The Yakima River was blown out and Blue Mountain stream trout were not yet rising to a fly. To make myself feel better, I hunted mushrooms in the Blues but you can only ignore the pull of fishing for so long.

I’d recently scoped out a stretch of the lower Walla Walla River to fish out of my pontoon boat. That meant pairing up with a buddy to shuttle vehicles between a put-in and take-out location. Ken’s number came up on my speed dial. “Smallmouth bass move into the Walla Walla River in late spring to spawn. Just like they do in the Yakima River.” I told him. “Do you want to cast spinners for them or fly fish?”

Stupid question. I should have known Ken would rather get skunked using fly gear than catch fish on a spinning rod. “I’ve caught both on flies,” he replied, settling the issue.

The lower Walla Walla River is characterized by deep oxbows with steep brushy banks as it empties into the Columbia. Hill slopes lined with big sage and ridge-top wind turbines also catch your attention. We planned to float near Nine-Mile Ranch, where mid-19th century pioneers traveled overland to Fort Walla Walla. It was high noon when we launched our pontoon boats and began the 4-mile drift. “Did you bring your fins? Ken reminded, perhaps reflecting on the time I left my waders at home on a float tube trip to Lenice Lake and spent the day wandering around looking for an opening in the cattails to cast from.

“I did not forget my fins,” I replied. “I thought about bringing them but decided they were too much trouble. I figured I could maneuver my pontoon boat quite nicely with oars.”

My one-man inflatable pontoon boat is entry level. That’s the nice way of saying I bought it for $200 (used). Ken’s deluxe version cost him close to a grand. It has a reinforced vinyl liner to protect against scraping rocks, 7-foot long oars for powerful rowing and a rear platform to mount an electric trolling motor if he so desires.

Once I got the hang of when to cast and when to row, I caught a bass on a 1/8 ounce chartreuse marabou jig tossed next to the bank. I caught another after letting the jig drift deep in a deep swirl hole. After tossing a Clouser Minnow for an hour and coming up empty, Ken switched to a Bunny Leech and enticed a few bass from overhanging brush. His success led to me tying on a Beadhead Wooly Bugger for surface action. When it came to boat control, Ken maneuvered with precision due to having over-size fins. He also had the ability to secure a desired casting location in swift current using a custom stainless steel anchor while my bag of rocks merely slowed me down.

Redwing blackbirds singing and the sound of water running over smooth cobble entertained us until we approached the gravel access road. A young couple cast spinners from a huge sand bar. Four teenage boys clambered along the bank and shouted at us, “Are the bass still in deep holes?”

“It’s our first trip,” I yelled back. “You probably know more than we do.”

Our casting was also interrupted by the raucous laughter of four bikini clad girls and one lucky guy who floated past us on plastic inflatables. And later, by several farm workers who fished well out of sight from the road. A mile upstream of our take-out location, several young men dove from 30 feet above the water off a sheer rock cliff. Fishing action slowed as we transitioned from pool-riffle to soft bottom catfish country and a steady breeze began to blow upriver, changing a pleasant adventure into a challenge.

I pulled hard on my oars over the next hour, fly rod strapped in the holder, while Ken trolled slowly downstream, powered by his over-size waders. The sun was low through Wallula Gap when we reached my truck. I was exhausted. “Next time remind me to find a quicker place to pull out,” I said.

“I hate to say it,” Ken replied, “but you would have had a much easier time if you had fins.”

As for our scorecard, it was a tossup. I caught the first fish, but Ken caught the largest. He also caught one more bass–but only if you count 6-inchers. (I don’t). Next time I will take my fins.