▶️ The Great Outdoors: Bull Trout poaching on Metolius River angers officials

By BROOKE SNAVELY
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS

A Culver man who poached threatened fish from the Metolius River and boasted about it on social media, has been sentenced to probation, must pay fines and perform community service.

According to court documents, Thomas Campbell poached bull trout on multiple occasions in 2017 and 2018 from the Metolius River, just upstream of Lake Billy Chinook.

Campbell encouraged others to join him in harvesting the federally protected fish from areas that are catch-and-release or closed to fishing.

“There were quite a few defendants and quite a bit of evidence to go through, specifically for Mr. Campbell, there was lots of social media evidence, some search warrants were executed and turned over quite a bit of evidence,” said Will McClaren, Assistant U.S. Attorney, District of Oregon.

In December 2017, Campbell posted photographs on his Facebook and Instagram accounts depicting he and a friend holding large bull trout by the gills, proof they weren’t releasing them.

Campbell posted that he and two other anglers caught 27 bull trout in one night.

Other social media users warned him what he was doing was illegal, but Campbell continued harvesting fish and encouraged more than 30 people to join him.  All face prosecution.

“Back in 2017 we started getting reports from anglers and other people who were just down in that area hiking, that there were a group of folks engaged in illegal angling activity. This information was passed to Oregon State Police and they started concentrating efforts down in the 10 mile stretch to identify how extensive the activity was,” said Brett Hodgson, Deschutes District Fish Biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife.

“It turned out the poaching effort was so significant and the fact the species was federally protected, it brought in federal law enforcement and tribal personnel. Bull trout are culturally significant to the Warm Springs Tribe. So, we had a three-pronged enforcement effort, in 2017 and 2018, trying to get a handle on this poaching problem.”

Campbell admitted he knew the bull trout fishing regulations and how to release them unharmed.

That led prosecutors to conclude he showed clear disregard for laws designed to protect the species that inhabit less than half their historic range and were added to the threatened and endangered species list in 1999.

This is a video of anglers properly releasing bull trout.

“Keep them wet as much as possible. Land them in a net. Softly cradle them in the net in the water. Use a barbless hook which is the law on the Metolius. Get that hook out. Revive them carefully. Make sure they can swim off on their own accord, under their own power,” said Jeff Perin, owner of The Fly Fishers Place is Sisters. “Don’t put them up on the bank. Don’t mishandle them. Don’t take too many photos. Up and out of the water for a quick shot or hold them in the water for a quick shot, then let the fish go.:

Just downstream in Lake Billy Chinook, it is legal to keep one bull trout over 24 inches.  Smaller bull trout must be released unharmed. Anglers who are lucky enough to catch a “keeper” must stop fishing.

“The responsible angler needs to look at the regulations that Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife puts out each year and be familiar with those regulations. That includes gear restrictions. Can you use bait? Is it fly fishing only? Does it have bag limits? What are the seasons?,” Hodgson said. “There are important fish identification elements in the regulations book. Anglers need to be able to identify different species.”

Thanks to pristine habitat and conservative angling regulations, the Metolius River and Lake Billy Chinook host one of the healthiest bull trout populations in the country.  This is the only place in Oregon where it is legal to fish for them, if you follow regulations.

What’s it like to hook a bull trout?

“They fight dirty. They come to the surface. They go underneath logs, around rocks. They aren’t always easy to land. We usually fish a big 7 or 8 weight rod, heavy line and tippet. 10-to-15-pound leader. They are tame able with that kind of tackle,” Perin said.

Metolius River bull trout are used as seed stock to restore bull trout populations in other places such as the Clackamas River and O’dell Lake.

Thomas Campbell’s flagrant and repeated poaching jeopardized recovery efforts.

“None of this is to villainize Mr. Campbell or others who would do these acts. It’s simply to say these acts are outside the law. Those who operate within the bounds of the law, I don’t think they appreciate that sort of thing,” McLaren said. “I think it makes fisher-people look bad.”

U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken sentenced Campbell to five years of federal probation and banned him from angling or hunting anywhere in the country. Campbell must pay $6,000 in criminal fines and $650 in restitution for his destroying a trail camera designed to catch poachers. He must also perform 300 hours of conservation-oriented community service.

“To the extent people learn of the consequences, I think it has a significant deterrent value even if there was no prison time associated with it,” McLaren said.

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