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.