Warmwater Fishes of Washington
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Warmwater Fishes of Washington

Category: Fish/Shellfish Research and Management - Facts and Identification

Date Published: April 2005

Number of Pages: 26

Publication Number: FM93-9


Before the late 1800s, the only resident freshwater fish living in Washington State were trout (cutthroat and rainbow), char (bull trout and Dolly Varden), nonanadromous salmon (kokanee), whitefish, burbot, northern pikeminnow, suckers and smaller fish generally unimportant to anglers. But as the human population started to increase, it became evident that the most accessible lowland lakes and streams with natural trout populations could not withstand heavy fishing pressure. In addition, many immigrants to the Northwest longed for more-familiar species they had caught in their midwestern, eastern and southern homelands.

The result was a widespread and often indiscriminate importation of game species from other parts of the nation. Predominantly by means of railroad, and often under the direction of the United States Fish Commission, millions of young bass, crappie, other sunfish such as bluegill, plus yellow perch and catfish joined in the westward movement. Brook trout (char), lake trout (also char) and brown trout (originally from Europe) were also introduced. Many of these introductions fulfilled their intended purpose, providing angling opportunities where none might otherwise exist.

As shown in Table 1, warmwater game fish are the fastest-growing segment of Washington’s resident sport fishery. The number of warmwater anglers increased from an estimated 170,000 in 1968 to 334,000 in 1994. During this same period, the number of warmwater angler-days increased from 2.1 million to almost 6.2 million; the percentage of all resident game fish anglers fishing for warmwater species increased from 52.3% to 62.7%; and the number of Washington anglers indicating a preference for warmwater species increased from 23% to 34.3%.

The First Introductions

According to Ben Hur Lampman in Coming of the Pond Fishes (published in 1946, and the basis for most historical information in this document), the earliest introduction of exotic fish in the Northwest was carp in 1880. More on carp later in this book. As most readers probably realize, carp are not a favorite in the Northwest, for either anglers or fisheries managers.

Other introduced fish have been received more “warmly” than carp. By 1900, warmwater species were common in many of the lowland lakes of the state. Because of their tremendous reproductive potential, they were soon providing anglers with a wider choice of fishing opportunity in nearly all parts of the Northwest.

In the past, various warmwater species were called “spiny-rays” because most of them have rigid fin rays (spines). Salmon, trout, char and whitefish, on the other hand, have only soft rays. Fisheries managers today prefer the term “warmwater” game fish for the so-called spiny-rays, and “coldwater” game fish for salmon, trout, char and whitefish.

Warmwater species in Washington now represent four families: Centrarchidae, the sunfish family; Esocidae, the pike family; Ictaluridae, the catfish family; and Percidae, the perch family. Becoming acquainted with identification and habits of these fish will open new fields of interest and opportunity for anglers. For assistance identifying these species, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has a poster titled "Warmwater Fish of Washington," and color illustrations of many species can be found in the fishing regulations pamphlet.