Here’s your guide to Washington’s and Oregon’s top smallmouth waters.
It’s time to pursue smallmouths at some old favorite locations and to explore new waters. What follows are some good options for Northwest smallmouth anglers this season.
The land of Zane Grey, canvas tents and smoky campfires. In his day, it was steelhead and salmon. Those fish still swim up the river, but now they share the water with smallmouths.
A quick look at a map of Douglas County reveals the coldwater North Fork and warmwater South Fork join at River Forks Park, few miles west of Roseburg. Smallmouth fishermen can put the North Fork out of their mind. Its water is too cold to warrant any further attention. However, the South Fork is a fine option. Head south on I-5 to Canyonwille, then take a hard left to follow the river all the way up past Days Creek. Boat ramps and bank access abound as do the fish. Early season, it’s possible to float the South Fork in a kayak, canoe or kickboat. Once full summer hits, the water drops and turns into a walk and wade scene.
Downstream from the confluence state and county parks sprinkled along the river provide easy boat and wade angler access.
Roads parallel much of the river, making it easy to park and wade long stretches of fishable water.
From Elkton, Highway 38 runs along the river as it bends west towards Reedsport. Boaters can launch hard-sided boats from numerous boat ramps and soft-sided craft from those official ramps and many more unofficial launch sites that dot the river. With a smidgeon of river sense and a dose of caution about rocks and rapids, the river is boat friendly.
On its journey to the sea, the river flows through sedimentary and volcanic bedrock peppered with stone steps, benches and ledges. This river structure provides incredible smallmouth habitat. It also makes for some interesting boating. Some of the rocky hazards seemingly appear from nowhere out of deep channels. Driving a power boat without paying attention to those hull-tearing, shaft-snapping obstructions will result in disaster. The second more easily avoided hazard is the occasional Class II and III whitewater like Cleveland, Yellow Creek and Sawyers Rapids.
Lunker hunters, those fishermen who target big fish, should target those waters where big fish swim. Many head for Henry Hagg Lake, an impoundment not far from downtown Portland. Why Henry Hagg? The record book doesn’t lie. The current state-record smallie tops 8 pounds and was taken out of the lake, as were the previous handful of state-record smallmouths. That should put a cap on the argument of where to lunker hunt in Oregon.
Located in the foothills southwest of Forest Grove, the lake is owned by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and operated by Washington County Parks. Long open on a seasonal basis, it now is open 12 months a year. The lake was formed in 1975 by Scoggins Dam impounding Scoggins Creek.
During construction, the Bureau scraped off the trees and bushes that would have been submerged when the lake filled. To replace that natural habitat, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Oregon Bass and Panfish Club, later joined by two local bass clubs for the final 100 structures, installed a total of 450 cinder-block and plastic pipe “spiders” in the bass spawning and rearing habitat. The shelters go a long way to replacing the natural habitat, and the smallmouths clearly agree.
Unlike some other Oregon smallmouth waters that have prodigious numbers of fish, the lake is known for its quality bronzebacks.
As elsewhere with smallmouths, water temperature is the key for getting the Henry Hagg monsters cranked up. When the thermometer reaches the magic 60-degree mark in June each year, the fish bite turns on.
The north half of the lake is a designated “no-wake” zone, making the Tanner Creek, Scoggins Creek and Sain Creek arms easily fished from human-powered craft as well as power boats. Trailered-boats can be launched from the west and east shores. Boats of nearly all types can be rented from Mad Jack’s next to the west side ramp. Summer’s warm weather brings out water skiers and the personal watercraft, which are confined to the south half of the lake.
In a typical year, the smallmouth spawn will be over by June. That means the fish should have moved out of the shallows into deeper water. The most consistent catches come in the deep water off the face of the dam at the south end, and that requires a boat. Early morning and late evening are the best times to catch fish and avoid being rocked by the pleasure boaters. That pattern is consistent through much of the summer until the water temperature again drops into the 60s. When that happens, the bass return to their spawning habitat in the coves and creek arms. So should the fishermen.
The bass get fat on forage fish. Small crankbaits that imitate crappie, yellow perch and pumpkinseeds are good choices. Rainbow trout spawn in some of the feeder creeks, so don’t overlook slender rainbow-colored baits. Bass always like plastics, and the Henry Hagg smallies are no exception. Try worms in watermelon and purple. Early and late in the day run topwater baits and flies along the face of the rock-filled dam.
In a recent conversation with Bruce Bolding, WDFW warmwater fish program manager, he said Banks Lake is a top smallmouth bass lake no matter what part of the country fishermen come from. Judging by all the bass tournaments scheduled for 2017, the hardcore bass fishermen agree.
In 1951 the Bureau of Reclamation built a rock-filled dam at either end of the long, skinny Grand Coulee, then pumped water 85 vertical feet from the Columbia River to fill Banks Lake. The 27-mile-long reservoir features spectacular scenery that easily draws attention to the sights away from fishing.
Towering basalt cliffs and talus slopes line its 90 miles of shoreline, broken in the middle by Steamboat Rock, a massive basalt butte complete with its own deer herd and rattlesnakes.
Coulee City at the south end and Electric City at the north offer boat ramps, parks, and other public accommodations. Highway 155 runs along the southeast edge of the lake to connect the two towns and provide access to Steamboat Rock State Park. Barker Canyon Road, a gravel track, provides boat access from the northwest. WDFW has several gravel launch sites, mostly from mid-lake down to the south end. Concrete ramps can be found at Steamboat Rock State Park and Northrup Point, both of which require a Discover Pass. The lake is small boat and float tube friendly unless the wind comes up and when it does, then it’s time to get off the water or move into protected water.
As the lake filled, it flooded the highway that ran up the coulee. Time and the effects of water have eroded the roadbed. The smallmouth don’t seem to mind. It provides some outstanding spawning habitat depending on water levels. The timing of the spawn depends on water temperature, and that depends in part on the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project water demands. Heavy demand means more cold Columbia River water pumped into the reservoir, delaying the spawn or prolonging it through the first few days of June. Once spawn is completed, the Banks Lake smallmouths move off the shallows and roadbed into deeper water.
With all the rock in and around the lake, a thinking fisherman would expect crayfish to be found. They’d be right. Banks is filled with crayfish that the smallmouths gobble like popcorn. The first hatch of the season means plenty of small, tasty crayfish. Smaller crankbaits are called for, with baits getting progressively larger as the summer progresses. Yellow perch are another favorite forage. Fly- fishermen have even more options, as they can include large aquatic insect patterns that imitate dragonfly nymphs. Brown streamers that imitate sculpins like D-Dub’s Prickly Sculpin get eaten.
Infographic by Ryan Kirby
GLIDE TECHNIQUE FOR SMALLMOUTH BASS
Tie on a VMC Gliding Jig or other jig and slide on a 3-inch trailer. Cast as far as you can, and let the jig glide to the bottom. Snap it up off the bottom, and let it glide back down again. Mix that action up with some swimming close to the bottom. It’s extremely effective.
The Yakima springs from the Keechelus Lake Bureau of Reclamation dam on the east slope of the Cascade Range, then angles southeast 215 miles before joining the Columbia River at Richland. The upper 85 miles, flowing through foothills, farmlands and the Yakima Canyon ending at Roza Dam, is a catch and release trout stream. The intense summer heat of the lower Yakima Basin warms the water, transforming the river into a multi-species fishery. The spring and fall chinook and steelhead pass through on their way upstream. The smallmouths live all year around in the lower 40 miles from Prosser down to the delta.
The river runs through fruit, vegetable, cattle and wine country and a growing residential population around Benton City. That translates into little bank or wade fishing. The upper reaches are perfect for human-powered craft including float tubes. Down in the delta, power boats prevail but are not necessary. Public boat access begins at Benton City and ends at Wye Park in Richland, with several WDFW water access sites in between. For those willing to wrestle a boat down a short, steep rocky slope, it’s possible to launch below the dam at Prosser and run down to Chandler Powerhouse, which means a 100-yard carry to the car. Or boaters can put in at the powerhouse and run down to Benton City.
Each year when the water temperature begins to rise, up to 30,000 smallmouths leave the cold water of the Columbia to swim up the Yakima to spawn.
The upstream run timing depends on water temperature and that surge often collides with a spike of hot weather triggering massive snow runoff. The river settles down by June and the fish are typically close to ending their spawn. Once they transition into post-spawn mode, they begin to disperse off the beds and into their summer holding water. When that happens the fish-catching tactic changes from working schooled fish to covering more water to find isolated fish.
At the same time as the Columbia River smallies move into the Yakima they clash head-on with fall chinook fry, spring chinook and steelhead smolts. The smolts escape destruction. Not so the fry. It’s amazing to see individual fry being chased through shallows by bass big enough to know better. For several days after all the fry have been flushed downriver, the bass willingly hit small baits and streamers like D-Dub’s Marabou Minnow and D-Dub’s Fry.
This part of Washington gets warm. Daily highs in July and August average over 90 degrees. That same sun that makes the wine grapes grow turns daytime into a survival test for both people and fish, so consider gettng on the water early, taking a break, then heading back out in the evening to resume tossing topwater baits and bugs. The warm weather also brings up the weeds, turning areas which held bass in early June into a floating mass of tiny yellow flowers. Summer is the time to fish the edges and holes in the weeds for the bass hanging in the shadows ready to ambush.
Oregon and Washington are two of the best states in the country for summertime smallmouths. Come on out to some old and new spots. I’ll see you on the water.