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Washington wildlife commission to decide on bass, walleye angling limits Saturday

Fishing for pike and bass at sunrise in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park.
Fishing for pike and bass at sunrise in Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park.

The fate of bass, walleye and other warmwater fish species will be decided Dec. 14.

That’s when the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission will discuss and vote on the liberalization of bag limits for the popular sport fish.

The warmwater fish – bass and walleye, in particular – are prized game species for sport anglers. Allowing anglers to keep the fish means there will be fewer large fish in Washington waterways, a blow to the catch-and-release ethic championed by many bass and walleye anglers.

The nonnative fish also eat salmon smolts, a critical food source for the struggling Puget Sound orcas.

The commission paused an earlier proposal to remove bag limits statewide, instead directing the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to narrow the list of lakes, streams and reservoirs in which bag limits would be removed. The commission also asked for size limits to be implemented, thus limiting the number of larger fish kept by anglers.

The six new options were published Wednesday evening on the commission’s website.

The most drastic option would remove bag limits for walleye, bass and other warmwater species from all rivers, streams and beaver ponds in Washington and 146 lakes throughout the state.

The least drastic option would remove all limits from all rivers, streams and beaver ponds in the state, but only 14 lakes would be impacted. The size and daily limits for largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, walleye and channel catfish would, in most cases, be doubled.

“We have a lot of different people here that want to see something different,” said Steve Caromile, WDFW’s warmwater fish program manager. “We’re providing a bunch of different options so the commission can really engage and provide a direction.”

The changes are in response to new legislation aimed at increasing chinook survival in hopes of helping struggling orca populations. Bass and walleye eat salmon smolts, although to what extent they impact the migrating fish is disputed.

All presented options meet the “wording of the legislation” Caromile said. He doesn’t believe the most restrictive option – the one that allows anglers to keep the fewest number of warmwater fish – meets the intent of the legislation.

Starving orcas in the Puget Sound captured public attention last year and spurred the Legislature to allocate money to orca-related efforts. Salmon are a main food source for orcas.

Bag limits for bass, walleye and other warmwater species were liberalized in 2017. That included removal of limits or size restrictions on bass – mostly smallmouths – in the Columbia and Snake river systems where native salmon and steelhead run.

Joel Nania, the former president of the Inland Empire Bass Club, and others believe that targeting bass and walleye is overlooking bigger issues, such as dammed rivers and unhealthy ocean conditions. At the same time, orca and native fish advocates point out that bass, walleye and other warmwater species are not native to Washington waters.

Finding middle ground between those positions is difficult.

“I think it’s important for folks to remember that we are trying to find the sweet spot between not being draconian on warmwater fisheries … and addressing our legislature, which gave us a mandate to be much more aggressive on walleye, bass and channel catfish,” said Chris Donley, WDFW’s Region 1 fish program manager. “I think you have two factions here. You have the warmwater community and you have the conservation community, and neither group is 100 percent right.”

At the last commission meeting, commissioners asked WDFW staff to work with warmwater anglers when developing the new proposal, commissioner Kim Thorburn said.

Washington’s Administrative Procedures Act, which governs the public input process for policy decisions, limited the amount of additional public input WDFW could take, she said.

“I think sometimes we get pretty enthusiastic with the testimony that is there being spoken and sometimes forget about the processes that need to be followed,” she said.

Donley emphasized that WDFW received additional input from the warmwater community after the meeting. WDFW did not have an in-person meeting and it did not draft the new options in concert with warmwater anglers.

“We don’t negotiate rules,” he said.

The entire process has angered some warmwater anglers.

“They have unilaterally put together (a proposal) without consulting or talking to us,” Nania said.

Nania and other anglers plan to attend the commission meeting at which time they will present their own proposals. As for the six options presented by WDFW, Nania said he hasn’t read them.

“I know that they have submitted their new proposals, however, I am not reviewing their proposal until we have ours completed and submitted to the commissioners,” he said in an email.

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