Reflections on Pend Oreille By Chip Corsi, Region One Supervisor, Idaho Fish & Game

"Pend Oreille Country" can be seen online at https://www.pbs.org/video/pend-oreille-country-ierduv/

In 1966, not yet 9 years old and on a cross country family camping trip, my family stayed at the newly created Farragut State Park. A swim on a warm August day turned out to be my Pend Oreille “baptism”. A budding angler, I was mesmerized when we learned Lake Pend Oreille was home to giant trout.

Alpenglow on the Cabinet Mountains, overlooking Lake Pend Oreille.

A dozen years later, I was a student at the University of Idaho studying fishery management. Our professor set up a field trip to Pend Oreille, and we headed out on the lake with Idaho Fish and Game biologists to trawl for kokanee. Up to that point in my life, it was one of the coolest things I’d ever done. And, it was pretty exciting to see hard evidence someone like me could actually have a career doing that kind of work.

Fall colors on the Clark Fork Delta.

About the same time, I started dating a UI co-ed from Coeur d’Alene. That summer I would drive up on my days off from work to visit, and we’d hop in the VW to go on picnics to Lake Pend Oreille. On one of those trips, to our amusement, a bear crossed the road right in front of us. Those picnics turned out to be part of our courtship, and eventually we were engaged. Her grandfather, a bonafide “old-timer” who liked to fish, must have decided I was OK and took me out on the lake to hand line for “bluebacks”. Out there, off the goat rocks, I heard stories about the good old days when the limit was 50 kokanee, and how, in the summer you could bait a hook with a grasshopper and catch fat cutthroat trout all day long.

I graduated from college, got married, and headed down to southern Idaho to start my career with Idaho Fish and Game. I love Idaho – all of it, with all of its diverse landscapes, wild areas, big rivers and big mountains and wildlife – but I love north Idaho the best. And, while I love the wide open spaces and sweet smell of sage, my bride never really stopped pining for the pines of the far north. We grabbed the first opportunity we could, and I took a transfer up to the Panhandle.

Author with Jocko after a day of duck hunting on the Clark Fork Delta. Photo and dog by Matt Corsi.

Over the next ten years I worked and played all over the Panhandle, but I was both literally and figuratively immersed in Lake Pend Oreille much of the time on both fronts. We built fond memories of my son’s first duck hunts, and the sound of surf crashing on the shores of the Clark Fork Delta as a flight of divers turns into the decoys, and watching Tundra swans flying low past our blind. There was the last retrieve of a storied, if somewhat spotty, much loved duck dog’s career, and the first retrieve of the storied and much loved successor duck dog’s career.

Jocko after a day of duck hunting with author and son. Photo by Matt Corsi.

I recall the return trip to Hope from a long day of spawning kokanee at Granite Creek, getting lost in the fog, and pulling into Garfield Bay instead - on the wrong side of the lake! Long days of spawning ground surveys in Pend Oreille’s bull trout nurseries, and while doing fishery surveys on the Clark Fork River, finding trout longer than my arm.

Early fall spawning kokanee, Lake Pend Oreille. Photo courtesy Idaho Fish & Game Dept.

When it came time for Washington Water Power (now Avista) to relicense its big dams on the Clark Fork River, I learned the meaning and effectiveness of true collaboration to address difficult natural resource management challenges. Breaking bread with stakeholders with a different point of view turned into friendships and remarkable outcomes for fish and wildlife, and the folks that enjoy them.

At one point I took a job down in headquarters, in Boise. The work was challenging, meaningful, and enjoyable, but my wife and I never did stop pining for the pines of the far north. I like to tell folks you can still see my wife’s heel marks in Highway 95 from our move down there. Even while I was down there, working on statewide programs, Pend Oreille and its many challenges occupied a good share of my time.

Lower Clark Fork rainbow trout. Photo by Matt Corsi.

When the opportunity knocked, we were able to move back. In my new role with Fish and Game, I had a lot of different things on my plate, but right there in the heart of the region was that big beautiful lake and some big challenges facing its world class fishery and wildlife habitats. Right there, on and around the lake, were anglers passionate about their fishery – historically the most popular, and one of the most socially and economically important, fisheries in the state. Also right there were people passionate about restoring the unique and productive wildlife habitat of Pend Oreille’s deltas. In my office were equally passionate staff, working for, and finding ways – in league with stakeholders – to get the work done. Once again, I was immersed in Pend Oreille.

Lake Pend Oreille from the Clark Fork Delta.

It took a lot of hard work, a lot of patience, a lot of collaboration and bridge building, a lot of creativity, a lot of talented and passionate people, and a lot of resources to put a shine back on one of the Gem State’s most spectacular gems. I had, and still have, the privilege of working with and watching anglers with different points of view, passionate about their fishery, come together to be part of the solution.

Fall colors on the Clark Fork Delta.

Likewise, I get to see what can happen when communities come together to find the ways and the means to put back together valuable and unique wildlife habitat. And, I get to work with and watch my colleagues, passionate about their work, turning visions into reality with the restoration of the Pend Oreille fishery and the Clark Fork Delta. The work goes on, of course, with new challenges and new opportunities. I choose to be optimistic about the future of Pend Oreille, because the communities around the lake truly have a sense of place, and passionately and fiercely care about it.

Author’s grandson on Pend Oreille hike. Photo by Matt Corsi.

Pend Oreille is a special place for my family. It’s about a lot of things, but maybe those are best represented by mountain goats scrambling across the Bernard cliffs and elk feeding on the north shore faces; the big, dark shadow of a bull trout under an overhanging log and the bright scarlet throngs of kokanee heading upsteam to spawn. It’s a flight of bluebill against a gray winter sky, finding the wing-prints of an eagle in the snow where I expected to find the duck I went to retrieve; a day spent fishing with a good friend or family. It’s about the balsam root bloom on a warm spring day, a dip in the lake on a hot summer day, the fall colors in the Clark Fork Delta, a dusting of snow on the cliffs of the Green Monarchs, and the alpenglow on the snowcapped peaks of the Cabinet Mountains. In any season, it’s a pretty incredible back yard.

Decoys on Lake Pend Oreille. Photo by Matt Corsi.