Invasion of the Trout-snatchers

April 28, 2002

If hell has a lake, you know what it's stocked with. We're talking
here about a fish that only its mother--and PETA--could love. The
northern pike is a homely, slimy, saw-toothed predator. It is
also as resilient as Aerosmith, which explains the concussive
thuds emanating from beneath the surface of Lake Davis this week.

Nestled in the Sierra Nevada mountains in the Plumas National
Forest in northern California, Lake Davis has become an unlikely
home for the pike, which are native to the waterways of the
Midwest. After being illegally introduced to the lake in the
early 1990s, the pike multiplied madly and all but exterminated
the trophy trout that attract the anglers who help drive the
area's economy.

Northern pike have already devastated the indigenous trout
population in Alaska, where Jim Lavrakas snapped the
award-winning photograph to the right of a northern pike
devouring a rainbow trout fingerling. Should the pike elude the
barriers set up to contain them in Lake Davis, they could work
their way downstream, to the Sacramento and San Joaquin river
systems. Once there, the pike could put a serious dent in the
state's multimillion-dollar salmon fishing industry and drive
certain endangered species, such as winter-run chinook salmon,
closer to extinction.

Rousing itself for battle, the state's Department of Fish and
Game (DFG) in October 1997 dropped 50,000 pounds of rotenone, a
chemical poison, into Lake Davis. What ensued became a public
relations calamity for the DFG. It wasn't just that the
department imposed the rotenone solution on the locals. It was
that the department then made a hash of the exercise. "They
promised the rotenone would be released below the surface of the
lake," says Bill Powers, the mayor of Portola, which is near Lake
Davis. "We have videotape of it being released on the surface
[where it caused a horrible stench]." Powers also mentions the
Grizzly Creek debacle. DFG agents in charge of keeping the poison
from flowing into the creek screwed up. So in addition to killing
all the fish in Lake Davis (or so they thought), they killed
every fish for five miles down Grizzly Creek. Free of charge.

Small wonder that a judge awarded local businesses more than $9
million in reparations.

The poison wiped out the trout--and every other living thing in
the 4,000-acre lake--but, comically and tragically, failed to
eliminate the pike. It is not known whether they survived "the
treatment" (to use the DFG's Orwellian phrase) or were
reintroduced by some random jerk. Either way, they were back in
force by May '99. The DFG then tried eliminating them with
electricity. The pike scoffed.

Next up on the roster of weapons to be used against the pike:
1,000 feet of detonation cord. This ordnance will be blown up
just below the surface in one acre of the lake on April 24.
(Department officials deny having ordered it out of Wile E.
Coyote's Acme catalog.) The blast creates a concussion that
ruptures a fish's air bladder, killing it. Not to worry, says DFG
spokesman Steve Martarano. "All trout killed will be replaced at
a 2-to-1 ratio"--a balm to fishermen but cold comfort to the dead

The DFG is not guilty of detonation without representation, as
the locals, having been consulted about the state's plans this
time around, welcome the latest attempt to spike the pike. This
assault on the fish is really just a "test shot," says DFG
biologist Ivan Paulsen, designed to monitor the effects of
underwater concussion. The big explosions will come next year and
in '04. The result is likely to be the same: The pike will take
some casualties, but survive.

The people of Portola can live with that. Not that they have much
choice. The trout have been restocked; people are once again
fishing the lake. They'll take this uneasy stalemate to the ugly
alternative: a lake filled with nothing but pike. As Paulsen
says, "So far, there is no magic bullet."

That applies to lakes far beyond northern California. If pike can
be illegally planted at Lake Davis, they can be planted anywhere.
And as they have demonstrated for the last decade, these
predators are the pesky, piscatorial equivalent of Barry Bonds:
You can't stop them, you can only hope to contain them.

The next SI Adventure will appear in the May 27 issue.

COLOR PHOTO: JIM LAVRAKAS/ANCHORAGE DAILY NEWS Tough pill to swallow In Lake Davis, as in Alaska, the northern pike will continue to gobble up the trout population.

The northern pike is a slimy, saw-toothed predator. It is
also as resilient as Aerosmith.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)