Year of the Tiger
September 29, 2010
How big will tiger trout get in 2008, their seventh year of growing in Washington waters? It's anyone's guess, but you can bet the state record is going to get mauled! (May 2008)
Tiger trout -- a cross between brown and brook trout -- are making their reputation as bare-knuckle brawlers and a hot new challenge for Washington anglers
Photo courtesy of Terry W. Sheely
On that hot July day, fishing in a coldwater bowl between crackling sagebrush and black volcanic rock, Dennis Werlau Jr. set the hook on a beautiful 6.26-pound Lenice Lake trophy trout and rewrote history.
The fish that Werlau caught on July 6, 2006 was tough, aggressive, with the strange vermiculated markings of both Salmo trutta and Salvelinus fontinalis. It was a brook and brown trout mix -- a tiger trout!
Offspring of female browns and male brookies, tiger trout are a genetic mix -- a sterile hybrid that is neither trout nor char, but a combination of both. And it's staking out a reputation as a bare-knuckle brawler and a hot new challenge for Washington State anglers.
Werlau's trophy stands as the certified state record. But fish managers will be surprised if that record isn't shattered several times in the next fishing season. Tigers are thought to be a lot more aggressive than either of their parents -- an endearing quality for sportfishermen.
Growth rates depend on the fertility of the host lake. But if there's not too much competition for food from other species, tigers stocked as fingerlings will reach 14 to 15 inches by their second year.
Tiger trout are strikingly colored. Light brown and gold with ribbons of vermiculations -- or worm tracks -- cover their backs and sides. Their bellies are yellow-orange.
How big will tiger trout eventually grow? That's one of the great mysteries of this crossbreeding that biologists hope to answer as the hybrid stockings spread across the state.
Because the fish are sterile, they put no energy into reproductive behavior and channel it all into fast growth and long lives. The larger fish that result could develop into a fishery similar to the state's popular triploid trophy trout program.
If there's a shadow on this project, it's that as predators, tiger trout may be just too efficient for the good of rainbow fisheries.
Jeff Korth, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist, is spearheading the state's tiger trout infusion. He said that in some lakes, tigers are too much of a good thing, if eating your neighbors is a bad thing.
"If tiger trout numbers get too high in a fingerling-stocked trout lake, they can put a damper on fingerling survival," said Korth.
The fish biologist said he hasn't yet seen evidence of competition because tigers are stocked at relatively low numbers compared to rainbows.
The Evergreen State's first tigers were raised in the Department of Fish and Wildlife's hatchery at Ford in eastern Washington. In 2001, they were planted in 16 select Grant County waters that already held either browns or brookies. That first plant was an experiment, and included only about 40,000 fish.
Now Korth's experiment is growing legs and crossing the state, and gathering popularity with every expansion. This year, that original 40,000 stocking confined to the Columbia Basin has jumped to almost 115,000 and has crossed the Cascade Mountains.
Trout waters from Spokane to the west slope of the Cascades are now strongholds for tiger trout. On the east side of the state, the one area not being stocked with tigers is WDFW's Region 3, which includes lakes on the east slope of the Cascades and a liberal splattering of Columbia River tributaries.
WDFW Yakima fish biologist Jim Cummins said that fish managers in his region worry that the aggressive tigers will have negative impacts on other sportfish species like native trout, char, steelhead and salmon, several of which are already under Endangered Species Act protection.
Cummins said the decision to not stock tiger trout in Region 3 was a safeguard measure to protect these endangered natives.
"We decided to stay with native species because most of our lakes are connected to rivers, where we have ESA-listed steelhead and/or bull trout," said Cummins. "We have also stopped planting eastern brook and brown trout."
Both brookies and browns, though widely established statewide, are not native to the Northwest. Elsewhere in the state, tigers are on the move, and anglers are loving the stalk.
A DIFFERENT BREED
Packing the cunning and bulldog strength of brown trout and the aggressive hot-to-bite disposition of brookies, tiger trout are a handful on light tackle.
Flyfishermen in particular are falling in love with this strange hybrid, and some of the heaviest concentrations of tiger plants have been made in lakes set aside by WDFW as quality waters where sports fishermen are limited to unscented artificial lures, flies with single-point barbless hooks and knotless landing nets.
Many of the most productive lakes also have a one-fish daily limit. That attracts fly fishermen like Greg Lee, who was all smiles after landing nearly 5 pounds of tiger trout in Lenice Lake last year.
This is the seventh growing season for Washington's tiger trout program. From one side of the state to the other, anglers are predicting a leap in tiger attacks and expecting records to fall.
Lenice is the most popular of a three-lake chain of food-fertile desert lakes along Crab Creek south of Royal City. The other lakes are Nunnally and Merry. All three now support tiger trout, and Lenice has consistently produced the biggest in the state, largely thanks to a diet of stunted sunfish.
Grant County, in the center of the semi-arid and heavily irrigated Columbia Basin, boasts a wealth of fertile trout water and so far, has received more tiger plants than any other area of the state.
State fish managers also are using the predatory tigers as a terminal tool to control unwanted invasive species in trout-only lakes.
This year, the state stocked tigers in Blue and Park lakes, two extremely popular trout and kokanee lakes in Sun Lakes State Park near Ephrata. According to Kor
th, the tiger program manager, the plants were partially to control unwanted bluegills and perch that may have survived last year's rotenone treatments.
Korth said that Park and Blue are both big lakes, and the rotenone wasn't expected to completely kill all of the sunfish, sculpins and other fish. So he stocked tigers and browns early on so that they'll be large enough to be piscivorous -- fish eaters -- by the time the undesirable species again start to become numerous.
"I think it buys a little more time after each rehab," said Korth.
It's also a plan that benefits fishermen because once tigers become piscivorous, they really start to pile on the pounds.
Tigers are also starting to show in stocking allocations headed for Okanogan County and are being spread through the far eastern edge of the state, mostly north of Spokane.
A lot of the best water is heavily favored by flyfishermen, but tigers aren't just a fly-fishing show. Conventional tackle-and-bait anglers are also stalking these scrappers.
Mineral Lake, a short drive from Tacoma, is one of the finest bait-and-lure lakes in western Washington. It now offers tigers, as does Klineline Pond, a bait-soaking stronghold along Intestate 5 in Vancouver.
Fish Lake, Silver Lake and Fourth of July Lake near Spokane -- all outstanding conventional tackle strongholds -- also receive some of the heaviest tiger trout plants in the state.
The chain of small, shallow state-owned lakes cached in the Little Pend Oreille Wildlife Refuge north of Chewelah is tiger-enhanced, along with big Sacheen and Sullivan lakes.
CATCHING A TIGER
Small dark spinners and spoons, worms, night crawlers, maggots and grasshoppers are frequently stalked and struck in tiger country. In the shallow-water lakes especially, tigers are also showing a fondness for slashing surface attacks -- a trait that neither parent particularly favors. In mid- to late summer, large caddis and hopper patterns seem to be especially attractive to tigers, and smaller mayfly patterns will also produce.
The workhorses that draw most of the attention, though, are dark wet flies like Woolly Buggers, Leeches, Carey Specials and Woolly Worms.
I've also heard reports that a large earthworm pinned onto a No. 6 hook and trailed snug behind a gold or nickel Colorado spinner blade brings startling strikes.
Since both browns and brookies share a fondness for worms and crawlers, I'm thinking that stalking this rig is in the tiger's blood.