Even with the Walla Walla River running high and milk-chocolate brown in mid-April, a couple of anglers casting crawdad jigs from a raft were hooking not-so-small smallmouth bass in the 2- to 4-pound range in nearly every significant pocket of soft, shallow shoreline water they could find.
The river loads up with smallies that swim out of the Columbia to stage for the spring spawn, Tri-Cities angler Jeff Holmes said, oars in hand.
He made a point of noting that he understands the ethic of catch and release, and that he’s released hundreds of bass, especially largemouths, in his years of fishing.
But not this spring. Not for prolific smallmouths.
“I’m whacking them and putting them in a cooler.” he said. “There are too many of them. They have a huge impact on salmon and steelhead.”
Last year, Washington removed the catch limits on bass, walleye and channel catfish in the Columbia river and its main tributaries as a measure to help reduce predation on young salmon and steelhead.
The Columbia system is out of balance with predator fish, many of which are not native to the system, fish mangers said.
The strong interest that’s developed over the past four decades in fishing for Columbia-system bass and walleye hasn’t escaped the biologists from the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department. Those anglers can be assured that bass and walleye are in the system to stay, said Paul Hoffarth, department fisheries biologist in the Tri-Cities.
But the Columbia’s bass and walleye might average even larger sizes if they weren’t so abundant, he said.
Not enough research has been devoted to the role of predator species in the Columbia, he said, but what’s been done has indicated significant impacts on native salmon and steelhead.
For 27 years, a bounty program on northern pikeminnows has paid anglers to remove thousands of fish in the Columbia and Snake rivers each year. Pikeminnows are a native species, but dams on the rivers gave them an unnatural advantage in gobbling up dazed salmon and steelhead smolts coming over the spillways.
“Research showed that big pikeminnows 1 to 6 pounds would line up in the moving water across the tailrace at McNary and nail smolts,” Hoffarth said.
Smallmouth bass and walleye weren’t as effective at eating smolts at the dams, but walleye and bass –notably the younger ones – take a lot of young chinook in the two-inch range as they hold in shoreline rocky areas, said Anthony Fritts, a department biologist who’s conducted research on smallmouth predation in the lower Yakima River.
The annual reduction of pikeminnows could possibly be creating a void that allows bass and walleye numbers to expand even further, both biologists say citing research by Oregon and independent fisheries contractors.
Studies found that nearly two-thirds of the tagged juvenile chinook produced in the Hanford Reach of the Columbia failed to survive past McNary Dam, the first dam they encountered on their seaward migration.
Researchers calculated that a 50 percent reduction in McNary Reservoir mortality would result in an increase of about 100,000 Hanford Reach fall chinook adults a year. These wild salmon are known as upriver brights.
The majority of the mortality of juvenile upriver brights between spawning areas and McNary Dam has been attributed to predation by native and non-native predator fishes, with a large share going down the gullets of smallmouth bass and walleye.
Based on assumptions from limited data, the researchers estimated that about 24 million juvenile upriver bright chinook produced in the Hanford Reach may be lost to predator fishes annually. That would be roughly 46 percent of the Reach’s fall chinook salmon presmolt population.
When bass move into tributaries such as the Walla Walla and Yakima to spawn, they also have a good food source in the young salmonids that are growing up before they head out to sea, Hoffarth said.
“Bass numbers in the lower Yakima River increased from a few last April to hundreds of thousands in May,” Hoffarth said, noting that this year’s high water conditions appear to be keeping most of the bass in the Columbia longer this year. “You’ve needed a tree stand to fish in May this year.”
Also, the overall numbers of bass can vary from year to year depending on spawning success, he said.
“In the lower 3 miles of Yakima River, the bass move in and feed heavily prior to spawning and then they move back downstream later in the summer,” he said. “If you catch the pre-spawn, bass in the 2- to 4-pound range are not uncommon. They’re real aggressive and great fun to catch.”
Walleye numbers near the mouth of the Yakima also appear to be increasing, Fritts said.
Some anglers took advantage of the limits being lifted last year and showed up in June to catch thousands of bass, walleyes and catfish in the lower Yakima, Hoffarth said.
Later in June, the bass tend to head out of the tributaries, back into the Columbia where they are harder to find and catch.
“Some anglers were still catch-and-release, but there was another contingent that was definitely keeping everything they caught,” he said. “People were coming over from the West Side and staying a few days to haul home as many bass as they could.”
Bottom line: “They probably didn’t make much of a dent in the Columbia’s smallmouth numbers.”
“Anglers hit the hot spots, but there are hundreds of miles of river that they barely touch,” Hoffarth said. “We probably fish 10 percent of the water out there, if that.
“As an agency, we welcome a balance with warmwater and salmon species. But we’re also focused on survival of native species. Taking the catch limits off bass, walleye and catfish was the easiest thing we could do. These fish are a terrific food source, so we hope more anglers will harvest them.”
Meanwhile, Holmes has been figuring out how to get his raft to the water at limited undeveloped public access points on the Walla Walla. The Fish and Wildlife Department manages considerable land along the river, but the water access points are few and poor. One potential raft take-out involves negotiating a 10-foot vertical bank to the parking area.
Wade fishing along the Walla Walla is possible but difficult in spring because of brush or eroded Walla Walla Valley topsoil mud that acts like quicksand in places.
Holmes has been friends and even fishing guides out on the Walla Walla River all month to expose them to the fishery. “I want more people catching and harvesting these bass while they’re up in these tributaries and available to catch,” he said.
“I hope I can convince a few more people to take more bass out of the Columbia system,” he said. “I know I’ve been making a few of my fish-loving neighbors very happy when I come home from fishing.”