Way back in 2010 the Idaho Fish and Game Department, with assistance from Trout Unlimited, triggered fiery arguments with introduction of a then-revolutionary “Cash For Marked South Fork Rainbows” plan. The concept was to use sportfishing pressure to protect the river’s native cutthroat trout from growing encroachment, spring spawning hybridization and living space competition from a burgeoning population of more aggressive but introduced rainbows.
Paying bounties for nuisance fish is nothing new. Alaska and other northwestern regions once famously offered cash for tails of dolly varden and bull trout (for years wrongly considered the same fish) as supposed enemies of salmon. This practice ended in the early 1940s when the theory was disproven. Meanwhile, Bonneville Power Administration continues cash bounties for salmon-destructive pikeminnows (aka squawfish) from Pacific Northwest river waters. And Idaho and Montana have championed cash rewards for lake trout harvest derbies at such popular gamefish areas as Lake Pend Oreille and Flathead Lake.
All cutthroat in the Idaho Snake River drainage are protected with catch-and-release regulations. There is no limit on rainbow and rainbow-cutthroat hybrids. Today, eight years later, this refined South Fork rainbow reward program continues with less public consternation. More and newer anglers are realizing the importance of reducing thriving rainbow impacts that would eventually hurt local cutthroat populations. I regularly meet anglers from other states visiting the South Fork to get in on the rainbows-to-go program.
Meanwhile, Idaho has handed out a bundle of cash to patient fishermen willing to turn in the heads from rainbows they kept from the upper South Fork, in the hope that one will contain an invisible coded wire tag recognizable by a computer scan. On the first Friday of every month rainbow and hybrid rainbow heads received at Idaho Falls Fish and Game office (4279 Commerce Circle) are scanned. Frozen fish heads can be turned in at the office 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. In early April, when the local campground hosts are on site, convenient freezers at both the Conant Valley and Byington river access ramps will be functional again for head drop-off.
For the 2018 fishing season Idaho Fish and Game reports the addition of 777 marked rainbows and rainbow-cutthroat hybrids, worth anywhere between $50 to $1,000 each. These fish were processed in late fall by Idaho electrofishing biology crews. Annually between 700 and 800 rainbows and hybrids are marked during trout counts up and down the river from the Conant access.
Numbers prove the program
Between his personal kokanee ice fishing trips last weekend, I visited with Dan Garren, Idaho’s Upper Snake River regional fisheries manager, about his department’s inspired cutthroat trout preservation program. Dan is an enjoyable information resource and gladly sheds light on the current aspects of what is fittingly titled the “Eat ’Em To Beat ’Em” project.
Idaho Fish and Game reports that between 3,000 to 4,000 frozen rainbow trout heads are annually returned by participating fishermen. Department studies show that on average only 15 percent to 20 percent of angler catches are turned in — for whatever reasons.
“So we don’t physically see the total of 15,000-plus rainbow annual returns, fortunately,” Garren said, “or we’d run out of money fast.”
After many previous funding efforts, Dan reported the most efficient way to pay the angler bonus is through his department’s license-sales derived budget.
Then the biologist answered the obvious question that has puzzled me from the project’s beginning: Why don’t the electrofishing crews just accomplish rainbow disposal on their own during annual sampling?
“My crew takes anywhere from three to five days to collect the requisite 700 to 800 rainbows, so even if we shocked most of the year we couldn’t achieve the impact that sportfishing does,” Garren said.
There is no question in my mind that turning in the “money fish” incentivizes people and also is a valuable educational tool.
“This program encourages discussion between anglers, guides and clients and getting them talking is a catalyst,” Garren said. “The cash payouts keep people interested, too.”
Biologists have modeled what would happen without this program, Garren said. “We’d be fishing on a completely different river now had we not implemented it when we did. Protective weirs on cutthroat spawning tributaries help somewhat. But we can’t alter flows enough to interrupt rainbows’ mainstream spawning. We’d need prolonged 25,000 cubic feet per second flows. When flows get above 20,000 cfs we’re flooding houses, so that isn’t a good solution.”
As if reading my mind, the Idaho biologist explained that angling perceptions have changed.
“Newer anglers who have grown up over this management scenario have different values. If you’re a native fish [cutthroat] fan, this is what we’ve got to do to maintain, by lowering the abundance of rainbows. That Old Guard [catch and release forever] still has some opposition to killing any trout, and their attitudes are different.”
As a final note, brown trout are increasing across the region. Brown numbers in the upper South Fork above Conant Valley are more numerous than ever before. Biologists say it appears they are fairing better under today’s climate conditions.
Fly Fishing Film Tour to arrive
For a piddling $15 the adventure-seeking fly-rodder can travel the world of whining drags, pretzeled multi-piece rods, windblown shores and exotic Jeff Currier-like locations — with a cold drink and from a comfortable chair — in the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts.
The Jackson Hole Fly Fishing Tour double-hauls its way into intrepid minds on March 14 with videos from near and far sponsored by WorldCast Anglers, Jackson Hole Wild and Orvis Jackson Hole. Go to WorldCastAnglers.com or JHCenterForTheArts.org for times, content and tickets.
It’s a great time, especially if the “new winter” persists.
Fred Goodsell lives and responds
In the Nov. 8 Outdoors column I featured my early-a.m. Madison River-side meeting with grizzly bear champion Doug Peacock, and I wrote that Edward Abbey was his greatest promoter. Abbey was a novelist, environmental activist and former seasonal park ranger whose most popular work, “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” used a captivating George W. Hayduke caricature to portray former Green Beret medic Peacock.
When Hayduke — the character — disappeared and we (wrongly) presumed was permanently out of commission, suddenly a person of similar characteristics named Fred Goodsell sprang up. Like Peacock, the real Fred Goodsell was another Abbey pal.
My column wrongly noted that Mr. Goodsell, who worked for the Bureau of Reclamation as the Jackson Lake Dam operator for a while, met Abbey in Arizona and had also worked at Glen Canyon Dam (an avowed flashpoint for Abbey, Hayduke, Peacock, et al).
Fred Goodsell called me to report that he never worked for the Bureau of Reclamation anywhere but in Jackson. He and Abbey met when he was a seasonal naturalist at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Ajo, Arizona, and Abbey was a seasonal ranger. Fred still spends winters in Ajo and happily recalls his time in Jackson. I’m sorry to have misidentified his previous government occupation.