Fishing for Trouble: Vandalism Forces End to Trout Pens in Payette Lake 

The program was designed to allow the fish to grow bigger and acclimate to new surroundings.

After Payette Lake fish pens were vandalized time and again, Idaho Fish and Game has ended the practice of helping 6,000 rainbow trout grow in size.

Jessica Murri

After Payette Lake fish pens were vandalized time and again, Idaho Fish and Game has ended the practice of helping 6,000 rainbow trout grow in size.

Every summer, when the heat in the Treasure Valley becomes suffocating, the population of McCall nearly quadruples. The cramped yet quaint main street fills with traffic inching through town while tourists in tank tops and bikinis crowd the crosswalks.

As children, parents and college kids overtake the banks of Payette Lake, something is missing this summer near the bobbing docks of Brown Park. For nearly two decades, the lakefront park was home to two large fish pens where about 6,000 rainbow trout would grow throughout the summer.

Every year, the trout started their lives at the Nampa Fish Hatchery before being trucked to McCall and herded into the rearing pens—not an easy task, according to Fish and Game Regional Fisheries Manager Dale Allen.

"It took some time to get them all in there; not the easiest thing to corral them all out of the truck and into the pens," he said.

Allen has decided not to deal with that again this year. The pens, made of net, have been a target of vandalism for several years and Allen said he's over it.

"We didn't mind the labor involved, but if it was just all for not every time, we're going to be done with it for a while," he said.

For the past two years, someone has swam under the fish pens and cut the net, releasing all of the fish into the lake—usually just weeks after they were first put in. They're supposed to live in the pens from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

It's unfortunate for those who enjoy fishing along the lakeside, because the point of the program was to help the fish grow bigger—from 10 inches to 12 or 13 inches—and acclimate them to the water near the docks.

"Plus, people enjoyed just seeing the fish there," Allen said. "The fish now may not be as big and probably won't stay in town because they're not used to that area as much. The pens seemed to localize them, made the fishing a little better in town. That was the best part of it."

Alongside the fish pens, McCall Parks and Recreation managed some food dispensers where visitors could drop a nickel and get some fish food to throw into the 25-foot by 25-foot pens.

McCall Parks and Rec Director Dennis Coyle said those, too, fell victim to vandals.

"They'd break them open and get the money out," he said. "There wasn't a lot in there, but it helped offset the costs of the program."

The rainbow trout will still end up in the lake, but now they'll be dumped in the water without spending time fattening up with automatic feeders.

"We'll see how it goes," Allen said.

If fish pens and food dispensers seem like strange targets for vandalism, it's because they are. The culprits have left Allen and Coyle scratching their heads, though Coyle doubts this is the work of some vigilante environmentalists wanting to free the fish.

"If it was, it failed miserably because the fish would swim out of the net and then swim right back in when they're threatened," Coyle said. "I think it was someone just trying to create a little havoc. I've been in this business for more than 35 years and nothing like this surprises me."

Allen agrees with Coyle on that front.

"I've been in this long enough to see lots of stupid things," Allen said.

In the long run, losing the fish-rearing pens might not make that big of a difference to the fishing in Payette Lake. Fish and Game is in the process of changing its fish stocking program, switching to a larger sized trout that will grow closer to 12 inches without any human assistance. Allen said the fish pens probably would have faded away eventually.

Coyle isn't too worried about the loss either.

"It was nice while it was there, but things change and you move on," he said. "There's probably some people that will be disappointed that they can't see the fish up close anymore, but [Fish and Game] will continue to stock the Payette Lake and the fish will still be in there."

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