In a nod to salmon and steelhead recovery efforts, Washington fishery managers next week will propose scrapping all bag limits on bass, catfish and walleye in Columbia Basin rivers and streams.
The rule change, part of an annual package of reg-tweaking ideas that come from fishermen, state biologists as well as headquarters honchos in Olympia, must first go through public comment and then the Fish & Wildlife Commission.
If approved, it would begin next season and apply to the Columbia and Snake Rivers and their tribs, basically all of Eastern Washington and for all intents and purposes the mainstem Columbia on the Westside.
The warm, dam-impounded waters of both systems are a mecca for the introduced fish and their many fans. Big tournaments have been held here, there’s perennial talk that the Tri-Cities area will yield the world-record ’eye, and earlier this year Bassmasters magazine ranked the Columbia as one of the country’s 20 top bass fisheries.
Over the past 50-plus years we at Northwest Sportsman and our predecessor, Fishing & Hunting News, have written many words on how and where to angle for the species.
But there have long been concerns about their predation on outmigrating salmonid smolts, some of which come from Endangered Species Act-listed stocks. Among the very best lures to fish for Snake River smallmouth in the spring are blue diving plugs and swimbaits which resemble young Chinook. While not as well studied a situation as it should be, still, over recent years there have been rumblings that federal overseers have become less and less comfortable with the hydropower mitigation dollars they spend in the basin, especially its upper end, basically becoming food for nonnative stocks.
Currently, bass and walleye fall under varying restrictions that allow for the retention of five to 10 a day, though only a limited number of trophy-sized stock. For instance, in McNary Dam’s tailrace, five smallies may be kept, including up to three over 15 inches, while only one of the 10 walleye you’re allowed there may be over 24 inches. Catfish either have no limits or fall under statewide regs, five a day.
How much of an affect, if any, such a liberalization of the regulations will have on those and salmonid populations will be hotly debated between now and sometime late this coming winter when the commission makes a final decision, if it makes it that far.
At any rate, moving forward it will also be interesting to see what position it puts the agency in with its warmwater-fishing constituents, no small part of its customer base.
While talked about behind the scenes in past years, in the absence of a better public outreach effort in advance of the current proposal, and without packaging it with other, basin-wide plans to reduce salmonid mortality, reaction will likely be swift and loud. And without addressing birds and sea lions, among other major sources of mortality, it will be hard for many to see this proposal as anything but the scapegoating of a valuable resource that takes care of itself.
In the October issue of Northwest Sportsman, we will feature Jeff Holmes’ interview with new Inland Fish Program manager Chris Donley, whom WDFW has tasked with fronting the proposal. Holmes asks some tough questions and receives some frank responses you won’t want to miss.
Holmes reports, post-interview, “I had an immediately negative reaction to this proposal going into the interview, and not because I think lifting limits on bass and walleye will necessarily do much to their populations as long as many of us continue to catch and release big fish. Alongside concerns about affecting businesses and a year-round angling economy in the Columbia Basin, I wondered, and still do since he wouldn’t address it at all in our interview, ‘Who asked brand-new Inland Lakes Program Manager Donley to run this proposal out to the public without public outreach efforts and without more thought put into the messaging?’ Here in Tri-Cities, as elsewhere, this won’t be popular with a big portion of the angling community. And as those critics look to the skies, shorelines and the surface of the Columbia and Snake Rivers, they will see the same proliferation of ESA-stock gobbling birds I do, and they too know about the sea lions chomping adult salmonids and ancient sturgeon from The Dalles on down.”
Then there are the effects of the system’s dam turbines, though mitigated to a degree by barging and spill.
Small changes added up can have big impacts, but this is one tweak that Washington’s bass, walleye and other warmwater anglers will want to follow closely and express their opinion on over the coming months.