Less than one full season in, we're a long way from knowing the long-term consequences of removing bag limits on several Oregon and Washington Rivers, including some where smallmouth bass have been established for more than a century.
But one thing we do know is that bass anglers are irate over the photos that they are seeing on social media and the stories they are hearing about meat fishermen hauling out dozens of large pre-spawn females from the Umpqua, the Columbia, and its tributaries, including John Day, Snake, and Yakima.
"I wonder if those meat anglers--- also known as salmon fishermen--- are even thinking about the depletion of the fishery, or what they will fish for next year when the salmon runs are still low, and the smallmouth bass fishery has been decimated," said Lonnie Johnson, conservation director for the Oregon B.A.S.S. Nation. "Probably not, I would guess. Let's live in the moment and let tomorrow be damned."
And along with the anecdotal evidence, a creel survey from the lower Yakima stokes the anger. Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife reports that anglers harvested 6,721 bass during the first week in May. Additionally, 41 anglers interviewed kept 362 fish, releasing only 13.
By the end of May, the agency said this, " Based on the current data over 20,000 smallmouth bass have been harvested in the Yakima River this spring. The data is preliminary. Final estimates will be calculated at the close of the salmon fishery."
By contrast, just 5,000 were harvested in all of 2015 from 132,000-acre Mille Lacs, where Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has been liberalizing limits on bass to allow harvest, as it imposes restrictions on walleye, to help restore that sagging fishery. Additionally, 74,150 smallmouths were released.
Bass angler Bill Roberts told the Yakima Herald about his encounter with some of those meat fishermen in a sporting goods store:
"Everybody's got a camera phone, and they started showing me all these pictures. These guys were averaging 35 to 40 smallmouth bass a day, all spawners ready to spawn. And they killed them all, and that never sets well with me.
"And they proceeded to tell me all their buddies fishing down in the Crow Butte area are having the same success. I'm thinking, 'Do you really have to keep 38 fish a day to make yourself feel good?
"And they're like, 'It's legal now. So why not?'"
Legal, yes, but management based on science?
"It's political. It has nothing to do with science," said Mark Byrne, past conservation director and president for the Washington B.A.S.S. Nation.
Although little scientific evidence supports the regulation change, both Oregon and Washington bowed to pressure from federal agencies, tribes, and native fish activists to remove regulations on "non-native fish" as a way of restoring steadily declining salmon, steelhead, and trout fisheries. In truth, the latter have suffered mostly because of habitat destruction, flow diversions for irrigation, and hydropower dams, which block migration and create ideal habitat for bass.
But in pressuring the states to wage war on bass, the National Marine Fisheries Service said that simply liberalizing limits, instead of removing them, would imply a desire "to maintain a healthy population of non-native predators."
Yet it also admitted that damage done to native species "is difficult to quantify." And it said, "The extent to which a regulation change will affect the harvest of these species and thereby reduce predation rates on at-risk salmon and steelhead populations is uncertain."
Johnson and many others argue that bass make easy targets because they are prominent and opportunistic predators, which do, on occasion, eat salmon smolts, although adult bronzebacks prefer crawfish.
"Those smolts are fast," said Roberts. "If one swims past, a bass might eat it, but it's not going to chase it down the river. We're talking about a lazy fish that's an ambush predator."
Not surprisingly, smaller smallmouths are the ones more likely to pursue 3-inch smolts of summer and fall Chinook that begin their migrations to the ocean in May and June. Thus, many wonder, why not remove bag limits for bass under 12 inches, but continue to afford some protection for those larger fish, which have made the Columbia known the world over as a trophy bronzeback fishery.
"The deregulation will have almost no impact on the other species, but will destroy the bass fishery," said Justin Blackmore president of Central Oregon Bass club. "They decided what to do without any sound research performed. The result is overfishing of large fish, leaving only small, stunted fish that will not be wanted by people to eat."
And an easier life for the northern pikeminnow (squawfish). "The fact remains that the primary predator (for salmon smolts) is the northern pikeminnow, which is also prey to the smallmouth," said Johnson. "By attempting to eliminate smallmouth, the ODFW (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife) is, in fact, increasing predation on the smolts."
As a long-time angler and fisheries biologist, B.A.S.S. National Conservation Gene Gilliland understands both sides of this thorny issue.
While sympathizing with angry fishermen, he added, "Harvest of female bass in a huge open system is probably not going to damage the population because bass over-produce so much. It takes so few successful nests to maintain a population.
"What you may see over time, however, is a change in the size structure--- fewer large bass and a gradual decline in overall size. Numbers will probably not change much. That's how the agency can say, 'Harvest away, you won't make a dent in the population.' They look at it from the sheer numbers side, not the size structure which interests bass anglers."
The benefit of keeping some of those large fish, both as desirable trophies for bass anglers and as predators on the pikeminnow, "is a good argument to chase" in hopes of achieving a compromise with the state agencies, he added.
But, Gilliland cautioned, getting the feds to buy in "will be almost impossible. They have that 'all non-native fish are bad fish' mentality and are quick to throw the ESA (Endangered Species Act) at you. Dead smallmouths are the only good smallmouths as far as they are concerned and pictures of dead bass are just what they hoped to see."
Still, the conservation director hopes that bass anglers can work out an agreement with Washington and Oregon, "given the uproar that seems to be building among their constituents. Maybe we can convene a meeting of the sensible minds."
Here's what's going on to determine bass harvest numbers, according to Mike Gauvin, ODFW's program manager for recreational fisheries:
Bass in the Columbia are recorded as part of the spring/summer Chinook creel and this occurs in the reservoirs above Bonneville Dam. The creel information is collected by ODFW and the Washington Department of Fish and the creel data is then analyzed by WDFW and provided to Oregon.
Through the week of May 16, a cumulative estimate of 586 bass were harvested in the Dalles Pool (reservoir behind The Dalles Dam) and 2,980 were harvested in the John Day Pool (reservoir behind the John Day Dam). For comparison, in 2015 for the same time period, 596 bass were harvested in The Dalles Pool and 1,787 bass were harvested in the John Day Pool.
Although Oregon do not have a specific creel in the John Day River, agency does conduct a bass survey to assess Catch Per Unit Effort (CPUE) and size frequency of bass from Service creek to Clarno (odd years) and Butte Creek to Cottonwood Creek (even years) on the John Day River. This sampling has taken place since the mid 1980’s with some gaps due to low flows and/or poor weather. Survey will be conducted in early June.
(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)