Is the queen of Oregon rivers shedding gems from her crown? Or just trading diamonds for rhinestones?
The largemouth bass John Vahey of Oregon City landed Aug. 1 in the Deschutes River, 12 miles above its mouth at the Columbia River, ultimately didn’t concern him that much; nor did the fact it struck in stout current he’d been told to cast into for steelhead.
He did, however, take a photo because, as he correctly pointed out, “otherwise no one would believe me.”
In fact, he and friends on their annual trip upriver with guide Forrest Foxworthy of Oregon City caught more smallmouth than steelhead, an uncomfortably common observation for several of the river’s most seasoned guides and anglers in the first weeks of the 2016 summer steelhead season.
It’s no big deal in the smallmouth Mecca of the John Day River, a few miles east, but the Deschutes? Just a few years ago, smallmouth catches made the news, not the trip.
Granted, steelhead fishing on the Deschutes has been poor in 2016.
Summer steelhead heading up the Columbia turn into the Deschutes to cool off and in the process create the cornerstone of the river’s international reputation.
It’s the abnormal that has anglers worried — and has nothing whatsoever to do with the low steelhead return.
“We’re catching half a dozen or more smallmouth a day,” said Bob Toman of Carver, who will guide on the Deschutes and Columbia through most of October. “More bass than steelhead; every day.”
Incursion of smallmouth bass up the Deschutes follows years of increased algae growth and temperature changes.
Critics attribute the changes to a PGE smolt collection tower at Round Butte Dam, completed in 2009. It was designed to restore salmon runs into Lake Billy Chinook tributaries by introducing salmon and steelhead smolts and an amalgam of Crooked River water with its heavy agricultural runoff and cooler, pristine water from the Metolius River.
PGE, understandably, downplays the changes but faces a possible lawsuit by the Deschutes River Alliance.
The new gas on the fire may well be this year’s unprecedented increase in smallmouth bass up the lower river’s holy steelhead waters. The circumstantial evidence is about as strong as it gets.
Vahey checked in with several active and retired fish biologists who believe the largemouth bass (a sedentary fish preferring much calmer water than its smallmouth cousin) most likely escaped from a farm or stock pond into the White River, a Deschutes tributary. No big deal there other than anecdotal interest.
But the smallmouth seem to pretty clearly be colonizing upriver from the Columbia, where they’re abundant.
(The bass limit in the Deschutes is five per day, only three of which can be longer than 15 inches. There are no limits for bass in the Columbia River. Vahey didn’t keep those he caught, but other anglers do and Vahey said he saw several discarded whole bass on the river bank at one location.)
“There was a spectrum of smallmouth,” Vahey said of his catches. “Fish from 6- to 12-inch range and a few 18 to 20 inchers chasing lures. That was pretty alarming. The gradient hasn’t changed; the river’s edge is the same. It’s got to be the temperature or something in the water.”
Vahey acknowledged there have been incidental smallmouth in the lower river for decades, “but Forrest and (other guides) were seeing a few over the course of 30 years, not four or five in 10 minutes,” he said.
“You have to worry about what that new load of predators is going to do to all those smolts heading downriver.”