Springtime fishing for Smallmouth Bass

“Fishing will be slow but bass are large this time of year,” Wayne said, as incentive for me to join him in early March when a cruel northeast breeze ruffled the surface of the Columbia River. The only evidence of spring was a flock of sandhill cranes that chortled as they circled overhead. An empty boat launch suggested our efforts could be futile.

I was lucky enough to land the first bass, maybe 2 lbs, vertical jigging in 40 feet of water with a 5/8 ounce Blade Bait. Wayne caught the next two on a drop-shot rig, including one that weighed a hefty 4 lbs. “Smallmouth overwinter in deep water,” he shared, expertly maneuvering his boat over a deep drop-off lined with washtub-size boulders. Despite a lull in action, Wayne stayed vigilant at the bow until the sun slipped below Rattlesnake Mountain. Meanwhile I lost interest after donating four rigs to the bottom of the river.

For Wayne, bass fishing is not an avocation so much as it’s an obsession. Once a tournament angler, he now fishes for fun, and for no other species than bass from early March to late November. He records water temperature, technique, and the length and weight of all bass caught. Favorable locations are logged as waypoints on his sonar. If the bite is slow, Wayne stays on the water until he figures out why. If bass are biting, he can’t stop casting. Wind, rain, and a rising moon do not deter him.

In preparation for our next outing, I spent a weekend organizing tackle bags, many which reached a general state of disarray over the winter. Careful inventory showed over three dozen packages of soft baits, including both 3-inch and “lunker” grubs, Hoochie Koochies in two-tone and sparkle combinations, various Tube Jigs or Gitzits, scented Power Worms, crawdads, and lizards.

A tangle of crankbaits, Blade baits and spinners filled out my portfolio of bass lures. The sheer volume of gear bordered on ridiculous, but you never know what bass will be biting on any particular hour of the day.

Early April found us back on the water again, this time in the lower Yakima River. Smallmouth bass move from the Columbia River into the lower “Yak” and backwaters each spring, attracted by warmer water temperature. Wayne brought in four nice smallies using a silver-and-blue Square Bill Crankbait, while I focused on refining my latent netting skills. I got even a week later when I jigged six bass on a 3-inch Sassy Shad. “You have the hot lure this time,” Wayne said.

“Give credit to the presence of juvenile salmon,” I replied. “My offering likely resembled fall Chinook smolts on the early part of their seaward journey, a favorite prey of bass.” My advanced degree in Fisheries may not make me a better angler, but it leads to more theories about what works and what doesn’t.

Smallmouth bass are abundant throughout the four lower Snake River reservoirs, where they frequent rubble shorelines and backwater channels. The Hells Canyon Reach is notably famous for providing non-stop action. I recall a hot summer day following a jet boat ride to Copper Creek Lodge. Casting for smallies while standing waist deep in the river was a great way to cool off. Further upstream, Brownlee Reservoir is excellent for smallmouth bass (also channel catfish and crappie). Coves where tributaries join the reservoir are favored, as are rocky outcrops.

Multi-day guided raft trips on the lower Grande Ronde and John Day Rivers 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 landscapes and abundant wildlife enhance the experience. Shuttle service is available for anglers whose idea of adventure is casting from a pontoon boat.

On calm days in May I will test my luck in warm backwaters of the John Day Pool. Where adult smallmouth bass gather near sunken reefs and gravel patches in preparation for spawning. Throwing soft plastics in colors of Motor oil, Pumpkin, and Fire Tiger in Paterson and Crow Butte sloughs has led to 50-fish days in the past. Sometimes a drag and twitch technique attracts bass like a frantic crayfish and other times bass want to eat something that swims like a crippled minnow.

I can’t wait to try out my new 5/6 Avail fly reel (www.rangereels.com). Its innovative carbon fiber drag is sure to put the brakes on any large bass that moves into shallow water to feed. Oversize flies such as Clouser Minnow, Maribou Muddler, Rattle Tube, and Bunny Leech, are often effective. Spun deer hair patterns that mimic a small mouse are a favorite choice on the Grande Ronde River. By early summer, post-spawn smallmouth are aggressive enough to go airborne when they smack a Bug Popper worked on the surface. That’s when the real fun begins. If I’m as successful as I imagine, this time around it will be me telling Wayne, “We can’t leave now. Don’t you know? The best bite always occurs at sunset.”

 

Night Time is the Right Time for Big Walleye

“There’s not enough antifreeze in my blood to stay on the water for another pass,” I say to my fishing partner. It is the last week in January. Our rod guides are iced up after trolling in dense fog for three hours without success.

“Suits me,” he replies. “I never figured you for a good guide.”

I’ve caught walleye on my first cast of the day and the last cast of the evening. I’ve caught walleye when gale force breezes blew my boat sideways and when hail filled the bottom of my boat. I’ve caught walleye on Dick Nite spoons when I trolled for American shad. Two years ago, during the sockeye salmon run, I caught a 10-pound walleye on a spinner-shrimp rig. I once jigged up three eater-size walleye in 10 minutes while my buddies watched and wondered, “What does he have that I don’t?”

I’ve also been skunked in the presence of others far more times than I care to remember.

I’ve done all these things but hadn’t fished for walleye at night until late February of this year when hero shots of large walleye populated Facebook pages, anglers with LED headlamps strapped to their forehead. My boat trailer was in the shop for repairs so I gave BT a call. “Sounds good,” he said. “My freezer is low on white meat.”

We made a warm up troll along the Richland shoreline as the sun sank low on the western horizon. When darkness fell, we outfitted rods with deep diver Bandit lures and spooled out 100 feet of 15 lb test braided line. The light sticks on our rod tips winked staccato time as we trolled one mile-per hour upstream along a 20-foot bottom contour.

Time passes slowly in the dark. It is difficult to judge distance and details of the landscape are obscured. Luckily BT had a Fishfinder GPS and sonar with bottom charts to guide the way. We bundled up in insulated bibs and stocking hats to ward off the chill. The intermittent honk of resting geese, far off sound of police sirens, and the purr of BT’s kicker motor broke the stillness. As luck would have it, one hour into the moonless night produced our first strike. I grabbed the pulsing rod and felt the pull of a heavy fish.

“Put a light on my reel, will you?” I yelled to BT, when five minutes of steady cranking failed to bring the fish to the boat.” BT complied. The line counter dial read “200.”

Lesson learned: large winter walleye fight like a log. Tighten your drag, put the motor in neutral, and keep constant pressure on the fish. We eventually brought my largest walleye ever to the net: 35 inches from nose to tip of caudal fin and an estimated 17 pounds. Two more passes through the same stretch of river and BT’s rod went down to a more modest size walleye. That one went into the fish box.

Why all the fuss over walleye? For one, their filets are firm and flaky with a flavor described as “delicate with a buttery flavor.” For me, walleye fishing provides an excuse to get my boat out when salmon and steelhead angling is not an option.

According to Tyler Miller (MillerTimeFishing; 509-942-9044), trophy walleye season brings in a large number of out-of-state clients for trips he runs on the Columbia River. Tyler prefers to start his fishing day a few hours before sunset. He keeps his boat on the water until the bite slows or clients get tired of reeling in fish. In addition to onboard electronics, he carries extra lighting and hand held GPS that automatically sends your location for help if needed. “Some trips I don’t get home until midnight,” he says.

Following introduction to Banks Lake and Lake Roosevelt in the 1960s, walleye migrated downriver to find a home throughout the Columbia and Snake River system. Wide-open flats between Wallula Gap and the Snake-Columbia River confluence remain as one of the best places to find large walleye in the United States. Both the Oregon and Washington State record walleye have been caught in McNary Dam Pool (Lake Wallula) at 19.96 lbs and 20.30 lbs, respectively.

In the lower Snake River, Lower Monumental pool has the most to offer, with walleye found from the mouth of the Palouse River upstream to Little Goose Dam. Winter anglers from the upper Columbia region favor Lake Roosevelt, Lake Rufus Woods and Banks Lake. Moses Lake and the Potholes are popular spots for anglers following the ice out period.

Walleye don’t favor strong current and move to slower water off the main current when river discharge is high. Trolling is the most effective way to find fish when they are scattered in open water. Once a school of biters is encountered, anglers might switch to a vertical presentation with lead head jigs or blade baits. Universal colors of silver, white, and chartreuse provide improved visibility at deeper depths.

Washington and Oregon fisheries managers recently removed size and harvest limits on walleye in the Columbia and Snake Rivers, citing a need to reduce predation on juvenile salmon and steelhead. However, devoted walleye anglers release larger females and limit their take of smaller fish.

Walleye feed on juvenile shad, salmon smolts, lamprey ammocoetes, and bottom-dwelling resident fish that include sculpin and sandroller. A unique layer of light-gathering tissue in the back of their eyes, the tapetum lucidum, allows them to detect prey at low light. Consequently, night fishing increases the odds of hooking trophy-size walleye that move from deep water to the shallows to feed. No wonder anglers are willing to drive hundreds of miles to fish in the dark for a chance at a “walleye of a lifetime!”

 

Watching and Waiting for a River to be Reborn

For much of my life, the upper Umatilla River has served as a place of refuge. As a child, my parents drove our 55’ Mercury station wagon from Weston to the heart of the Umatilla Indian Reservation where we surfed rapids in cheap air mattresses and caught two-foot long suckers with our hands. Boy Scout […]

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