Let’s Look Back: Columbia River’s Warm Water Fish Populations Face Problem

My friend Bruce Holt displays the kind of smallmouth bass anglers are now finding in the Columbia River. The larger fish always show up early in the season. Bruce nailed this beauty in February. Photo Stan Fagerstrom.

My friend Bruce Holt displays the kind of smallmouth bass anglers are now finding in the Columbia River. The larger fish always show up early in the season. Bruce nailed this beauty in February. Photo Stan Fagerstrom.

The Pacific Northwest is salmon and steelhead country.

Anybody who fishes and doesn’t know that hasn’t got all his marbles. But let me share something you very well might not be aware of. It’s this: That part of the world now also has some darn good bass fishing. It is also producing record size walleyes. But as hard as some of the fish officials in states like Oregon and Washington have tried to destroy the big river’s warm water fishery it’s a wonder it’s still there.

Does that attitude on the part of fish management come about because there’s no interest in bass or the other warm water species among anglers out there in tall timber country? Don’t you believe it! Dedicated walleye, bass and panfish anglers have been pleading for help from fish management in both Oregon and Washington ever since I can remember.

Have those pleas been heard? Before you answer that, my friends, let me tell you about the latest bit of destruction Oregon and Washington fish officials are doing where 2016 regulations on the Columbia River are concerned. This year both size and bag limits are to be dropped on all of the Columbia’s warm water species. And as if that wasn’t enough, similar regulations are to be adopted on two of the Columbia’s most productive smallmouth bass tributaries

The other two Oregon rivers to be affected by the ruling are the John Day and Umpqua. Both these streams for years now have been drawing the attention of bass anglers from all over the United States. It’s my understanding Field & Stream magazine last year tabbed the John Day River as “The Best in the West” for smallmouth bass.

I’d like to be able to say these latest moves surprise me but they don’t. It reminds me a good bit of what was happening when I first started writing about fishing way back in 1946. I went to work for The Daily News in Longview, Washington in May, 1946. One of my first assignments was to write a weekly fishing column for the newspaper.

At that time it was common practice for state fish officials to apply poison to smaller lakes that held populations of carp, bluegill, and crappie. Once these fish were eliminated, the state’s fish biologists would restock such lakes with six to eight inch hatchery raised trout.

The Columbia River has already produced walleye of more than 19-pounds. There are those who are convinced the big river will one day kick out a new world record. If fish officials in Washington and Oregon have their way where management of the walleye resource on the big river is concerned that's much less likely to happen. Photo Stan Fagerstrom.

The Columbia River has already produced walleye of more than 19-pounds. There are those who are convinced the big river will one day kick out a new world record. If fish officials in Washington and Oregon have their way where management of the walleye resource on the big river is concerned that’s much less likely to happen. Photo Stan Fagerstrom.

If you were one of the guys who had love to fish for the bass and crappie these lakes once held you were up that well known creek with no means of propulsion.

In my last column I mentioned how dedicated bass fishermen in the Seattle area got together way back in 1938 and formed the Western Bass Club. The club is thought to have been the first such organization ever formed in the United States. Oregon bass and panfish anglers did the same thing 20 years later in 1958. That’s when they formed the Oregon Bass and Panfish Club.

I watched the activities of both of these organizations in the 36 years I worked for the Longview, Washington newspaper. For several years I also did a fishing column for the Vancouver Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Washington. I did that column under the pen name “Stanley Scott.”

These clubs were able to eventually get their state’s respective fish management agencies to make some improvements where bass and panfish were concerned. I had a hand in a couple of them myself. One of them was to finally get a 14-inch bass size limit established on Silver Lake, one of Washington’s best bass lakes. It’s my understanding that regulation no longer exists.

For a number of years I worked with owners of Silver Lake’s leading fishing resort to sponsor a “Stan Fagerstrom Catch & Release” bass fishing program. The G.Loomis Rod Company played a leading role in this endeavor. They presented one of their top bass rods to the angler who caught and released the most bass over two pounds in size over the course of the season.

Silver Lake also has an abundance of crappie. The Washington Fish and Game Department went along with the establishment of a 9-inch size limit for the lake’s crappie. The last time I checked that size limit was still in effect.

Just how and why the new rules on the Columbia River have been put into effect is difficult to understand. Certainly the impact bass and walleyes have on the young of the migratory species has to be the one possible explanation.

But those bass and walleyes have been around for years. Today the Columbia has already produced walleyes that are only a few pounds off the all time record size. Experienced anglers will tell you the big river’s smallmouth bass fishing now rivals the production of those fish in parts of the United States much better known for their bass angling.

You’d think fish officials in both states would have contacted members of the Oregon Bass and Panfish Club and the Western Bass Club before making the kind of rulings they have. You’d have thought they might have had studies and surveys to support such moves on the big river that divides the two states. As far as I know, there was not one damn word ever published in this regard.

I do know that designated members of the Oregon Bass and Panfish Club did appear before a meeting of the Oregon State Fish Commission prior to their decision on the Columbia and its tributaries. They tell me the commissioners heard what they had to say and then voted to approve the new ruling without one dissenting vote.

Removal of bag and size limits is also taking place on Oregon's John Day River. It was Oregon fish officials who planted the river's smallmouth in the first place. Anglers have shown an increasing interest in the river's smallmouth fishery. Now the removal of bag and size limits is an obvious attempt to reduce the river's smallmouth population. Photo Stan Fagerstrom.

Removal of bag and size limits is also taking place on Oregon’s John Day River. It was Oregon fish officials who planted the river’s smallmouth in the first place. Anglers have shown an increasing interest in the river’s smallmouth fishery. Now the removal of bag and size limits is an obvious attempt to reduce the river’s smallmouth population. Photo Stan Fagerstrom.

Washington got around to doing the same thing late last year. I’ve had writers from that state tell me they felt the Washington Fish Commissioners made deliberate attempts to cover up the new Columbia River rulings.

What I think those who would take such action on the Columbia fail to realize is just what a treasure they are potentially destroying. The outstanding Columbia River walleye and smallmouth bass fishery is a potential gold mine just waiting to be tapped.

Be assured you won’t have any trouble finding fish management folks all over the nation who would just love to have the situation that now exists on the Columbia. I also wonder if the tourist promotion people of the two states were consulted before this action was taken. For years now, more and more anglers from around the nation have been heading West to sample the Columbia’s bass and walleye angling.

And how about the guides, the fishing lodges and bait makers who are certain to suffer perhaps even business-ending damage if the big river’s walleye and smallmouth angling is eventually permanently damaged.

Meanwhile there is still commercial angling being allowed on the Columbia, sea lions are still gobbling adult fish below the lower river dams and fish-eating birds are still devouring steelhead and salmon young. Wouldn’t total elimination of all these destructive elements more than make up for whatever problems the warm water fish are causing – and all without taking away the wonderful sports fishing resource being enjoyed by so many?

Perhaps you can come up with a reasonable answer as to what is about to transpire out there in the Pacific Northwest. I regret that I can’t.