Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Establishes No-Limit Bass Fishery on the Lower Deschutes River

On Friday, August 4, 2017, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission voted to make the bass fishery in the lower Deschutes River a “no bag limit” fishery, beginning January 1, 2018.

A smallmouth bass caught last week on the lower Deschutes River.

This is a positive step toward dealing with the bass invasion of the past few years. It is also an acknowledgement that we have a problem in the lower Deschutes River. As we’ve noted in previous blogs, bass have been infrequently reported in the lower Deschutes River, in very small numbers, for many years. However, in the past two years the numbers of reported bass have grown significantly, with some anglers this year reporting catches of up to 20 bass per day below Macks Canyon.

These omnivorous and voracious predators feed on a mix of food types including juvenile fish (trout, steelhead, Chinook, shiners, etc.), crawdads, and aquatic insects. As their numbers increase, they pose an increasing threat to the ecology of the lower river.

Unlike in other fisheries where bass have been artificially introduced by well intended, but ill-advised, amateur biologists, the bass in the lower Deschutes River appear instead to have moved up from the Columbia River. This has happened because, remarkably, the lower Deschutes River is now warmer in the spring than the Columbia River. This is due to current selective water withdrawal operations at the tower above Round Butte Dam. During springtime, 100% surface water withdrawal is used to attract juvenile fish to the fish collection facility at Round Butte Dam. This surface water is many degrees warmer than water at the bottom of the reservoir, which was the source of water for dam operations prior to 2010.

The warmer water in the lower Deschutes River attracts bass and allows them to become more active earlier in the year. This gives them more time to feed before the next winter, and an earlier start on spawning.

DRA Board member Steve Pribyl with a smallmouth bass caught last summer.

Perhaps the saddest comment on the new bag limit is that most anglers are releasing the bass they catch in the lower Deschutes, in order to have something to catch in the future as this treasured river continues to change so rapidly. However, we would encourage all anglers to remove these fish from the water. Do not dispose of them on the bank, as that is a violation of rules regarding wasting of game fish.

The need for this change in fisheries management is another unanticipated and unintended consequence of SWW tower operations. And another sign that it’s time to reconsider how the tower is operated, along with current strategies for reintroducing fish above the Pelton-Round Butte Project.


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Walleye. In the Deschutes River?

The fish have spoken. And those fish are walleye. Remarkably, there are now walleye in the lower Deschutes River. As far as anyone is aware, this has never happened before. We wish this was good news. But it’s not.

We’ve been getting reports of walleye being hooked and landed as far upriver as Kloan, at River Mile 7. We’d not mentioned it yet as we were waiting for documentation of a landed walleye. Now we have it–the walleye in the photo below was landed at River Mile 4.5.

Photo provided by Deschutes River guide Brad Staples, pictured on the right.

In addition to walleye, smallmouth bass continue to be been taken in good numbers in the lower river this summer, for the second straight year. Trout and steelhead, not so much.

What does this mean for the lower river? As the lower river ecology and habitat changes due to Selective Water Withdrawal operations, so do the species that thrive in the new conditions. Warmer water attracts warm water fish. As insect populations decrease, piscivorous fish (fish that feed on other fish) increase.

Further, this is not good news for salmon and steelhead juvenile migration. Juvenile steelhead and salmon are preferred food items for walleye and often for bass, much as they are for northern pikeminnow. Bass and walleye are also capable of feeding on crawdads, worms and insects, and generally are known for being highly predatory feeding machines.

Looking into the mouth of the walleye. Photo from American Expedition.

We are repeatedly told by the agencies responsible for Deschutes River management that nothing has changed in the lower Deschutes River since the implementation of surface water withdrawal at Round Butte Dam. But lets consider the list of easily observable changes:

  • Bass and walleye incursion
  • Increased water temperatures throughout the lower river’s 100 miles, from mid-winter through spring and summer
  • Black Spot Disease widely spread in trout, steelhead, and bull trout
  • Invasive nuisance algae
  • Significant change in insect community structure, and decline in adult insect abundance
  • Observations of declining bird populations

Clearly, this is no longer the river we knew prior to 2010. But fortunately, we know these problems are not inevitable. A return to cooler, cleaner water discharged from the Pelton Round Butte Project can begin alleviating these discouraging ecological changes in the lower river. It’s time for the responsible agencies, dam operators, and other parties to admit that the Selective Water Withdrawal tower is responsible for some serious unintended consequences, and begin charting a new path forward for lower river management.

The Deschutes River Alliance will remain on the front lines of the battle to restore this treasured river. Please join us in our efforts.


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Smallmouth Bass in the Lower Deschutes River

Many folks who have spent time on the lower Deschutes River this summer have noticed something unusual. Smallmouth bass, typically quite rare in the lower Deschutes, are suddenly present in large numbers. What are they doing there? Where did they come from? How does their presence affect resident fish? Today, we attempt to answer some of these questions, in two parts. In the first part of today’s post, we give an overview of this summer’s bass invasion, and attempt to sort out why we’re suddenly seeing so many of this particular species. In the second part, Steve Pribyl, former Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Fisheries Biologist for the lower Deschutes River, provides a history of smallmouth bass in the lower river—a critically important perspective on what we’re seeing in the river this year.

Part One: 2016 Lower Deschutes River Bass Invasion

The weird things happening in the lower Deschutes River and its tributaries just never seem to end. A year ago the big story in the lower river was the two fish die-offs in June and early July. First with sockeye near the mouth, then spring Chinook near the confluence with the Warm Springs River.

This year, like in a science fiction movie, it’s the invasion of smallmouth bass. In a science fiction movie the bass would be from outer space, but in this case they are, in all likelihood, from the Columbia River.

Almost as soon as anglers began fishing for steelhead this summer in the Deschutes River’s lower 40 miles, we started hearing reports of smallmouth bass being caught. There have always been stories and rumors of a bass being caught here or there, perhaps once or twice a season in the lower river. But the reports this summer were of six bass being caught at a time! Or a dozen or more in a single float trip. Far more bass were being caught than steelhead (no surprise given the weak steelhead run this year).

By mid-August we had reports of smallmouth bass being caught as far upstream as Buckhollow Boat Ramp.

The most successful lure or fly for catching smallmouth in the Deschutes this summer was the Blue Fox spinner. We also heard reports of smallmouth bass being taken on steelhead flies, with streamers seeming to be the most productive. It is worth noting that these are not the sorts of flies and lures one would use if purposefully fishing for bass!

The problem with the bass invasion is that no one seems to know if these fish have moved in permanently, or are just visiting. We’ll not know until next year. But there is reason for alarm. If these fish do become residents in the lower Deschutes River, the redband trout population is at certain risk. Smallmouth bass and redband trout do not coexist well. Multiple examples abound of healthy rainbow trout populations being decimated after the introduction of bass into a trout fishery.

Why are smallmouth bass moving into the lower river? The most likely answer anyone has proposed is that warm spring water temperatures in the lower Deschutes River lured bass up from the Columbia River. Bass come out of winter dormancy when water temperatures reach the mid- to upper fifties, or even sixty degrees. They then seek out warm water to increase spawning success. This year the lower Deschutes River reached those sorts of temperatures over a month before the Columbia River did, likely attracting bass at that time. (For a biological discussion of smallmouth bass and temperature influence on bass behavior, see http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/Library/337846.pdf ).

The following graph shows that the Columbia River in The Dalles pool reached 60 degrees F right around June 1.

columbia-graph

And this graph shows that the lower Deschutes River at Moody (just upstream from the confluence with the Columbia River) first reached 60 degrees F in mid-April.

deschutes-graph

Another important question as we unravel this mystery is whether the lower Deschutes River at Moody is warmer now than it was prior to selective water withdrawal operations at the Pelton-Round Butte Complex. There are no data with which to make that determination, as there wasn’t a temperature gauge at Moody until July 2011. However, the following graph shows that temperatures immediately below Pelton-Round Butte are now much warmer in the spring than they were prior to the commencement of selective water withdrawal operations.

graph-3

Previous DRA research has illustrated that these higher discharge temperatures at Pelton-Round Butte impact river temperatures all the way to the confluence with the Columbia River. So it’s quite likely that spring temperatures at Moody are now significantly higher than before SWW operations began. Unfortunately, these higher spring temperatures resulting from SWW operations may very well be responsible for this year’s smallmouth bass invasion.

It has been suggested that bass in the lower Deschutes River might be of little consequence as bass and other species seem to be coexisting in the John Day River. But this is not an analogous situation. There isn’t a redband trout fishery in the John Day River that would be threatened by smallmouth bass. Juvenile anadromous fish are said to migrate down the John Day River somewhat earlier in the year than Deschutes River steelhead and Chinook juveniles. This means that in the John Day River the juveniles are migrating in colder water temperatures, when smallmouth bass are still dormant.

We won’t know the longer-term consequence of this year’s bass invasion until next year. If juvenile bass are present in the lower Deschutes River, it will be safe to assume that they have colonized the lower river.

Part Two: History of Smallmouth Bass in the Lower Deschutes River

By: Steve Pribyl

I worked for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife as a fish biologist on the lower 100 miles of the Deschutes River from 1977 to 1980, and again from 1985 to 2004. In addition to this work experience, I fished the river extensively during those years and have been able to spend even more time fishing since my retirement. I am very familiar with the history of smallmouth bass in the lower Deschutes River.

With the exception of drastically increased smallmouth bass abundance in 1996, which I will discuss below, there has always been a very, very small background number of smallmouth bass in the Deschutes River downstream from Macks Canyon (river mile 25). Before this year, the furthest upstream that I had personally observed a smallmouth bass was at Bull Run (river mile 18), with other very occasional observations downstream from there.

I fished the river downstream from Macks Canyon extensively for both trout and summer steelhead for almost 40 years before catching my first smallmouth bass this summer. Similarly, friends of mine that have guided professionally for steelhead on the river, several for more than 30 years, have caught very few smallmouth bass. Prior to this summer, these friends relate to me that in their entire careers on the Deschutes (with the exception of 1996, as discussed below), they probably caught less than 10 smallmouth bass total in literally thousands of days on the river.

Steve Pribyl with a recent catch.

Steve Pribyl with a recent catch.

1996 was an unusual year in the lower Deschutes River. That year, smallmouth bass were very abundant downstream from approximately Harris Canyon (river mile 12). In August 1996, guides reported catching up to 8 or 10 smallmouth each day while fishing for summer steelhead. I recall rowing an enforcement trip with members of the Oregon State Police, Fish and Wildlife Division, that summer where we contacted two anglers at Sharp’s Bar (river mile 5.5) that were actually targeting smallmouth bass and having considerable success. I specifically remember this event because while we were observing these subjects at a distance through binoculars, it appeared they were catching and keeping trout in excess of the legal size and catch limits. I recall the disappointment of the Oregon State Police troopers when further investigation revealed the fish to be smallmouth and no citations were going to be issued!

Smallmouth bass continued to be caught regularly and in impressive numbers throughout August and into early September of that year, but disappeared from the catch by mid to late September.

The sudden abundance of smallmouth in the lower Deschutes River in 1996 was both troubling and curious to me at the time. Large numbers of smallmouth had been present in the Columbia for many, many years, and the fish were present in Lake Billy Chinook, the reservoir formed by Round Butte Dam at about river mile 110. Yet they were rarely seen in the Deschutes River. I theorized at the time that either water temperatures in the Deschutes were colder than smallmouth bass really preferred, or the gradient of the Deschutes was higher then they could cope with very effectively. Either or both of these factors kept smallmouth bass from colonizing the river from upstream or downstream. Yet suddenly, in the summer of 1996, large numbers of smallmouth bass were present in the lower 12 miles. The temperature regime in the Deschutes had not changed that year, and obviously the gradient had not changed to allow smallmouth to live more effectively there.

With the information at hand, we formed a theory about the sudden increase in smallmouth bass that year. The passage of time, while not proving the theory correct, certainly has not disproved it either.

There was a very large rain on snow flood event in early February, 1996. Without researching flows in the Deschutes basin, I do recall that flows at the Moody gage were in excess of 70,000 cfs and that Warm Springs River at its mouth flowed in excess of 30,000 cfs.   Large volumes of flood water coming into Lake Billy Chinook necessitated a period of spill from the reservoir. Again, without researching it, I don’t recall how much was spilled, or for how long, but it was substantial. We theorized that there were many smallmouth bass entrained in that flood spill and passed through both Lake Simtustus and the Reregulation Dam Reservoir into the flowing Deschutes. These smallmouth bass, finding the upper parts of the Deschutes colder than their preferred temperature, progressively moved downstream until they found the warmer water of late summer in the lower 12 miles more to their liking, where they then took up residence. When water temperatures cooled in mid- to late September below those that smallmouth prefer, the fish again started to move downstream, this time into the Columbia. After 1996, smallmouth were again only a very rare capture, and I largely quit worrying about the species invading the lower Deschutes.

Smallmouth abundance in the lower 12 miles of the Deschutes has changed dramatically in 2016. In July, anglers started to catch five to ten per day while targeting steelhead, with steelhead gear in steelhead water. Several anglers in early August have actually targeted smallmouth and report catch rates of up to 10 smallmouth per hour, catch rates that would be considered good on the John Day River, a regionally famous smallmouth fishery. Smallmouth in excess of 16 inches in length have been reported from the Deschutes this summer. Even more unusual—and almost beyond belief—is the photo documentation of a largemouth bass caught in the Deschutes at river mile 12 in early August! This is the one and only documented largemouth sighting I am aware of in the Deschutes and I can’t even begin to wrap my head around what that means.

The obvious questions are (1) where are these smallmouth bass coming from, and (2) what has changed to allow the species to flourish in the lower Deschutes? With regard to the first question, I believe these fish are traveling up the Deschutes from the Columbia River. The protocol at the Pelton-Round Butte fish passage facility is to not pass smallmouth captured at that facility downstream into the lower Deschutes, so it is unlikely the fish originated above the dams.

So what is allowing smallmouth to flourish in the lower river this summer? While stream gradient in the lower Deschutes has obviously stayed constant, temperatures in the lower Deschutes have changed significantly. I believe PGE’s surface water withdrawal operations, designed to aid downstream juvenile passage at the Pelton-Round Butte Complex, have increased water temperatures in the lower river enough, and for a long enough period of time, that smallmouth bass are now able to invade the Deschutes from the Columbia River and find conditions that have apparently allowed them to flourish.

It remains to be seen how long smallmouth will now continue to use the lower river, but with continued releases of warmer water into the Deschutes from the surface of Lake Billy Chinook the situation is not likely to change. This is certainly troublesome, given the obvious negative impacts to resident salmonids from smallmouth predation.


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Yellowstone River Closed Due to Fish-Killing Parasite

On Friday, August 19, Montana’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks announced the closure of 183 miles of the Yellowstone River to all recreational use. The reason for the closure was the discovery of over 2,000 dead mountain whitefish and reports of dead rainbow trout and cutthroat trout.

Photo: Google Photos

Photo: Google Photos

The cause of the fish die-off appears to have been proliferative kidney disease (PKD), which is caused by a parasite known as Tetracapsuloides bryosalmonae. In the past, this organism has caused outbreaks of disease and fish death amongst salmonids in various hatcheries and freshwater in the Pacific Northwest. It seems to be most hazardous to fish when water temperatures reach and stay above 54 degrees F. The Yellowstone River has been low and warm this year.   There are no antibiotics to treat the infection.

The Yellowstone River was closed to prevent transmission of the infectious agent to other waters.

Photo: Google Photos

Photo: Google Photos

We want to bring this to everyone’s attention as a reminder that if you travel to different bodies of water to fish, please be sure to clean wading boots, waders, fish nets and boats prior to moving to the next body of water. There has been a fair amount of controversy and disagreement as to what adequate cleaning consists of. We are providing a link to the most recent, and arguably most logical, guidance on the cleaning of fishing equipment. The instructions are relatively easy to follow and don’t include any measures that shorten the life of your gear (bleach, heat, etc.).

The instructions can be found at this link:

http://www.stopans.org/Cleaning/Tips_Careful_Cleaning.pdf

Please help us keep the lower Deschutes River and all bodies of water free of invasive species!


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In Memoriam: Doug Robertson

It was with great sadness that we learned of the passing of Doug Robertson, a longtime advocate for the Deschutes River and for wild fish. Doug was 69 years old.

Each person who floats, fishes, or camps on the lower Deschutes River below Macks Canyon should give thanks to Doug.

In 1983 the Eastern Oregon Land Company owned most of the lower twelve miles of the Deschutes River. The land was used primarily for cattle grazing, and the banks of the river were totally denuded of any vegetation. Gravel bars over a mile long were the norm. There were few alder trees to offer shade.

Doug learned that Eastern Oregon Land Company was interested in selling the property. One potentially interested party was planning on developing a resort in the Harris Canyon area.

Doug negotiated an offer to purchase the property, and then convinced then-Governor Vic Atiyeh to provide State of Oregon backing for the offer. Governor Atiyeh asked Oregon Wildlife Heritage Foundation to lead an effort to raise funds to purchase the land. OWHF raised over $1 million of private money, and cobbled together state and federal funding to complete the purchase on behalf of the people of Oregon.

The State of Oregon took possession of the property, and streamside recovery began under the management of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. That stretch of river is nearly unrecognizable from what it was before Doug stepped in. Today, it is one of Oregon’s most treasured recreational assets.   None of this would have happened without Doug’s vision and efforts. All of us should be eternally grateful to him.

Doug was a dedicated fly angler, and he had a lifelong love for the Deschutes. He and his wife Nan own a cabin above the Locked Gate. Doug was also a longtime board member of the Native Fish Society.

There is a monument bearing Doug and Nan’s names at Robertson Point near Harris Canyon. If you stop there, please take a moment and say a heartfelt thanks to a man who made a major difference on the lower Deschutes River.

Our sincerest condolences go out to Doug’s wife Nan, and their family and friends.

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WHY IT MATTERS by Greg McMillan

The lower Deschutes River is monitored and managed by a complex ménage of government agencies, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, and of course Portland General Electric.

So what does a group like the DRA have to add to the mix? Primarily this: we spend a lot of time in the lower river. Not on it, but in it. We wade it, we fish it, we float it, and we camp on it. And as anglers, we tend to pay attention. We also love it. It’s not just a river represented as numbers on spreadsheets indicating water quality results, flows, or biological inventories.

Instead, it’s part of our souls. Not one of my fishing friends and partners would ever trade the memories and experiences they acquired on the lower Deschutes for anything.

Photo by David Moskowitz

Photo by David Moskowitz

I personally grew up on the banks of the Deschutes. Having grown up in Bend, the river literally ran through my upbringing. My first kiss was on the banks of the Deschutes (seventh grade, the young lady and I snuck out of the Tower Theater, where our parents believed us to be, and we made out in Drake Park). My first near-death experience was in the Deschutes at the age of 19. My first casts with a fly rod, were of course on the Deschutes (at the age of 12). First fish on a fly? Also on the Deschutes. Learning about the complex web of life in a river, of course that happened on the Deschutes. First steelhead, well where else?

Photo by David Moskowitz

Photo by David Moskowitz

A group of friends and I did what I believe was the first paddle raft descent of lower Benham Falls in 1984. I don’t know of anyone having repeated that, in retrospect, foolhardy adventure. All I have to do is close my eyes and I can see that day as clearly as if it was yesterday. What an exciting day that was! It was a once in a lifetime experience to be sure.

I have two friends who have died, and whose ashes were scattered in the lower Deschutes River. Mine will probably be scattered there too.

Since I started fishing the lower river, I’ve lived in half of a dozen different cities or towns, and at least ten different houses, held multiple jobs, and had more than my share of girlfriends. That adds up to a lot of change. So in my life, the constant, the touchstone, has been the lower river canyon. When I launch from a boat ramp in my drift boat, there is always a sense of the canyon walls welcoming me back home. I feel more like myself there than anywhere else.

Photo by David Moskowitz

Photo by David Moskowitz

No scientific study can quantify any of this. But we have to do science to protect our river. No one else has the exact same connection to the river we do. Especially not government agencies, although I have fishing friends at agencies who love the river as much as any of us do. But they are often handcuffed by a lack of agency will, bureaucratic barriers, lack of funding, or conflicting agendas. So it’s up to us to care for a river we love. And we have to do that through science and advocacy.

In the words of Jeff Johnson, an adventure-seeking sailor and surfer who re-traces Yvon Chouinard’s epic 1968 trip to Patagonia:

“If you love a place you have a duty to protect it.  And to love a place you must know it first.”

Photo by Robert Sheley

Photo by Robert Sheley

So, why us? Why can’t agencies and others be blindly entrusted with protecting the river we love? Because they sometimes don’t care about it in quite the same way we do. Too many in responsible positions see the river as numbers on a spreadsheet. It’s a job. It’s projects and studies. It’s reports that always seem to need completion. It’s revenue. It’s regulations that need to be complied with or enforced. It’s megawatts of energy production.

To me, and my friends, the Deschutes River is home. And its loss would be unbearable to us.

 

Thank you for your continued support for the Deschutes River Alliance.

Greg McMillan

President of the Board

 

 

Fish and Wade Local – by Greg McMillan

Packed and Ready to go. Photo by David Moskowitz

Packed and Ready to go. Photo by David Moskowitz

I confess.  I’m sitting here in a small sea of self-pity.  I was supposed to be heading out in April on a bucket trip to the Florida Keys.  There are two friends of mine in the Keys who are former guides there.  I’d been invited to come spend time on each of their boats fishing for all of the usual species with big game rods and reels.

But my own river, my home river, is taking precedence.  Our DRA science plan will be kicking into gear soon, there are logistics to resolve, fundraising to be done, and someone has to be floating the lower Deschutes starting in April to keep an eye on the infamous algae as well as the aquatic insect hatches.

Excessive algae growth -Summer 2013. Photo by Greg McMillan

Excessive algae growth -Summer 2013. Photo by Greg McMillan

It made me think though about locavores.  You know, those folks who by choice and inclination prefer to eat locally or regionally grown and prepared food.  Locavores are more intimately tied to season and geographic place by the food they eat.

A Deschutes River Locavore. Photo by David Moskowitz

A Deschutes River Locavore. Photo by David Moskowitz

So it should be with fishing.  I believe we should always have a preference for fishing our local waters.  It makes us more aware of the passing of seasons.  By the water we fish being a constant we eliminate a lot of variables by turning unknowns into known entities and hence learn subtleties we would never learn by fishing new waters constantly.  We spend more time catching fish because we know where the fish are (sometimes) and what hatches to expect (hopefully).  We also learn to sense change in our home waters.

March Brown mayfly by David Moskowitz

March Brown mayfly by David Moskowitz

And so it is with the lower Deschutes.  Starting three years ago a number of us who spend large amounts of time on the lower river sensed and observed change.  Without the lower Deschutes being our locavore river, we wouldn’t have noticed.  If we hadn’t noticed, we wouldn’t be figuring out what has gone wrong.

As much as I love travel and exploring new places and fishing for different species, I will never complain about fishing my home river, the Deschutes. I can’t get enough of the Deschutes.  I guess that makes me kind of like a locavore.  And my sea of pity for not going to the Florida Keys seems to be greatly diminished at this moment.

Photo by David Moskowitz

Photo by David Moskowitz