A Century of Smallmouth Bass in the Mid-Columbia

“Toss a spinner over by that rock pile,” my supervisor said. “Big bass move into this backwater slough to spawn.” As his subordinate, I felt obligated to obey.

The 3½-pound smallmouth bass hooked on my first cast served as a rousing introduction to a fish whose fighting prowess has destroyed more than one cheap spinning reel. The salient event occurred in White Bluffs slough nearly four decades ago, before the general public was allowed access to the heart of the Hanford Reach of the Columbia River. My supervisor had spent the previous two years using radio telemetry to study smallmouth bass migration behavior.

Smallmouth bass are sometimes referred to as bronzebacks, black bass, brown bass, white trout, redeyes, and smallies. Original range was limited to the Great Lakes region and large river systems that included the Ohio and upper Mississippi. Purported to possess “legendary sporting quality” and “delicious flesh,” it’s no surprise numerous introductions took place throughout North America beginning in the mid-19th century. Back then, anglers brought their favorite fish along when they moved to another part of the country.

Introduced to the mid-Columbia River in the 1920’s, smallmouth bass quickly established a popular sport fishery in the Yakima River. Early populations continued to spread throughout Columbia and Snake River reservoirs, the Hanford Reach, and associated tributary streams following the construction of mainstem dams. As evidence of their abundance, the three-rivers area near the Tri-Cities supports several bass tournaments each year. Lake Wallula (McNary Reservoir) has been described in “America’s Best Bass Fishing” and the Columbia River holds a top 25 ranking on Bassmaster magazine’s “best western bass lakes of the decade.”

Smallmouth move from winter holding areas in the Columbia River to the Yakima River and other tributary streams in early April. During the pre-spawn period, they hold in back eddies and deep holes near the bank, favoring instream cover that includes boulders, rootwads, and basalt cliffs. Bass are aggressive feeders and can be taken with spinners and flies when they frequent riffle-run habitat throughout the summer.

Two years ago, in early June, a buddy and I floated the lower Walla Walla River upstream of Nine-Mile Ranch in pontoon boats. Flows had recently dropped from late season snowmelt, providing 18 inches of visibility. Bank anglers and recreational rafters were both out in full force. We enticed smallmouth bass with 1/8-ounce Maribou jigs cast into deep swirl holes and hooked others from the cover of overhanging willows using a Bunny Leech fly pattern. I’ve since spoken to anglers who cast small spinners for bass as far upstream as the Mill Creek confluence.

Backwaters of the John Day Pool provide excellent action when adult bass stage near spawning beds located near sunken reefs and gravel patches. Throwing soft plastic baits and shallow diving plugs in Paterson and Crow Butte sloughs can lead to 50-fish days in May and June. Most boaters show up early to take advantage of the morning bite. In contrast, my regular fishing partner prefers to start at noontime, a choice that typically gets us home well after dark. “The best bite occurs at sunset,” Wayne tells me when catch rates are slow. “We can’t leave now,” he says, when fishing gets fast and furious.

Looking for non-stop action? If so, consider a summer float trip to the Hells Canyon Reach of the Snake River or the Grande Ronde and John Day Rivers. Multi-day trips offer families plenty of fun for small bass, whether tossing a surface popper with a fly rod or a 1/8-ounce jig and curly tail worm using ultra-light spinning gear. Impressive landscape and abundant wildlife enhances the experience. Guided trips are available starting at around $100 per person per day.

Thriving smallmouth bass populations have created a dilemma for fisheries managers tasked with restoring depleted salmon and steelhead runs. Along with walleye, smallmouth bass have largely replaced native northern pikeminnow as the apex predator in some waters. A study conducted from 2013 to 2015 showed predation of smallmouth bass on juvenile Chinook salmon increased 15-fold in Lower Granite Reservoir over the rate noted in 1996 to 1997, explained in part by increases in smallmouth bass consumption rates and increased density of subyearling hatchery Chinook salmon.

Washington and Oregon fisheries managers recently removed size and harvest limits on bass in the Columbia and Snake River and tributaries upstream of McNary Dam on the Washington-Oregon border, citing a need to reduce predation on juvenile salmon and steelhead. The decision did not come without controversy, however. Devoted bass anglers fear increased take of trophy-size fish with little benefit to declining salmon populations. In other locations, a 5-fish per day with restriction on number of large bass harvested may apply.

Over the past several years I have had regular occasion to revisit my early bass experience in the Hanford Reach. A trip in early June last year happened to coincide with a friend who conducted research on bass feeding habits. One difference was that I have long since developed opinion of my own and he didn’t have to point where to cast.



Product Review- Range Reels


            Two words come to mind when I open the flexible waterproof case that holds a 5-6 wt, Avail fly reel: classic and elegant. Precision forged from high-grade aluminum, the reel’s single-piece design exudes performance and longevity. Its fully-sealed, carbon fiber drag system starts slow and evenly applies the brakes to control tension on hooked fish during both fresh and saltwater applications. The grooved out “saddle” spool allows for more abundant even-spaced backing than traditional fly reels. Other important features include a mid-arbor design to provide fast line pick up and a hex head screw design that ensures years of use. If a mid-priced quality reel is what you are looking for, this one covers just about every situation that can happen to a fly caster on the water.

Range Reels (www.rangereels.com) is a new and original fly reel company that’s an offshoot of “built in the USA” Walton Rods. The Avail model retails for $219 and is available in 3-4 wt, 5-6 wt, and 7-8 wt sizes. All reels come with a lifetime warranty and a 30-day satisfaction or refund guarantee. Whether your quest is for bluegill, smallmouth bass, steelhead, or northern pike, you will not be disappointed.

Building Family Memories While Fishing

The grandkids recently showed up for a summer visit and quickly made their presence known: empty Cheerios box in the pantry, half a sheet of toilet paper left on the roll, tennis shoes and flip flops scattered about the front entry. Knowing their reliance on electronic devices, I scratched my head and wondered what I could do to entertain them.

Fishing soon came to mind. Reaching into my memory bank, I recall how Grandpa Harry taught me how to read water and bring stream trout to the fly. These same skills can be passed on to my grandkids at the family cabin, I thought.

The first thing they ask after arriving at the cabin is for me to measure their growth. The last eight years of heights, with names and dates, are marked in permanent ink on the bunkhouse wall. It isn’t long after they dump their duffel bags on the floor before they inquire, “Can I go fishing?”

Our c. 1940 log cabin is a whisper in the woods from the upper Umatilla River. The Umatilla is small enough to cast across the width and its shallow riffles can be waded safely. Trout are abundant and eager to rise to the fly. Like many small streams that flow from the western flanks of the Blue Mountains, it is perfect training ground for youngsters new to the sport of fly fishing.

Liam, the oldest, keeps an iPad by his side at all times. He programmed the ring tone on my cell phone with the tune “Going Fishing” by Taj Mahal when he was twelve. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel. “I want to catch at least two fish,” he announces to me this year.

You have good technique,” I say to his younger sister, Sofia, after noting artful management of how she placed her fly.
“I know where to cast,” Sofia replies
“So, where is that?”
“Over where there are rocks for fish.”
“I call that reading the water,” I say. “Not everyone knows how to do that. You have to catch a few fish first.”
“Not really,” she replies. “You just have to get some bites and jerk at them.”

Cousin Annalise caught her first trout at the cabin when she was four years old. I may have hooked it but she reeled it in all by herself. Now old enough to have a learner’s permit, she’ll drive us to cool headwaters where bull trout take shelter in bedrock pools.

Adam, the youngest grandchild, reminds me of myself. Most days he’d rather fish than eat. Adam is now adept enough to go off by himself and more often than not returns with a fishing story to tell.

Sofia and I shared time on the river this year. One particularly creative cast led to her getting hung up on a huge log that leaned over the back edge of a shallow pool. When it became obvious she couldn’t dislodge the fly by jerking on her rod, I waded out to the log, felt my way up the leader, and reached out to retrieve the fly. Uh oh! A hornet attack from a nest hidden in a hollow of the log! I dropped Sofia’s rod, slapped my head like a madman, and dove headfirst into the small side-channel pool while my shocked granddaughter watched and wondered, what made Papa D trip and fall in the river? I came up sputtering, ran down the shoreline, and left the pack of angry hornets behind.

Back at the cabin, a Benedryl tablet followed by an ice pack brought the swelling in my cheek and upper lip down to where I could carry on a conversation without an interpreter. Luckily, Sofia did not get stung. She might have forgiven me, but her mother would not have.

I can hardly wait for the next set of grandkids to arrive and the adventures that follow. Will they remember their height relative to their cousins, the number of times their largest trout jumped, or how Papa D left a perfectly good fly dangling on a log rather than taking a chance on getting chased by another nest of mad hornets?

Which begs the question, what memories will you pass on to the youngsters in your life?

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