Salmon and steelhead. Sturgeon and trout. Dungeness crabs, razor clams and shrimp. Even oysters. For those with an affinity for things –—catchable things — aquatic, the Pacific Northwest is a cornucopia of opportunity. Which is why, many theorize, Washington and Oregon’s blue ribbon bass fisheries are oft overshadowed by — well, almost everything.
And it’s a shame, really, because the Sister States set the scene for some of the finest largemouth and smallmouth bass angling to be had in the Lower 48. Where, exactly, is this top-notch bassing? East, West, North, South, the Columbia River and everywhere top to bottom. But this month, Washington-Oregon Game & Fish looks a little more in-depth at bass fishing in the Evergreen and Beaver states, and where bass-hunters, whether they’re driving a go-fast boat or a float tube, can cash in on this first-rate action.
It’s official: Washington’s largemouth bass record, one that’s stood since Carl Pruitt pulled an 11.57-pound behemouth from the waters of Banks Lake, has fallen. In August of 2016, Bill Evans of Bothell shattered Pruitt’s landmark by nearly a full pound by capturing a 12.53-pound largemouth while fishing Lake Bosworth in Snohomish County. It was, Evans was reported as having said, his first time fishing Bosworth. How’s that for beginner’s luck?
While 12-pound largemouths might not be an everyday occurrence anywhere in the nation, Washington does support more than her fair share of waters capable of harboring that next state record.
Situated, as it is, on the eastern fringes of the Seattle metro area, the 5,000-acre Lake Sammamish attracts quite a bit of attention from bass enthusiasts; urban, suburban, and from out of the area.
“Sammamish does get a lot of pressure, including tournament pressure,” reported Danny Garrett, WDFW Region 4 warmwater fisheries biologist. “But it’s a high quality fishery, with a 2- to 2-1/2 pound average smallmouth and the occasional 3 1/2-pound fish.”
Smallmouths are the target for Sammamish bassers, although largemouths are certainly available, albeit to a lesser degree. Smallie chasers focus on the multitudinous docks, pilings, and submerged timber that dot the big lake. Gravel and debris dumps provide additional habitat. Jigs are the ticket, but crayfish-pattern crankbaits also grab their fair share of fish.
Closer still to Seattle, Lake Washington’s 21,000 acres, like Sammamish’s to the east, support a predominantly smallmouth bass fishery, with a side of largemouths.
“This is one of the highest quality smallmouth fisheries in the country,” noted Garrett. “You see a lot more 4-, 5-, and 6-pound smallmouth here, and I’ve seen a 7-plus-pound fish.”
Expansive, deep, and pressured, Washington’s smallies often — not always, but often — require some work, some finesse and a whole lot of hunting for that spot-on spot. A plethora of bass tournaments are held on the big lake each year, with winning total weights increasing by the proverbial leaps and bounds. And again as on her sister, Sammamish, crayfish imitations in cranks and grubs work well during the spring and summer months.
Southwest Washington Sleepers
The southwest corner of Washington, aka the WDFW’s Region 5, gets a lot of attention from salmon and steelhead hunters. However, there are plenty of warmwater opportunities to be had along the mighty Columbia as well as inland if bass are an angler’s focus.
“There are some great but unthought of bass waters (in Region 5),” said Stacie Kelsey, departmental inland fisheries biologist, “including Carlisle Lake and South Lewis County Park Pond (Lewis County), Vancouver Lake (Clark County), and Rowland and Horsethief lakes in Klickitat County.”
Long Beach Peninsula ponds
True, the Long Beach Peninsula may not harbor a world-class largemouth fishery. However, for anglers and their families spending time touring Marsh’s Free Museum and its star attraction, Jake the Alligator Man, there are plenty of opportunities to wet a line. Located just south of Ocean Park, Loomis Lake is the only lake on the LBP where internal combustion motors are permitted; however, the majority of bassers here will run smaller electric pushers or fish from kayaks or canoes. A gravel ramp sits opposite Loomis Lake State Park on the east side of Highway 103. Farther south, Long Lake (Birch Road) and Black Lake near the town of Long Beach also hold largemouths, along with WDFW-planted rainbow trout. Anglers be warned — Loomis is filled to (almost) overflowing with Eurasian watermilfoil; good news for largemouths, and not-so-sweet for those who seek them. Weedless baits, e.g. frogs and buzzbaits, are a necessity.
This three-horned lake straddling Washington’s portion of Interstate 90 harbors excellent populations of largemouths and smallmouths, along with walleyes, yellow perch, and crappies.
“The bass fishing on Moses Lake has been so great in recent years, and the lake continually draws anglers from all over the state,” said Spokane’s Dan Rice, a veteran basser and Strike King pro. “With the area’s warmer climate, it is often a destination early in the season for smallmouth.”
The so-called horns are actually long, shallow offshoots of the main lake, and are known by the names of Lewis, Parker, and Pelican. Bass hunters typically target the many islands and rock piles for smallmouths; docks are a focal point for those seeking largemouths. Crankbaits, topwater, plastic — Moses has something for every angler, regardless of their tactic of choice.
Grant County’s Potholes Reservoir has it all — great shoreline accommodations, plenty of public launches, elbow room, and, perhaps best of all, a more-than-healthy population of both largemouths and smallmouths. At 28,000 acres, The Potholes offers more than its share of seclusion — a double-edged sword that, while pleasant for those seeking solitude, can make finding concentrations of post-spawn bass challenging. Traditionally, the sandy shallow waters of The Dunes are on-target for largemouth seekers; rocky humps and edges, of which there are many, set the scene for the bronzeback hunter.
A second possibility over East, also in Grant County, is 27-mile-long Banks Lake. Smallmouths head the bassers’ hit parade, with largemouth running a close third behind walleyes in terms of angling popularity. Banks, like Potholes, is expansive, covering some 27,000 acres of mixed timber, old roadbeds, rocks, and mid-depth rolling flats.
“The Devil’s Punchbowl is a known largemouth area, while smallmouth anglers tend to focus on main lake targets,” said Rice. Crawdad-colored crankbaits and twistertails are the go-to fakes on the big lake. However, a topwater bite can materialize in a moment’s notice, and anglers should be prepared with downscaled buzzbaits, Spooks and poppers.
Pend Oreille River
The Pend Oreille, said Rice, can be separated into a river and the lake, i.e. Box Canyon Reservoir. “It’s a diverse fishery that offers both smallmouth and largemouth,” the pro said, “and really could be considered a gem to many anglers living in the Inland Northwest.”
During the spring, the action heats in the shallower sloughs and backwaters. Come summer, said Rice, many bassers focus on the lake, targeting deeper water with dropshot and Carolina rigs.
“Topwater action can be dynamite, too,” he said, “and big walk-the-dog lures like Strike King’s Sexy Dawg can bring big results.”
The Columbia River
Largely shared by the Sister States, the Columbia River is, and has been, a sleeper destination for bass anglers from around the Pacific Northwest and the nation, and this despite her more-than-obvious size and almost limitless array of access points and seemingly perfect shoreline and deep-water habitat. Home to both smallmouths and largemouths, the Columbia bass fishery runs year-round, with traditional highpoints being the pre-spawn in April and May and again in late September and throughout October. Being closer to the Portland/Vancouver metroplex, the Bonneville and Dalles pools attract the lion’s share of the bassing attention. But the waters below Bonneville past Interstate 5 and down into the Longview area are definitely worth a look as spring gives way to summer.
As it is in Washington, bass fishing in The Beaver State is oft-forgotten, with many an angler choosing silver or rainbows over bronzebacks and green sides. Odd, perhaps, because, and again like her northern neighbor, Oregon offers much in the way of bass fishing, both opportunity as well as excellence. Currently, the state smallmouth record stands at a mind-blowing 8.176 pounds, a truly exceptional fish caught in 2005 by Nick Rubeo out of Henry Hagg Lake. Likewise the state record largemouth at 12.1 pounds is a once-in-a lifetime catch; this one from Ballenger Pond near Springfield in 2002. The fish are, without question, out there. Many believe it’s just a matter of time until, as happened in Washington in 2016, these records fall. But where?
A Spring day in eastern Oregon might go something like this: Turkey hunt in the morning, and ply the waters of this Snake River impoundment in the afternoon and evening for smallmouths. Along with the bronze fish, Brownlee is home to an excellent population of crappies and channel cats, either of which can fill the void should the smallies prove somewhat finicky. Brownlee doesn’t lack size, being some 15,000 acres and over 50 miles long. As such, she can be challenging, as one 100-yard section looks like the next. Probing baits — either morning topwater or midday plastics — that cover plenty of water can make life easier.
Prineville Reservoir is the definition of centrally-located when talking about Oregon bassing opportunities. Still, she’s worth the trip from any point on the compass. A dam on the Crooked River formed Prineville, creating the multi-species fishery she is today. The lion’s share of the bass action — largemouths and smallmouths both, with largemouth holding the upper hand — takes place in the shallower coves and bays on the upper east end.
Both Owyhee Reservoir and the river upstream provide eastern Oregonians and western Idahoans access to some tremendous smallmouth bass fishing. As is the case on Brownlee and Prineville, there’s a lot of water to be covered at Owyhee, and therein lies the challenge. There are largemouths here, too.
Rocks, timber, weeds, flats. Fern Ridge Reservoir west of Eugene has it all, including a dandy population of largemouths and smallmouths to boot. Four launch facilities are conveniently located, both north and south. Several feeder creeks create the shallow delta-type flats with adjacent changes in water depth that draw bass like magnets. For the panfisherman, Fern Ridge offers an exception crappie fishery.
Henry Hagg Lake
The Hagg lies a short 30 miles west of Portland proper, so it does attract its share of angling attention. That said, there’s a goodly supply of both largemouths and smallmouths available. In addition to holding title to Oregon’s state record smallie, The Hagg also boasts of the Beaver State’s top-ranked brown bullhead, with a fish weighing 3.7 pounds taken in 2001. Crappies, bluegills and yellow perch are also on The Hagg’s hit parade.
North and South Tenmile lakes near Lakeside are the setting for many of Oregon’s sanctioned bass tournaments, and with good reason. The winning two-man team for the 2016 Tenmile Open posted an impressive 31.83-pound catch over the two-day tourney, with plenty of 4- and 5-pounders recorded during that same contest. Six-pound largemouths aren’t uncommon.
The John Day River
It’s tough if not impossible to have a discussion on bass fishing the Pacific Northwest without mentioning Oregon’s John Day River. For the smallmouth enthusiast, the John Day is, without question, the thing dreams are made of. One-hundred-fish days — no, that’s not a typo! — aren’t uncommon; nor are 20- to 21-inch bronzebacks. This is Wild America at its absolute finest, and smallmouth fishing at its blue ribbon best. Topwater baits and smaller cranks in sculpin and crawdad patterns get the nod, but for the ultimate adventure, anglers pack 4- to 5-weight fly gear and a goodly supply of Sneaky Pete poppers and Woolly Buggers.
The Umpqua River
Southwest Oregon’s Umpqua River built her reputation as a producer of top-notch salmon and steelhead action. But she’s also considered by more than a few to be one of the premier smallmouth streams in the nation. Better, some say, than even the John Day. Summer’s heat brings out the beast in Umpqua smallies. Spinnerbaits, buzzbaits, Spooks, twistertails, fly gear and poppers; they all seem to work on these aggressive tacklebusters.