Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's High Lakes Fishery Management Program


Published: September 2001

Pages: 254

Author(s): Bob Pfeifer, Mike Swayne and Brian Curtis

Executive Summary

Report Purpose
This is the first comprehensive review and summary of the management of the high lake fishery in Washington State. Its purpose is to document the history, goals, and unique aspects of this program, as well as angler participation in, and economic value of the fishery. It identifies the number and general characteristics of the lakes that are managed for a fishery, as opposed to the many waters that are left in a natural state. The report provides documentation of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (WDFW’s) current high lake management practices. WDFW seeks to increase public awareness and understanding of the high lake fishery program; this report documents how WDFW meets the public’s need and desire for this form of recreation, while protecting other wildlife and wilderness values. Finally, the report is the first comprehensive preparation of recommendations on how to improve WDFW’s high lake management program.

Most of Washington’s high lakes were naturally fishless following the last glaciation. Native Americans may have placed some fish in some lakes, but early settlers, miners, and loggers carried trout fry into numerous lakes in the late 19th century. Prior to the creation of the Washington Department of Game by public initiative in 1933, management of fisheries in Washington’s high lakes was conducted by the federal government (principally the Forest Service) and local county governments. Many lakes that currently contain problem (excessively abundant) fish populations received their initial introductions from these agencies and individuals, not the State of Washington. WDFW’s progress in development and management of the fishery closely paralleled that seen in other states for the next 35-40 years. The performance of various strains and species of trout and char were empirically tested in waters of varying productivity and setting. Methods were developed and refined for stocking fry using backpack and aircraft to replace the old USFS pack strings or miners lugging milk cans. More rigorous methods were developed for surveying the lakes and their fisheries beginning in the early 1970s. Initial chemical treatments were made on high lakes to replace stunted, excessively abundant char with a controlled population of trout that is compatible with the alpine lake ecosystem. Methods were developed for more complete and error-free data collection, monitoring, database management, and reports.

Program Goals
WDFW’s mission is Sound Stewardship of Fish and Wildlife; one of its goals in pursuit of this mission is �"Maximum fishing, hunting and non-consumptive recreational opportunities compatible with healthy, diverse fish and wildlife populations”. In general, conservative utilization is the objective for naturallyproduced, native fish and wildlife populations. The high lake fishery is entirely artificial, created by stocking programs to provide a unique recreational fishing experience in Washington’s subalpine and alpine environments. The goal of maximum recreational fishing opportunity is not inconsistent with the agency mission since management of the fishery is sensitive and responsive to issues such as genetic integrity of native fish populations, and irreversibly adverse ecological interactions with native vertebrates and invertebrates in and near stocked lakes.

Value of the Program
Only a handful of states in the coterminous United States have the diversity of landscape to offer recreational opportunity at thousands of lakes in subalpine and alpine environments, much of which is protected as designated wilderness. Washington has a rich glacial and legislative legacy of wilderness settings that challenge the hiking angler, and provide a huge diversity of opportunity for angling of the highest quality. Users can choose destination lakes that range from the end of a road, to the most challenging remote locations that require a high degree of mountaineering skill to access. The fisheries include lakes that have supported family-oriented recreation for many decades. Depending on the lake setting and the individual, alpine lake fishing in Washington is often truly a unique experience.

The 1995 Angler Survey conducted by WDFW determined that more than 175,000 license-buying anglers fish Washington’s high lakes annually. These anglers are in addition to children or others who, for one reason or another, do not purchase a license. About 1,400,000 fishing trips were made in 1994 by these individuals, based on an average of 7.7 trips per angler. Using an average figure of $49.79 per trip yields an annual fishery value of over $67 million. Because many of the high lakes support self-sustaining fish populations, and the cost of small fry used in stocking programs is very low, the program has a phenomenally high benefit to cost ratio of between 1000:1 and 1600:1. The high lake fishery is almost certainly the most cost-effective program administered by WDFW.

Lakes in the Program
Slightly over 4700 high lakes occur in Washington, based on a definition of their occurring above 2500 ft (mean sea level) west of, and 3500 ft east of the Cascades. Only 1777 (38%) of these support fish; of these, about 800 (17%) are periodically stocked. The balance, or about 1000 waters, have self-sustaining fish populations. Nearly two thirds (62%) of Washington’s high lakes and ponds are fishless, and are broadly distributed across the landscape. Lake size and depth is highly variable, ranging in size from tiny ponds at about 0.1 acre, to very large lakes of over 300 acres. The majority are between 0.2 and 50 acres. The smallest lakes and ponds are usually at least 3 feet deep at their deepest point. Maximum depth increases continuously with lake size up to about 160 acres. A typical 10-acre lake would have a maximum depth of about 40 feet. There is great diversity in average depths, shoreline shape and slope, setting, exposure, soil development, and bedrock type, resulting in a wide range of potential productivity.

Many of the lakes contain excessively abundant populations of eastern brook or cutthroat that are known to have adverse effects on native biota in or near the lakes. Determining an accurate list of these lakes, the problem species, the lake locations, and the most practicable treatment for each water was beyond the scope of this report, but is a very important next step. Local WDFW fishery managers are, for the most part, well aware of most of these lakes, but some field reconnaissance may be necessary to derive a fully complete list since not all lakes have been surveyed in a few locations.

Current Management
Great progress has been made by WDFW biologists in performing �"baseline” surveys on waters under their responsibility, but the task is not yet complete. Physical, chemical, and biological survey methods were developed primarily in the early 1970s, but a formal state-of-the-art Methodology, or Methods Manual for high lake surveys has not been prepared. This should be considered a high priority, as well as providing the human and other resources needed to implement it, and complete the surveys. This report describes some of the major elements of such a Methodology.

A large amount of data has been collected on the lakes (physical and chemical characteristics), and on the biology of the fish and invertebrates within them. Work was initiated on developing a model of trout growth or lake productivity in a subset of Washington high lakes. This work should be completed by adding the data collected by WDFW biologists in other geographic areas. The results of this analysis should not, and probably cannot provide a cookbook or prescription for individual lake management, but would be of great value by increasing technical understanding of the production capabilities of lakes or lake types in Washington.

Local WDFW biologists visit their lakes on a time-available basis, but monitoring of the fishery is largely volunteer-based. This is developed to an usual degree in Washington, particularly with two key sports clubs in the Seattle area. The Trail Blazers, Inc., founded in 1933, and the Washington State Hi-Lakers were leaders in the development of data forms and methods to systematically collect and organize information on fishery performance at the remote lakes. WDFW has worked closely with these groups for many years, and relies heavily on their input to track program success. WDFW needs to allocate additional local staff time to maintain this feedback mechanism. Use of the Internet should be explored as a way to expand the sources of angler information, but there is no substitute for the experience of the local professional fishery manager in filtering and managing volunteer-based information.

While data management has improved greatly since 1972, some staff time (temporary or permanent) needs to be devoted to closing data gaps and correcting (relatively minor) data flow problems. The most important need is to develop a consistent approach to collecting and managing volunteered monitoring data, and producing periodic report summaries to enable routine management decisions.

The discipline in Washington’s stocking program is its hallmark. Knowledge of fish reproductive status in each lake under management is critical information. WDFW managers have determined this for most, but not all lakes under management. Stocking schedules are generally not set on any lake for which fish reproductive status is not known. Resources need to be directed at lakes and counties where this information in most needed (e.g. Chelan County). An even higher level of discipline could be achieved if measures of natural and angling mortality of trout were available. These measures should be obtained for several fish species, in a variety of settings, and under a range of fishing pressure. This information would be an extremely valuable adjunct to the volunteer-based monitoring program.

Recreational overuse at lakes, particularly in wilderness areas, is usually not caused solely by anglers. Angling is rarely the primary activity at lakes where overuse is a serious problem. WDFW should continue to work cooperatively with land managers on overuse issues, but not terminate stocking as a means of controlling human numbers at lakes. Controls on access (e.g. limited entry, or the distance people must walk) are a far more equitable and effective means of reducing use levels.

Experience and research has shown that most high lakes in Washington need not, and should not be stocked at densities greater than 50 to 100 fish per surface acre. WDFW managers became aware of this fact years before issues surrounding the decline of amphibians came to light. To prevent excessive fish numbers in a lake, trout or char species and strains should be, and are chosen that have a demonstrated inability to successfully reproduce in a given lake environment. Research on the use of sterile hybrid crosses and strains proceeds on the basis of time and financial resources availability. Overall stocking has been declining for 20 years, as well as the average density of fish stocked. Most lakes that require stocking are on low-density maintenance programs.

New fish species or strains are not stocked into waters they have not been stocked into previously without appropriate review of the biological effects. At the same time, WDFW managers need to be given the freedom to use special strains under carefully prescribed circumstances. An example is the use of top predators such as tiger muskellunge as a biological control of stunted eastern brook trout. WDFW local managers give full consideration to the potential effects of fish introductions on downstream native fish resources, and this will continue.

As a general rule, species should be, and are stocked that are native to the lake's drainage basin. However, to meet the program goal of providing diversity in the fishery, strains that are not having a negative effect on native biota should continue to be stocked (e.g. golden trout). Other strains or species should be stocked where it makes sound biological sense to do so, such as where biological controls are used to control excessive fish abundance, rather than the use of piscicides.

WDFW is aware of the need to practice ecologically responsible stocking in the high lakes. To this end, the prioritized research topics identified in the literature review conducted concurrent with this report preparation should be implemented as budgets allow. Fish should be removed from lakes where they are documented to have an unacceptable impact on native species. However, the results of studies in other states should not be categorically applied to Washington where invertebrate and amphibian communities and ecological relationships often differ from those of the states where other research occurred.

Earlier mistakes made by individuals and agencies that resulted in self-sustaining, excessively abundant trout or char populations in some Washington high lakes can be rectified in many cases. A list of prioritized lakes needing fish population control should be prepared. The extremely high benefit to cost ratio of this program should be balanced against the cost of a long term program of lake reclamations. Annual conversion of several high lakes to quality, low-density trout fisheries will go far towards meeting future recreational demand, will increase angler satisfaction, and will systematically reduce the impacts of overabundant fish on native biota. The most practical control option for each lake should be identified. To date only chemical treatment has been shown to eliminate stunted, overabundant fish in Washington high lakes. Biological controls show considerable potential for reducing fish abundance; further testing in Washington is warranted on lakes where other methods are impractical. Spawning area exclosures and intensive netting or fishing may have some potential in a limited number of lakes.

The demand for recreational fishing continues to rise as the population of Washington increases. WDFW local managers have learned through painful experience that when historic fish populations are allowed to die out in lakes, unscrupulous publics will sometimes reintroduce fish. The illegal re-introduction may not be a suitable species, and may cause irreversible harm. The number of lakes being managed for lowdensity, high quality fisheries should not be allowed to drop below current levels in order to satisfy recreational fishing demand, and to demonstrate active, responsible management.

Periodic angler use surveys such as was conducted in 1995 should continue. Given the value and costeffectiveness of the high lake fishery, it should be given special attention in future surveys.

WDFW has a long history of cooperation with major state, private, and federal land managers. Periodic or annual meetings to discuss mutual management issues should be encouraged. The 1988 Supplemental Agreement to the memorandum of Understanding between WDFW and the National Park Service should be renegotiated. It should take advantage of the best current science, this report, the concurrent literature review, and the corporate experience of groups such as Trail Blazers, Inc.

Public outreach and education can be increased by broad publication of this report and other media explaining the high lake program. This report and the associated literature review should be made available on the agency website. Local WDFW managers need to be given the time to maintain, or increase their communication with publics and groups that supply needed feedback and fishery monitoring.

What Have We Learned
WDFW understanding of management of the state's high lake fishery can be summarized as follows:

  • Continue to not stock all available waters. Balance ecological issues with fishery values. Maintain a network of barren lakes and ponds across the landscape.
  • Stock only at low densities.
  • Avoid species and strains that may reproduce excessively.
  • Remove or reduce problem fish populations wherever it is feasible to do so. Replace excessively abundant species with a controlled fish community to meet the public demand for this form of recreation.
  • Stock native species primarily. Contain stocked fish to the target lake by use of appropriate stocking methods.
  • Maintain close coordination with other land managers.

Studies specific to Washington would be valuable that addressed subjects investigated in other regions, such as identification of the stocking densities and intervals that have significant, or irreversible impacts on native invertebrates. More complete information is needed on the basin life history and abundance of amphibians in Washington's high country; to date there is no evidence that any species native to this life zone is severely depressed or endangered. More definitive information is also needed on the degree to which stocks used by WDFW emigrate or drop out of lakes in which they are stocked.