recently and this may be close to the final tally for the year.

My initial exposure to kokanee fishing was on Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho. The kokanee were planted in the lake as forage fish for large Kamloops lake trout and quickly thrived such that 200 was set as the initial fishing limit. When I fished the limit was 50 and we caught them trolling with pop gear and wedding ring lures baited with small corn kernels, the same gear we used to capture kokanee for the Lake Sammamish tagging project.

The reward for successful kokanee fishing in Lake Pend Oreille was wonderful. You could walk into a saloon in Sandpoint, Idaho, plop 50 fresh kokanee on the counter and the barman would shove back 25 nicely smoked ones with a plate of crackers. Together with a cold beer this made a hearty lunch.

In the 1970’s I fished for kokanee in Lake Sammamish and observed the methods of Issaquah’s good old boys. On the way to the lake they would stop at the Darigold Creamery on Front Street and pick up a bucket of small cheese curds. After chumming the curds in the lake they trolled the milky trail catching kokanee with meal worms on a spinner.

Hard working and dedicated public and private individuals, such as those comprising the multi-governmental Kokanee Conservation Group have expressed a goal of once again having a public fishery for kokanee in Lake Sammamish. I am stocking up on crackers and beer with hope to celebrate their success.