The Inland Northwest has a love-hate relationship with smallmouth bass.
The feisty imports are multiplying like weeds, taking a firm hold in Priest Lake and displacing native species from habitat in some areas – redband rainbows in the Spokane River, for instance.
But they’re certainly fun to catch.
“Look at Coeur d’Alene Lake now and mostly you see guys working the rocky shorelines fishing for smallmouth,” said Jim Fredericks, Idaho Fish and Game Department Panhandle fisheries manager.
That’s a relatively recent development.
“I’d like to blame all the problems on Idaho Fish and Game,” said Chris Donley, Washington Fish and Wildlife Department district biologist in Spokane. “They encouraged smallmouth in the Idaho Panhandle and now look; they’re especially problematic in the Spokane River.”
Smallmouth were officially imported to the Panhandle in 1982 and 1984, starting with Hayden Lake.
“That’s something (retired regional fisheries manager) Ned Horner wishes he could take back,” Fredericks said.
“Now there aren’t too many places where they aren’t present.”
Instead of letting biologists confine their mistake to the impacts the smallmouths had on largemouth and crappie in Hayden, the problem was exacerbated by fishermen who illegally moved the fish around to waters such as Twin Lakes and Hauser, he said.
“Although it’s possible that smallmouths made it on their own up Priest River and over the dam into Priest Lake, it’s more likely they were assisted,” he said.
“The north end of Lake Coeur d’Alene, places where you used to find mostly largemouth, are now dominated by smallmouth.”
Nearly three years ago, Idaho took a step to slow the smallmouth population boom by setting different rules for largemouths and smallmouths.
“We’re still managing for quality largemouths while allowing for more liberal harvest of smallmouths,” Fredericks said. “In Hayden, for example, an angler can keep only two largemouths and they must be at least 16 inches long. The limit for smallmouths at Hayden is six fish of any size.”
Creel surveys at Lake Coeur d’Alene indicated that anglers caught only 240 smallmouth bass in 1996 compared with 14,000 in 2009, he said.
Meanwhile, the catch of largemouth bass declined from 1,200 in 1996 to 650 last year.
But conservation-minded bass anglers simply can’t be swayed to harvest smallmouths, which would benefit from culling. Only about 880 of those 14,000 smallmouths were kept by anglers despite a six-fish limit with no minimum size.
“There’s no evidence the limit change is helping, given that smallmouth are so prolific,” he said. “It’s more of a social message than anything. It tells people that if they want a few fish to eat, smallmouths are the ticket.
“But in reality, anglers aren’t going to do the job on a fish like this.”
For example, once Oregon’s John Day River was overrun by smallmouth bass removing all fishing limits had no impact.
“Anglers aren’t staying on top of that fishery at all,” Fredericks said. The result: a huge population of stunted smallmouths.
So far, Donley doesn’t see smallmouth in such big numbers that they’re stunted, but agrees they may well be displacing other fish.
“Enviromental changes take place and fish have an advantage for a while and then often they flop,” he said. “Anything can happen in then next six years.”
Biologists have no practical option other than to mitigate, Donley said, noting that only a few of the Spokane region’s largemouth havens remain unadulterated by smallmouth.
“Basically, we’re treating them like panfish in Washington, with a statewide limit of 10 fish, not more than one over 14 inches.
“We’re trying to maintain larger body sizes for quality fishing by encouraging anglers to help reduce smallmouth numbers. But that’s probably not possible. Anglers don’t harvest enough to make a difference.”
“Frankly,” Fredericks said after a long interview on the subject, “it’s a battle not worth fighting here in the Panhandle.
“Biologically, we could take the limit off and not hurt smallmouth at all, but I’m not sure we’d be helping anything, either.”
On the other hand, anglers have enjoyed a net gain of fishing success with smallies.
At Priest Lake, once a trout and kokanee haven, more bass tournaments are being held each year.
“The tournaments are being won with fish averaging 2 to 3 pounds, so it’s a decent fishery, mostly at the south end of the lake and around the islands,” Fredericks said.
“It certainly doesn’t bode well for the future of cutthroat up there,” he said. “The bright side is that it at least provides a fish that’s available without anglers having to go 200-300 feet deep (for mackinaw).
“It’s a low-tech fishery that’s been lacking, but in terms of trout, it’s just one more recovery obstacle, of which there are many.”