Monday, June 27, 2011

Any Questions?

Umpqua Smallmouth with a salmon smolt stuck in its throat.
(note the "match the hatch" soft-plastic we use to catch these bass)

I love fishing for smallmouth bass.  They're a blast!  The eat flies readily.  They pull hard, jump, make decent runs and you can catch 'um by the hundreds.  They're a great way to introduce folks (especially young'uns) to fishin'.  BUT.....

I've always wondered, as have many others, how hard they are on our native stocks of salmon and steelhead.  Smallmouth bass are NOT native to our Oregon waters.  They were brought here from eastern waters by others who loved fishing for them back home.   As for how they got into the Umpqua, the story goes like this;  There was a fella who owned a logging mill in the Roseburg area.  The mill was on the banks of the Umpqua.  As most mills did back then, this one had a large log pond on it.  The owner, having previously resided in the Ozarks where smallmouth bass were abundant, loved the little olive-green fish.  He had a batch of smallmouth bass fry shipped out west where he planted them in his log pond on the banks of the Umpqua river.  Smallmouth bass like moving water.  They like ledges and other "rock" type structure.  They're VERY hardy and TOUGH!  Back to the log pond.  A big winter storm blew in, blew out the river until the rising river breached the dike containing the log pond and released the mill owner's smallmouth bass into the Umpqua.  

For several years no one seen or heard from the bass.  Then one summer day, some kids fishing downstream from the mill caught a mess of them and the rest is history.  By the 1980's enough bass had populated the river to the point that word began to spread about the great smallmouth bass fishing in the mainstem Umpqua.  

Several years ago I was running a winter steelhead trip in brutally cold water on the North Umpqua.  The water temps that day were in the mid-30's.  Air temps were in the teens.  It was COLD!  The water was low and clear and we were pulling plugs near the gravel bin below the Santos Ranch area of the river.  I watched as a Heron stalked along the south bank below a small feeder stream.  He paused for a moment and then plunged his spear-like beak into the icy water.  A moment later he came up with a much larger sized fish than you usually see Heron come up with.  A moment later the Heron released this fish on the gravel bar along the bank.  The fish didn't hardly move when it landed on the gravel.  I was curious about what kind of fish it was.  When we finished the run, I rowed my driftboat back up to the gravel bar and got out of the boat.  I was surprised to find a 12" long, nearly frozen smallmouth bass.  I was not happy to find a smallmouth that far up in the North Umpqua.  I'm still not sure if the bass had been in the North Umpqua all its life, or if it had washed down the feeder creek from some farm pond.  I still don't no the answer.  I just know at least one smallmouth bass was living in my beloved North Umpqua.  

During a "typical" year the smallmouth bass are not generally very active during the out-migration of salmon and steelhead smolts.  They begin to get active as the pike-minnow fry begin moving about which has worked out very nicely in helping keep their voracious, salmon-steelhead smolt eating numbers in check.  

This year, and last for that matter have NOT been typical years.  The high, cold flows we've had the past couple of springs have kept the smolts in the river longer and given the bass more of an opportunity to get after them.  Over the past week or two, every day I've watched hundreds, if not thousands of salmon and steelhead smolts in fairly large schools getting attacked by marauding smallmouth.  Nearly every smallmouth we catch is regurgitating several smolts as we bring them to the boat.  Even bass that are guarding beds are puking up smolts.  One gravel bar we were on the other day had dozens of morts (dead smolts) laying among the beds.  

Smallmouth bass that was found guarding a bed two days ago.

Nuther one.

So with all that being said, what should be done, if anything about this?  I sure don't have the answers.  Like I said at the outset, I love fishing for smallmouth.  I really love fishing for salmon and steelhead though and if the bass were removed (somehow?) I'd miss them for sure.  I'd also hate to see the pikeminnow numbers come back to what they used to be.  I've read a few studies and articles about bass predation on salmonids.  One that comes to mind was a small study conducted on the Willamette near Corvallis during a bass tournament where stomach examinations of several hundred bass caught during the tournament were conducted.  As I recall only one or two bass stomach contents contained evidence of salmonids being consumed.  The author of that article used this "study" as a way to make the argument that bass, smallmouth in particular don't play a role in salmon and steelhead populations in the Northwest. 

I beg to differ with that position.  They clearly do and what, if anything that should be done about that I guess is up to debate.  I'd love to get your thoughts and comments on it. 


1 comment:

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