Are we Losing a Trophy Fishery?

by John Kruse, November 04, 2021

The Columbia River from the Tri-Cities to Portland and the Snake River below Lower Goose Dam offer a world-class, trophy walleye fishery that draws anglers from all over the United States and Canada. These anglers are all hoping to catch a winter walleye that can weigh up to 20 pounds. Unfortunately, this fishery appears to be in decline.

The walleye is a toothy fish prized for its delicious white meat. However, until the middle of the 1970’s nobody was fishing for them on the Columbia or Snake Rivers. That’s when pioneering Northwest walleye guides like Ed Iman and Gordon Steinmetz began targeting these fish and created widespread interest among anglers for them.

Today, there are a number of catch and release walleye tournaments that occur on both rivers. Recreational anglers routinely target them for dinner and many full-time guides have turned their attention to walleye to satisfy the increased demand from clients for them.

The walleye is not native to the Pacific Northwest and is also a predator fish. In the Columbia River walleye feed on perch, suckers, sculpins and shad as well as salmon and steelhead smolt that are migrating downstream. This last fact is critical in a time of low adult salmon and steelhead returns with several of these runs threatened or endangered.

Steve Caromile, the Inland Fish Program Manager for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, says their agency is, “Prioritizing the protection and restoration of endangered species over managing fisheries for non-native species”.

That is why Washington changed the regulations for walleye, smallmouth bass and channel catfish in 2016. You can now keep as many of these fish as you want if they are caught out of a river, stream or beaver pond, with no minimum size restrictions. This rule, meant to increase the number of salmon smolt migrating to the ocean, could also benefit the endangered Southern Resident Orcas which eat Chinook salmon as their main diet.

This rule change is definitely having impacts on the number and size of walleye being caught out of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Walleye guide Willie Ross, who fishes The Dalles and John Day pools of the Columbia, says he is definitely catching fewer fish now than he did ten years ago. Walleye tournament angler Ted Beach fishes the Lower Snake River and the Columbia near the Tri-Cities. He states, “We’ve seen a decline in the walleye population and the size of the walleye we are catching.”

Walleye experts like Ross, Beach and Ed Iman also question how much of an impact walleye actually have on salmon smolt. None of them see big numbers of salmon or steelhead smolt in the stomachs of the walleye they clean. Existing studies are not clear as to how much of a walleye’s diet is made up of salmon or steelhead smolt but a 2004 study showed walleye had less of an impact on salmon smolt than northern pikeminnow and smallmouth bass did and that salmonoids made up 13.8 percent of a walleye’s diet in the Lower Columbia.

Meanwhile, a 2019 study by the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission shows the main culprit when it comes to smolt predation are not walleye or bass, but instead birds like the Caspian tern, gulls, mergansers, cormorants and pelicans which together account for 50 percent of the total mortality of outgoing steelhead smolt. Efforts to control huge colonies of these birds along the Columbia River have been largely unsuccessful.

Other factors are also impacting the Columbia River trophy walleye fishery. There is a small tribal commercial fishery for walleye using gillnets. Reduced salmon and steelhead returns has also resulted in more full-time fishing guides turning to the trophy walleye fishery in the winter months and early spring. This is when the female fish are at full of eggs and heavier than any other time of year. The guides are adept at getting walleye into the boat and a number of them will keep the big fish instead of releasing them. The take of larger walleye, whether it be by guides, recreational anglers or commercial netting, further drives down the number of these slow growing fish which can take well over a decade to reach a size of ten pounds or better.

Put all of this together and the future is not bright for our world-class trophy walleye fishery. However, even if the glory days of walleye fishing are behind us on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, there are still lots of walleye to be found, and some of them are still trophies.

THE WASHINGTON OUTDOORS REPORT

November 05 – November 12, 2021


John Kruse – www.northwesternoutdoors.com and www.americaoutdoorsradio.com


PHOTO CREDITS:

1. Ted Beach caught this ten-pound walleye on the Lower Snake River near Lyons Ferry – Courtesy Ted Beach


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