Don’t let our great cold-water fishing fool you into overlooking some great Washington bass fishing.
When I moved from my native Ohio to southwest Washington in ’93, I assumed I’d left all vestiges of Midwestern fishing behind. Largemouths. Smallmouths. Walleyes. In my new digs here in the Pacific Northwest, the most traditional species I’d grown up with had sadly, I thought, “become a thing of the past.” I was quite mistaken.
Less than a year after becoming a Washington resident, I met Ed Iman, an Oregon-based guide on the Columbia and one-time holder of the Beaver State walleye record. Walleyes, then, were taken care of, courtesy of Mr. Iman and his expertise.
A month or two later, I had the pleasure of being introduced to Roger Luce, a guide of excellent note whose home waters of Silver Lake in Cowlitz County held quite the reputation as a producer of fine stringers of largemouths.
A morning with Luce, and it became clear that while Washington is undeniably synonymous with salmon, steelhead, and a host of other famed saltwater species, the Evergreen State is certainly no slouch when it comes to opportunities to pursue Micropterus salmoides, the largemouth bass, or his bulldogging bruiser of a cousin, Old Mister Smallmouth. Where? This month, Washington-Oregon Game & Fish takes an in-depth look at some of the finest bass fishing Washington has to offer.
A Statewide Perspective
It’s a fact. Washington salmon fisheries are limited geographically. Steelhead fisheries, too, are likewise restricted. Same with sturgeon. Bass, on the other hand, can be found from corner to corner and everywhere in between. What’s this means to the angler looking for something to do in between runs or simply as a switch from the traditional diet, literally and figuratively, of anadromous species? He or she doesn’t have to go very far to fall into some fantastic largemouth or smallmouth action.
“There are largemouth bass in almost every lake in the state of Washington,”
“I’m part of one of four main warm-water (fishing) teams that were started in 1997,” he explains. “Originally, our main goal was stock assessment in lakes across the state; however, today, we’re trending more toward outreach and public education.”
And there’s a huge amount of bass fishing opportunities across the Washington landscape.
“There are world-class smallmouth fisheries and excellent largemouth fisheries,” says Danny Garrett. He works as one of four warm-water state fisheries biologists, with his focus being waters and projects in the northwest corner of Washington. “I can’t say world-class largemouths because of the latitude we’re at. However, our state record is 12.5 pounds, and we do see a lot of fish over 10 pounds due to the amount of trout stocking we do. In terms of smallmouths,” he continues, “Washington can brag about that on a nationwide level. The Columbia River rivals the Great Lakes for smallmouths. We may not have as many bass per acre here, but we often break the 20-pound mark for a five-fish limit all the time on a lot of different waters.”
But, as Garrett puts it, “one of the best bass fisheries in the nation” didn’t just happen. The WDFP does have a conservation mandate (in terms of warm-water management). Currently, state fishing regulations place length limits on both largemouths — no retention of fish between 12 and 17 inches long — and smallmouths — a creel limit of just one fish daily longer than 14 inches.
“We did stock assessments from 1997 through 2002,” Garrett says, “and instituted these regulations statewide. We have rolled back some of these regulations on some waters, like the Columbia River, because it’s extremely difficult to manage bass while you’re simultaneously trying to protect salmon stocks. Still, I don’t think people realize there are people like me who are making recommendations in terms of (Washington’s) bass and bass fishing,” he concludes.
Interestingly enough, given Washington’s angling tradition of salmon fishing, there does seem to be an increase in the number of bass anglers hitting the water each season, as well as those fishermen who make the transition from salmon and steelhead to warm-water species like bass.
“I’ve just started to hear whispers of that (switch) in the last couple years,” Garrett says. “I visited with a salmon club recently, and the speaker was an angler who’d gone to Lake Chelan. He was a salmon angler and gave a presentation on all the bass he’d caught. So, yes, I think people are making the switch, but people will eventually target what’s good. We’re still going to have good runs of salmon up the Columbia and into Puget Sound,” he continues, “so the pressure on the department from the salmon fishing community isn’t going to go away. But (the WDFW) has created some environment and habitat for warm-water fish, and the climate is shifting toward warmer temperatures.”
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It’s a tough question, the one that asks anglers to name the best bass water in Washington; however, it’s a guarantee that on every single list, Lake Washington falls among the top 5, if not the top 2 bass waters in the state. Ask some folks, and the big lake ranks a strong No. 1. No question about it.
Undeniably expansive at almost 22,000 acres, Lake Washington, by virtue of its location equidistant between the population centers of Seattle and Bellevue, is the epitome of metropolitan fishing. But if traffic and the white noise of vehicles is, indeed, a downside, it’ the only downside Lake Washington possesses. Largemouths and smallmouths, both, call the big lake home today. “It used to be predominantly a largemouth lake,” Garrett reveals, “but smallmouths gradually took over.”
Lake Washington is a deep-water lake, which, Garrett explains, favors the smallmouth side of the bass equation in more than 90 percent of the lake. However, it’s largemouths that still dominate in the handful of embayments, both big and small, that pockmark Lake Washington’s shoreline.
“We did an electrofishing survey in the fall of 2017 near Kenmore and Juanita Bay, near Huskie Stadium, and under the Interstate 90 bridge near Mercer Slough,” Garrett says, “and there are fantastic populations of largemouth in those bays. It’s awfully hard to win a tournament on Lake Washington anymore without a largemouth in the bag. I’ve seen (tournament) anglers weigh-in over 25 pounds of largemouths for a five-fish limit. There’s so many of them (largemouths) out there.”
But the lake’s no slouch when it comes to smallmouths. Anglers can weigh 24 to 25 pounds of smallmouths for a five-fish limit. That’s over a 4-pound average. So you have big largemouths in the bays, and big smallmouths cruising the main lake and the rocky habitat there.”
But just because the fish live there doesn’t make 25 pounds a slam-dunk.
“No, it’s a tough fishery,” Garrett admits. “The smallmouths are nomadic. They move around a lot and never seem to be in the same place twice. The largemouths are a little easier to figure out because they’re usually around the same docks every year. Learn to skip a jig under the docks,” he adds, “and it’s a safe bet you’ll catch fish.”
Garrett, himself a seasoned tournament bass angler, contends that Lake Washington largemouths are a bit less challenging to find than the smallmouths. A bit.
“It’s still 22,000 acres (big),” he points out, “but the largemouths are attracted to the warmest water in the spring. It’s where they spawn, and it’s where they live, and they can grow better given the water temperatures in the bays.” Docks and/or weed-lines, he says, should be the focus.
Smallmouths are a little bit different story, both due to the species’ nomadic lifestyle, as well as Lake Washington’s physical makeup.
“The lake is over 200 feet deep, and it just drops straight down,” Garrett says. “There’s not a lot of shoreline rocky habitat, but you’re looking for points, ideally with a 45-degree slope and good baseball-sized rock. These places attract forage like crayfish and sculpin, and the smallmouths will be right there with them.”
Bass anglers east of the Cascades commonly home-in on, perhaps, three of the finest bass lakes the Evergreen State has to offer: Banks Lake, Moses Lake, and sprawling Potholes Reservoir.
Originally from Las Vegas and now living in Spokane, Tyler Brinks has had plenty of time to ply the waters of all three. The president and founder of the Spokane Bass Club, Brinks, an accomplished tournament angler, manages social-media accounts for several clients within the fishing industry, and is a long-time friend and supporter of the Tennessee-based Strike King Lure Company.
“Collectively, they’re all three excellent lakes,” he begins, “and the top-3 most popular tournament lakes in Washington. People from both sides of the Cascades come here. The fishing typically starts in March, and continues through November or December. This means anglers can catch their first bass and their last bass of the year on one of these three lakes.”
Baits for Grant County Bucketmouths
On any given day, on any of the three Grant County bass fisheries, Lure X might be the hot ticket. Or Lure Y. Or Lure Z … but only if it is the model in glow-chartreuse color with silver-inlaid hackles, whatever that is.
Like many a serious bass angler, tournament bass fishermen Tyler Brinks of Spokane packs plenty of lures when he hits the water; however, his “go-to” tackle box whenever he points his rig at either Banks, Moses, or Potholes lakes is surprisingly simple. Still, it always contains a selection of the following Strike King (StrikeKing.com) profiles and color schemes.
- Strike King Square Bill KVD 1.5 — “I use this one for both bass species,” Brinks points out, “say, in mid-May and during the spawn. I fish it around shallow cover primarily and prefer a crayfish pattern like the Delta Red.”
- Strike King 6XD (Extra Deep) — “This one dives to around 18 feet,” Brinks says. “I’ll work it down to deeper fish, like on Banks Lake, over the deep rocky points.”
- Strike King Sexy Dawg and KVD Splash — “Great choices for just after the spawn,” Brinks reveals. “I go with simple colors on the topwater baits — bone or white.”
- Strike King Dream Shot — “It’s just a given that if you’re going to fish bass, you have to have a drop-shot rig,” Brinks says. “These work year-round.” He’s partial to a pair of color variations: Magic and KVD Magic.
- 1/2-ounce jig – “I’ll run this,” Brinks advises, “in shallow water, submerged brush and rocks … anywhere the fish are likely to be shallow.” His go-to soft-bait, with the 1/2-ounce head, is a Rage Menace trailer in green pumpkin.
“Banks is really on the rebound,” Brinks says. “Back in the mid-2000s, it would take 12 to 13 pounds to win a tournament. I moved to Florida and came back to find (that now) it takes 20 pounds to win. Today, there are more largemouths and bigger largemouths in Banks. That said, smallmouths are the predominant species. It’s more of a numbers lake for smallmouths. She’s full of smallmouths in the 2- to 3-pound range.”
It’s a deep lake, Brinks points out, with an abundance of rocky points, cliffs and offshore humps. “You’re looking at humps in 30 to 40 feet of water for (some of) the smallmouths,” the young angler explains. “Largemouths are in the reedy backwater bays. Any inlet or bay with protected water and grass, reeds or brush will have largemouths. Osborn Bay and Devil’s Punchbowl are good places to start. For smallmouths, Devil’s Punchbowl is also a good place, so are The Poplars and Steamboat Rock … anywhere in the south end around the rock islands.”
“The biggest difference between Banks and Moses (lakes) is Moses is shallower,” Brinks says. “There are some deeper holes, but for the most part, it’s 20 feet or less. It’s a better fishery for largemouths, and trophy largemouths in the 7- to 8-pound class. But there are 5- and 6-pound smallmouths, too” he adds. “Overall, I think it’s a better fishery for big fish than is Banks.”
The most popular and, subsequently, the more pressured part of Moses Lakes, Brinks says, lies south of Interstate 90. Here, the waters surrounding Goat and Gailey’s islands provide the shallow habitat conducive to largemouths, along with the rocky structure traditionally a favorite of smallies. The Interstate 90 bridge, too, can provide excellent fishing opportunities. Brinks suggests football jigs or deep-diving crankbaits, like the Strike King 10XD, are good choices here.”
Located south and west of Moses Lake, and formed by the construction of the O’Sullivan Dam in 1949, Potholes Reservoir “… is one of the most unique places I’ve ever fished in the country,” Brinks says. “The hundreds of small islands — the sand dunes — make this a maze of cover. The whole area is fishable. On some lakes, there’s no structure or it’s too deep. On Potholes, the entire lake is full of brush, beaver dams, dunes or grass. It’s a phenomenal fishery.”
Spreading across nearly 28,000 surface acres, Potholes presents plenty of potential; however, some places might prove a better jumping-off point than might others.
“The areas around Crab Creek and Frenchman’s Wasteway are popular,” Brinks reveals, “rather, the dunes adjacent to the creek or waterway. That water flow seems to (help) congregate the fish.” The dunes, he explains, is primarily a show that stars largemouth bass, while the rocky southern end of the reservoir around the dam is more prone to produce smallmouths.