Chaos on the Columbia

By Stan Fagerstrom

Part One

I caught my first bass in Washington State shortly after I and my parents arrived there from North Dakota way back in 1936.

Except for the more than three years I spent serving with the United States Army infantry in World War 11, I continued to live in either Washington or Oregon until my wife and I moved to Arizona in late 2004.

I mention this because I doubt there are any other outdoor writers who have been more deeply associated with bass fishing in Washington or Oregon for more decades than I have.  I’m sure it was in recognition of this partly that I was voted into the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame in 2007.

If you’ve followed any of my newspaper columns, magazine features and in recent years Internet writing you’re undoubtedly aware of some of my feelings where bass fishing management in both Oregon and Washington have been concerned.

I started doing fishing columns for the Longview Daily News in the southwest part of Washington State in 1946.  For a number of years I also did the same thing for the Vancouver, Washington daily newspaper under the pen name “Stanley Scott.”

It didn’t take any great amount of time or study to determine what I considered an almost nonexistent interest in the warm water fishery by the Washington State Department of Fish and Game.

I recall having mentioned in one of my fairly early columns that I thought Washington fish officials considered the largemouth bass as being a second cousin to a carp.  Don’t misunderstand.  My sentiments weren’t because I had no personal interest in the different runs of salmon, steelhead and sea run cutthroat trout that could be found in the Columbia’s Southwest Washington tributaries.  I loved catching every darn one of them that I had a chance to put on the bank or in the boat.

But it was what the fish officials were doing or not doing where the warm water fishery was concerned that bothered the bejabbers out of me.  It wasn’t long after I started writing that I watched the Washington State fish management folks launch a program where the fish populations in usually smaller lakes, lakes that almost always contained a mixture of carp, bass, bluegill and crappies were being eliminated.

You're looking at the largest walleye ever caught by a Washington state walleye angler. Mike Hepper of Richland weighed this 19.3-pounder. I've got to believe every state in the union but Washington and Oregon would be delighted to have this kind of a sports fishing resource. Properly protected and promoted it could be a treasure, but WA and OR are in the process of eliminating all size and catch limits on all of the river's warm-water species. The same thing will also apply to a couple of the big river's Oregon tributaries that currently provide some of the West's best fishing for smallmouth bass.

You're looking at the largest walleye ever caught by a Washington state walleye angler. Mike Hepper of Richland weighed this 19.3-pounder. I've got to believe every state in the union but Washington and Oregon would be delighted to have this kind of a sports fishing resource. Properly protected and promoted it could be a treasure, but WA and OR are in the process of eliminating all size and catch limits on all of the river's warm-water species. The same thing will also apply to a couple of the big river's Oregon tributaries that currently provide some of the West's best fishing for smallmouth bass.

Eliminated?  Yes indeed.  The lakes were poisoned out and all the warm water game fish as well as the carp were destroyed.  Later, after these now fishless lakes recovered from the application of the poison, they were restocked with small trout that had been reared by the state’s hatcheries.

This program was well publicized.  Fishermen were advised that when opening day rolled around on these restocked lakes they were going to be a darn good spot to catch your limit of trout.  And it often worked.  Those stupid spoon fed hatchery trout weren’t aware that food of any kind might one day come with a hook in it.

This program was undoubtedly welcomed by those who often spent more time with their hand wrapped around a golf club or a tennis racket than a fishing rod, but when they did go they wanted to catch something without having to work their tails off to do it.

But how about those of us who loved going after those panfish and bass those poisoned out lakes had once held?  We were up that well known creek without a paddle.

I wasn’t the only one who was raising hell about the lack of interest in the early warm water fisheries in either Washington or Oregon.  My guess was that the fish officials in both states just didn’t realize that fact or evidently didn’t give a damn if they did.

As a matter of fact, if you want to do a little research, you’ll find that today there’s an organization of bass anglers called the Western Bass Club that’s headquartered in Seattle.  That organization was formed way back in 1938.  There are those who maintain it was really the first organized bass club in the United States.

The no size or catch limits will also apply on two major Oregon tributaries of the Columbia: the John Day and Umpqua Rivers. The beautiful smallmouth you see here came out of the John Day. Can we expect to see trophy fish like this to continue to show up if all size and catch limits are eliminated?

The no size or catch limits will also apply on two major Oregon tributaries of the Columbia: the John Day and Umpqua Rivers. The beautiful smallmouth you see here came out of the John Day. Can we expect to see trophy fish like this to continue to show up if all size and catch limits are eliminated?

A similar organization, this one called the Oregon Bass & Panfish Club and headquartered in Portland, came along later.  It was organized in 1958.  I’m darn pleased to have been named an honorary lifetime member of both groups.  And it’s every bit as pleasing to note certain improvements to the warm water fishing management in the two states that did come about as a result of the efforts of the membership of these two organizations.

The states of Washington and Oregon are divided by the Columbia River.  Everybody knows about the Columbia’s long history of production of the migratory fish populations.  Despite the countless thousands of salmon taken over the years by commercial nets and the problems posed by one or another of the huge dams now blocking their pathway in from the sea, the cold water species continue to exist.

But today the big Columbia also supports a warm water fishery that despite having existed now for decades still isn’t as well known as you’d think it would be.  Today the Columbia gives walleye anglers a shot to boat what just might turn out to be a new world record.  In fact, a few walleyes not that far off the all time national record weight have already been taken there.

And that’s just for starters.  The Columbia now also provides some of the finest smallmouth bass fishing you’ll find in the western United States.  The same thing is true in certain of the Columbia’s tributaries along lower stretches of the river.

Has all of what you’ve just read left you thinking that management of the warm water fishery in the two states has changed from those early days that resulted in so much unhappiness on the part of so many?

Don’t you believe it!  From what is now happening on the big river it obviously sure as hell hasn’t.  Fish officials in Oregon, you see, have already eliminated all size and bag limits on the Columbia’s warm water game fish.  These major changes will also apply to Oregon’s John Day and Umpqua Rivers---both of which currently provide wonderful smallmouth bass fishing.

Washington, according to reports, is about to do the same.  I’ve read reports that what’s already been voted into the Oregon regulations came partly at the requests from Washington fish officials.  That these changes have already been made or are about to be implemented is hard to believe.  I wonder if those who have already or are about to put them into place have given consideration to just how damaging these changes could be.

The Pacific Northwest's top bass anglers know how productive the Columbia River can be for smallmouth bass. Pictured with a dandy is Renaud Pelletier, a veteran tournament pro who has qualified for the Bassmasters Classic three times.

The Pacific Northwest's top bass anglers know how productive the Columbia River can be for smallmouth bass. Pictured with a dandy is Renaud Pelletier, a veteran tournament pro who has qualified for the Bassmasters Classic three times.

There’s a whole lot more to be said about these developments.  The Inside Line, has given me the go ahead to share some more of the details of these possible problems with Inside Line readers.

You’ll find what some of the Pacific Northwest’s most knowledgeable anglers, guides, lodge operators and lure makers have to say on the subject.  I sure as hell can’t believe the folks responsible for these changes discussed their proposal with many of those same people before it transpired.

I’ll tell you more about why I feel that way in my next column.

-To Be Continued-