Spawning kokanee turn Idaho lake into eagle buffet

BAYVIEW, Idaho (AP) Bayview residents say an abundance of spawning kokanee in their bay of Lake Pend Oreille have made this year's December eagle-watching season one to remember.

If the community had a mayor, it might be Ralph Jones, who has lived in the town for 25 years, and owns and operates the popular Ralph's Coffee House. His truck's Idaho license plate reads "Bayview."

He said the number of eagles this December is "tenfold" compared with past years.

"Living in a post card," Jones called it Monday afternoon.

He attributes the eagle turnout to the strong comeback kokanee have made in Lake Pend Oreille. In 2013, for the first time since 1999, anglers were allowed to keep a limit of six kokanee from the lake. The kokanee also feed the lake's popular rainbow trout.

The delicious fish's spawning activity in the bay has held the eagles' attention longer than most years, Jones said.

"It seems like the eagles just hung up here, and didn't carry on down south," he said as he eased his 23-foot 1972 Bayliner out of his slip at the marina in Bayview. He cruised out to the calm bay with a couple guests to watch the eagles.

"We're just enjoying the show," he said of the community's residents and visitors. The bay always gets about 50 eagles, he said, but this year it's hundreds.

"It's a bird Audubon paradise out here right now, really," he said.

He pointed to a number of trees on the south side of the bay, each "stacked" with five or six eagles.

"Hear them talking up there?" he asked. Some eagles seemed to quibble over space in a tree, using their distinctive calls. "Sound is carrying today."

Dead kokanee can be seen scattered across the lake bottom, where it's visible. The fish die after spawning. A rare live one languidly swims by now and then along the bottom, looking half-dead like a zombie.

Carrie Hugo, a U.S. Bureau of Land Management wildlife biologist, said she spotted 217 bald eagles along her regular 12-mile route along Lake Coeur d'Alene on Monday. That's a jump from 129 last week.

"I was expecting the number to be lower, not higher," Hugo said. "After (Dec. 20) the numbers start to go down because spawning is ending."

She believes the eagles were delayed en route to Coeur d'Alene as kokanee spawning continued going strong in the Pend Oreille.

"That's my only theory," she said. "I'm really curious to see what the count is next week."

The eagles simply follow the food, she said.

The eagles hit Pend Oreille before going to Coeur d'Alene as they migrate south, before turning around and heading back north in February to prepare for reproduction.

"This year the food resource is very strong on Lake Pend Oreille," said Jim Hayden, the regional wildlife manager with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

He said fisheries technicians for Fish and Game who have been out measuring kokanee spawning gravel on Lake Pend Oreille have reported an abundance of eagles.

So, as kokanee go, so go the eagles.

"The lake is so alive with the kokanee out here," Jones said. "It's just that abundance of life that's good."