I’m Your Huckleberry: Lonesome Larry visits North Idaho

Lonesome Larry visits Lake Pend Oreille at Sandpoint City Beach.

In his determination to reach every last corner of the state, Lonesome Larry will not be stopped–except perhaps to pick some huckleberries along the way.

The most interesting fish in the world traveled all the way to the US-Canada border through the Idaho Panhandle this week, attending farmer’s markets in Moscow, Sandpoint, and Coeur d’Alene and making several appearances at city beaches on Lake Pend Oreille and Lake Coeur d’Alene. These scenic lakes are the hub of recreation in North Idaho, where tourists from all over come for camping, swimming, boating, fishing, and para-sailing.

Lonesome Larry reads up on his cousins, the bull trout, at Lake Pend Oreille.

While it never contained migrating sockeye, Lake Pend Oreille was once home to millions of Kokanee, the land-locked version of the same species. Over the past century, habitat destruction caused by several factors, including dam construction and the introduction of invasive species to Lake Pend Oreille, caused Kokanee populations to plummet. Although they are still far below their historic numbers, an angler-incentive program to reduce populations of fish that prey on kokanee has had some success. Lake Pend Oreille is also home to native bull trout, a cousin of sockeye that has also become threatened due to habitat destruction.

Lonesome Larry picks huckleberries at Schweitzer Mountain.

Overlooking Lake Pend Oreille is one more of Lonesome Larry’s destinations from the past week: Schweitzer Mountain. The world’s most interesting fish could not resist the lure of another iconic Idaho native: the huckleberry. The state fruit of Idaho, huckleberries tend to grow best in damp, acidic soil on lower slopes of mountains. While sometimes compared to blueberries, huckleberries have a sweet and tangy taste that is all their own.

Lonesome Larry has another reason to love huckleberries: while humans have tried to domesticate the species for farms and gardens, they have had little success. Like sockeye, huckleberry plants do best when wild. Both species are native, nutritious, perfect pieces of Idaho that insist upon thriving on their own terms.

The most interesting fish in the world, silhouetted in the light of the sunset over Lake Coeur d'Alene.

A chat with Larry: what Columbia River sockeye returns mean for Idaho

If you’ve stayed up to date salmon news lately, you might have heard that upper Columbia River sockeye salmon are returning to the Okanagan and Wenatchee river basins this summer in numbers not seen in decades. This is great news–so why is Larry still gallivanting all over the place, talking about the plight of wild salmon?

It’s because he’s talking about Idaho’s sockeye, which pass the first four dams on the Columbia River, then turn up the Snake River and pass four more dams before swimming into the remaining miles of free-flowing rivers on their way to the Sawtooth Valley. Idaho’s sockeye this summer are predicted to return at similar rates to recent years. In 2011, 1,118 hatchery and 150 natural sockeye returned to the Sawtooth Valley. In 2010, 1,345 hatchery and 180 natural sockeye returned.

“It’s important to remember that Idaho’s sockeye are a very small percentage of the total number of fish that have been counted at Bonneville Dam,” said Bert Bowler, a retired Idaho Department of Fish and Game fisheries biologist. “The fact is that our sockeye are still in trouble, and these lower Columbia numbers don’t necessarily show that.”

Idaho’s sockeye were listed as endangered in 1991, and they have been on a captive broodstock life support system ever since. Upper Columbia sockeye, on the other hand, are not listed under the Endangered Species Act.

“Fish and Game biologists have worked wonders in preventing extinction of Idaho’s sockeye,” said Idaho Rivers United Assistant Policy Director Greg Stahl. “But the 150 to 180 natural origin fish that returned each of the past couple years aren’t anywhere close to enough to recover the species and remove them from Endangered Species Act listing.

“By all indications, this year’s return should be similar to the past couple of years, and the primary obstacle to recovery remains the same. Removing the four dams on the lower Snake River in eastern Washington state will be required to put Idaho’s sockeye on the path to sustained recovery.”

Continue to keep your eyes peeled for Lonesome Larry, The Most Interesting Fish in the World, at community events across Idaho this summer. And … stay thirsty, Idahoans.