The Pacific Northwest offers some excellent bassin’. Here’s where the best Washington-Oregon bass fishing is for 2018.
There’s a reason why salmon and steelhead hold the spotlight in the Pacific Northwest. They’re incredible fish; strong, often violent, brawlers, fully capable of breaking tackle and hearts both in one fell swoop.
It’s no wonder these remarkable silver brutes have symbolized the states of Washington and Oregon for over a century now.
But the Pacific Northwest isn’t all salmon and steelhead. Unbeknownst to many, the sister states of Washington and Oregon feature some of the finest bass fishing to be found anywhere in the nation.
Need proof? How about the Evergreen State’s 12.53-pound record largemouth caught in 2016 by Bill Evans in Snohomish County’s Lake Bosworth.
Or the 8.75-pound Columbia River smallmouth, that record standing for more than half a century now. And Oregon’s no slouch when it comes to book-making bass, not with her 12.1-pound largemouth and 8.1-pound smallie. From the Pend Oreille River to the Washington coast and from the Snake to Oregon’s Umpqua River, the Pacific Northwest offers plenty of opportunity for those willing to stop fishing for salmon and steelhead. At least for a little while.
“Absolutely. Bass fishing is definitely growing in popularity here in Washington,” said Stacie Kelsey. A biologist with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Inland Fisheries Program, Kelsey is currently stationed at the agency’s Region 5 office in Ridgefield. Initially, Kelsey began her now 25-year fish and wildlife career in Oregon as a part of the northern pikeminnow reward program, relocating to the opposite side of the Columbia in 1992 when she joined the WDFW, where she’s been ever since. “Bass fishing is becoming more popular here in the Pacific Northwest,” she said. “As salmon and steelhead opportunity change back and forth, depending upon (the various) runs, anglers are looking for other alternatives and options. I’ve seen a big increase in the number of warmwater fishing presentations I’m giving to fly-fishing clubs,” she continued. “And many of these focus on bass and bass fishing. Many people aren’t aware of the great bass fishing opportunities that exist in southwest Washington and northwest Oregon.”
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Surprising, perhaps, to even avid anglers living in the Pacific Northwest is the fact that the country’s first angling club devoted to the pursuit of everything bass was formed in Seattle. Founded by Ed Frederich in 1938, The Western Bass Club grew from humble beginnings with members initially from western Washington to include anglers from the neighboring states of Oregon and Idaho, as well as Northern California.
Founding members worked with the Washington Department of Fisheries in the late 1930s with efforts to stock bass in lakes around the state; many of the largemouth caught today can be traced back genetically to those original plants done some 75 years ago.
Frederich’s Western Bass Club was the only such club in Washington until 1976; today, however, there are more than 15 bass-specific fishing organizations scattered across The Evergreen State, with tournaments being held somewhere, if not everywhere on any given weekend from March through October.
“Washington has some very good bass anglers, and some very good competitive bass anglers,” noted Kelsey, “with tournaments being held on the Columbia River, as well as on many inland lakes. And the cool thing about these folks,” she continued, “is how eager and willing they are to help others who are new to bass fishing. It’s a really cool community, full of people willing to share techniques and in some instances, even fishing locations.”
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Speaking of locations, Kelsey offered up these off-the-beaten-path suggestions for southwest Washington bassers searching for a bit of unfamiliar water.
“Carlisle,” said Kelsey, “is on the edge of Onalaska in Lewis County. And there are some pretty nice bass in there. We did creek surveys in 2017, with a 5.5-pound largemouth being the biggest we saw. But there are a lot of 1- to 2-pounders in Carlisle. All age classes and good recruitment.”
Originally known as the Onalaska Mill Pond, Carlisle is open from late April through the end of February. Boats are permitted; however, internal combustion motors are not. “Float tubes and small boats — cartoppers — with electric trolling motors are popular,” said Kelsey. A walking trail circles the lake, providing anglers with easy access to waters ranging from eight to a maximum depth of right around 20 feet.
South Lewis County Park Pond
“This one was somewhat of a surprise to me,” admitted Kelsey. “I was doing a (fish) check on a nice, sunny day, and while on the docks, I saw swarms of huge bass. Bluegills and pumpkinseed sunfish, too, along with juvenile largemouth. Definitely cool.”
Small, at only 14 acres, this former gravel pit near the town of Toledo is open year-round. As is the case at Carlisle, boats are permitted; however, electric motors only. South Lewis County Pond lies adjacent to the Cowlitz River off of Ray Road. Bass anglers should take note the park pond does hold a small population of tiger muskies, a northern pike/muskellunge hybrid, known for its ferocity and strength.
Other bassing suggestions in southwest and south-central Washington, said Kelsey, include Horsethief Lake (Klickitat County) Vancouver Lake in east Vancouver, Lake River, which links the Columbia with Vancouver Lake, and Longview’s Lake Sacajawea.
But excellent bass fishing can be found all across The Evergreen State from Kelsey’s home turf in the southwest corner east to the Idaho border, with some of the perennial standouts including the following Who’s Who list of premier bass fisheries. Pick your poison; largemouth, or smallmouth.
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Some waters, e.g. The Columbia River, serve as home to both species, with the lower slower sloughs harboring the bigs, and the mainstem from Canada downstream holding more than a handful of bronzebacks worthy of writing home.
Others, such as the Yakima River, are known more for their smallmouth action, traditionally beginning in the spring and continuing through late fall. Regardless of one’s favorite — largemouth, or smallmouth — there’s plenty of opportunity.
Lakes Sammamish and Washington
Largemouth and smallmouth, heavy on the smallies, both are on the docket at Sammamish, a 4,800-acre King County angling showpiece.
To the west, Lake Washington’s 20,000 acres offer additional opportunity, again for both species. Not surprising, perhaps, for lakes embedded within a sprawling metropolitan complex, both Sammamish and Washington see their fair share of angling pressure, including almost year-round tournament action.
However, those willing to put in the time working a variety of jigs, twistertails, drop-shot rigs, spinnerbaits, and crawdad-imitating crankbaits on points, rock piles, gravel shorelines, and around any of the countless docks jutting into the lakes are more often than not positively reinforced. With fish, that is.
The Eastside’s Big Three
Yes, Virginia. It is impossible to talk about bass fishing in Washington, and not mention The Evergreen State’s one-two-three knockout punch, this in the form of Banks and Moses lakes, and Potholes Reservoir. All three lie in Grant County, and together make up more than 48,000 acres of what many consider unsurpassed angling potential. New to Potholes? Because of its size, the puddle isn’t a guarantee, especially for those for whom the waters are unfamiliar; however, a stop at MarDon Resort, located on the southern tip of the reservoir, can provide years worth of strategic information in a single conversation. Spring, summer, and fall; Potholes, like Banks and Moses, offers a multi-season bass fishery; great news for those partial to throwing jigs, crankbaits, blade baits, drop-shooting, topwater, or, as has become popular in recent years, fly tackle and larger streamers, e.g. Muddler Minnows or Woolly Buggers.
On the south side of the Columbia River, The Beaver State provides bass fanatics plenty of options, both big and small, discovered and not-so-well known.
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“It (bass fishing) is a tremendously popular fishery, with about 20 percent of our state’s anglers focusing to some extent on warmwater species,” said Mike Gauvin, the recreational fisheries program manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. “Folks are looking into other alternatives during those times when salmon or steelhead runs (are down),” he continued. “They still want to get out there and fish, and bass provide that opportunity.” In an effort, Gauvin explained, to further promote warmwater fishing in Oregon, the 2018-19 state fishing regulations pamphlet will feature bass-related artwork by award-winning outdoor illustrator, Al Agnew. Agnew is perhaps best-known for his work on a number of Bass Pro Shops’ catalogs.
John Day River
“Mid-June,” said Steve Fleming, “and the river is a simply phenomenal topwater fishery.” Fleming has operated Mah-Hah Outfitters based in Fossil, Ore., for the past 21 years, and has logged, by his count, close to 40,000 river-miles at the helm of a driftboat introducing bassers to some of the finest, if not the finest smallmouth bass fishing in the nation.
“The water temperature is in the mid-60s, and you have a lot of choices. Torpedos. Buzzbaits. Spinnerbaits. Shallow-running cranks. But,” he continued, “we catch more bass on plastics than we do on anything else. And the Go-To bait? I mean the best available is Outlaw Baits’ 5-inch Ripple Worm. As for color, black is always a winner, but I’ll have a selection that includes electric grape, green pumpkin, and pumpkin. Fish ‘em on a 1/16th-ounce jig head, cut the body of the worm down to match the size of the hook, and, because smallmouth suck a bait in, make sure to drop (the worm) back and give ’em a little slack — a little time — before setting the hook.”
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For number crunchers, the John Day is quite capable of pumping out 100 smallmouth a day for anglers willing to work hard. Fleming’s best single day on the river? A client with 275 bronzebacks caught in five river-miles. That’s right; 275 smallmouth.
Flowing through some of the most picturesque scenery Oregon has to offer, the famed Umpqua River isn’t all king salmon and steelhead. Come June, the smallmouth fishery here explodes, rivaling even the John Day. Like the John Day, the Umpqua is a seasonal-size flow, meaning spring, or the pre-spawn, produces some of the year’s largest fish, e.g. 3- to 5-pounds or larger, while summer is primarily a numbers game, with, again like her sister to the north, 100-fish days, while not an everyday occurrence, not all that uncommon. For many, Big K Outfitters near Elkton is the Go-To source for this angling experience of a lifetime.
Formerly one of the premier largemouth bass fisheries in central Oregon, if not the whole of the Beaver State, Prineville has traded hands, becoming known moreso in recent years as a producer of smallmouth. Regardless of where one’s interest lies — smallmouth versus largemouth — there’s no denying Prineville has rightfully earned herself a spot on the state’s top ten. Boaters have their choice of launch facilities, with ramps located at multiple locations.
Henry Hagg Lake
Within an hour’s drive of Gauvin’s Salem-based headquarters lie the 1,100 acres of Henry Hagg Lake, home to the current Oregon state- record smallmouth, an 8.1-pound beast caught in 2005 by Nick Rubeo.
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“Hagg is stocked with larger bass,” said Gauvin, “and there are on-going habitat improvement projects being done with bass in mind.”
With no warmwater hatcheries currently in operation in Oregon, bass for Henry Hagg, as well as other waters throughout the state, come from Davis Lake near Bend, where they’re electroshocked by ODFW personnel and transferred, much to the delight of Davis-based trout anglers.