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Big-Water Smallies on the Columbia River

Every jetty, backwater and block of willows can hold smallmouth bass on the mighty river. And this is the time to fish it.

Big-Water Smallies on the Columbia River

Access to the Columbia, both in the form of boat ramps and shore fishing, is plentiful on either side of the river. (Photo by Gary Lewis)

Any day on the Columbia River, an angler could put a trophy 4- or 5-pound smallmouth in the boat; the trick is sorting through the 12-inch fatties that make up the bulk of the catch. An angler’s potential to top the 8-pound-plus Oregon state record improves with every hour on the water, and I’ve had fish close to that big at the end of my line more than once in August and September.

On one memorable September day, my friend Larry Hutchens was running the boat and outdoor writer Doug Wilson was along. I started with a Rat-L-Trap while Wilson employed a TTI-Blakemore Swim-N-Runner and Hutchens cast a Yakima Bait Timber Tiger.

Hutchens cut the big motor quite a ways from shore near a hump where smallmouth bass gather to ambush baby shad headed downriver. I cast, let the lure drop to a five-count and started to reel. I had a fish on immediately. Moments later I hooked another. Hutchens had located this spot quite a few years prior. “I like to drive around looking for structure and places that hold fish. If I find a place with a lot of fish, I mark it [on the electronics] so I can come back later,” he says.

Columbia River
The Columbia is a massive river, but its smaller backwaters host the thoroughfare’s best smallmouth bass fishing. (Shutterstock image)

Personally, I like to motor around and get out of the wind. There were whitecaps on the Columbia this day, and we were tugging our hats down to keep them on our noggins when Hutchens decided we should seek shelter on the Oregon shore. We caught a few more bass there, including a 2-pounder, and then the wind shifted to the northeast.

We blasted back to the launch at Arlington, pulled out, drove west and launched at LePage Park to fish the mouth of the John Day River. With the high canyon walls above us, we found calmer water and bass (and a few walleyes) that were eager to bite.

A FOOD-RICH FISHERY

Smallmouth bass prefer warmer, flowing water and can be found in great numbers around weed beds and grassy banks, along the seams of riffles, deep along rock walls and on gravel flats. On clear summer days when the sun is high, the biggest fish will be found in deeper water. On overcast days or when the sun is low on the horizon, smallmouths can be caught on or closer to the surface. They are aggressive predators, feeding on smaller fish, insects, leeches, snails and crawfish.

Crankbaits and minnow imitations work very well, especially along ledges or around submerged structure. Use patterns that imitate local baitfish. Chub, perch and rainbow-pattern crankbaits work well as minnow imitations.

Orange and olive crawfish patterns are solid crankbait options, too. Another good tactic is to dead-drift a plastic worm, allowing it to tumble through the best bass-holding water. Rig the worm weedless (with the hook point buried in the worm) to minimize snagging on the bottom.

smallmouth bass caught on lipless crankbait
While 4- and 5-pound smallies are possible, the bulk of the catch comprises feisty fish in the foot-long range—and lots of them. (Photo by Gary Lewis)
TIMING AND ACCESS

A person can catch bass in the Columbia year-round, but the fishing peaks in the summer. A lot of years there can be heavy flows in the Snake River upstream, which tends to keep the Columbia running bank-full in June. By the second week of July, however, the Columbia is in good bass-fishing shape; conditions are prime in August, September and October. There is a lot of bank access in this section of the river, though some of it requires parking off the highway. Backwater fisheries are an overlooked resource with bass and panfish.

If towing a boat to the Columbia for the first time, keep in mind that this is big, tricky water with heavy currents. However, the river is accessible and the best fishing is along the banks and riprap and around jetties in softer water. Launch sites can be found on both the Washington side and the Oregon side between Bonneville Dam and Hood River at Port of Cascade Locks, Ore.; Stevenson, Wash.; Wind River, Wash.; Drano Lake, Wash.; and the Hood River Marina on the Oregon side. Above Hood River, boat launches can be found at Bingen, Wash.; Rowland Lake, Wash.; Mayer State Park on the Oregon side; Lyle Ramp, Wash.; Dallesport, Wash.; and Port of the Dalles, Ore.

Upstream, there are boat launches at LePage Park, Rufus, Arlington, Boardman and Irrigon on the Oregon side. Look for launches and bank access at Maryhill, Peach Beach and Crow Butte Park on the Washington side. If the wind is blowing, there are always backwaters and side channels and turns in the river where an angler can get out of the wind.

smallmouth bass
Crankbaits and dead-drifted plastic worms are top offerings for Columbia smallmouths, though surface plugs also produce. (Photo by Gary Lewis)
BASE CAMP: THE DALLES

While bass are found below Bonneville Dam, the traveling angler should begin at Cascade Locks, Ore., and work upstream between the communities of Hood River, Mosier, The Dalles, Rufus, Arlington, Boardman and Irrigon—a distance of about 135 miles. The area is served via I-84, which runs parallel to the river. On the Washington side, State Highway 14 runs along the north bank of the Columbia, and Highway 97 is a good north-south route.

Recommended


The nearest large airport is PDX, in Portland, where you can rent a car and, minutes later, be driving east toward good fishing. The community of The Dalles is found on Interstate 84, beginning at exit 82. The Dalles, a city of 25,000, has all services. A number of hotels can be found between exits 82 and 87, but my favorites include Cousin’s, Celilo Inn and The Dalles Inn. When I fish in and around The Dalles, I usually end up at Cousin’s or Momma Jane’s Pancake House for breakfast. Both are local landmarks with huge menus. For dinner, there are some great choices, including Freebridge Brewing, Bargeway Pub and Casa El Mirador for Mexican food.

Map of Columbia River
Smallmouth bass hot spots along the Columbia River.
GO WITH A PRO

If you want to hire a guide, check out Marc Bush of Twisted Waters Guide Service (twistedwaters-gs.com) and Drew Scharns of Hood River Adventures 
(hoodriveradventures.com).

Fishing tackle and information are available at Coastal Farm and Ranch in The Dalles and at Gorge Outfitters Supply in Rufus.

When you’re not fishing, there are myriad things to see and do in The Dalles, including 33 new murals in the downtown core area (visit northwestmuralfest.com for artist stories). There are some good museums, but don’t overlook the National Neon Sign Museum (nationalneonsignmuseum.org). Artist Andy Nichols creates blown-glass art and specializes in fish art (visit nicholsartglass.com or call 541-993-4022 for an appointment). To sample local wines, try Tierra De Lobos (tierradelobos.com) and Sunshine Mill (sunshinemill.com). For more information, visit thedalleschamber.com.




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