How does a combination of sun, scenery and topflight smallmouth and largemouth bass fishing sound after a long winter's layoff?
Photo by Michael T. Williams
It was one of those late spring desert days -- sunny but not too hot, breezy but not too windy. Wearing polarized sunglasses, I spotted a cruising fish, cast my fly on an interception course, then held on as another smallmouth frantically rushed about trying to throw the hook. The pinched down barb allowed a quick release followed by another cast and another catch. This was Banks Lake at its best.
Banks Lake, part of the Bureau of Reclamation's Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, was created in 1951 by damming the north and south ends of the Columbia River channel known as Grand Coulee. This long, skinny, 27,000-acre lake, ringed with basalt cliffs and talus slopes along its 90 miles of shoreline, produces some of Washington's best smallmouth and largemouth bass fishing and it's open all year.
Smallmouth fishing starts to pick up in March and April, triggered by warming water. According to Mike Carney, a Banks Lake guide and B.A.S.S. touring pro, spring produces a good smallmouth bite as the fish start to move up the water column from their deep-water winter habitat. He favors crankbaits such as Luhr Jensen's Baby Hot Lips T.A. Anything with an orange belly attracts smallmouth searching for crawdads, a food favorite.
When water temperature rises, smallmouth migrate into shallower water. Carney recommends fishing rocky shoals and flats with water depths around five feet, adjacent to deeper water where the fish can run and hide. Lou Nevsimal of Coulee Playland agrees. "Look for broken rock rubble with immediate access to deeper water," he says. Nevsimal seconds the crankbait suggestion and adds that fishing jigs draws strikes too.
The spring largemouth bite begins to heat up in May. The males combine feeding activity with their search for appropriate nesting sites so the successful fisher will prowl for prime nesting habitat. Carney suggests looking for old submerged roadbeds that run through and along the lakeshore. These sites often consist of raised roadbeds with deeper water to each side, which provide good spawning beds and deep-water protection.
May is a great time to put fish in your livewell but you'll have company on the water. The Washington State BASS Federation holds its Jamboree and Jr. Bassmaster Championship at month's end. Savvy tournament participants hit the smallmouth first because they are the dominant species in the lake, then target largemouth in hopes of swapping out a smallmouth with a bigger largemouth. That tactic makes sense when you consider that an 11.57-pound bass, the heaviest largemouth ever recorded in Washington, was taken from this lake.
SUMMER & FALL
Once the spawn ends, both species of bass move off the beds into deeper water. Carney again suggests working submerged roadbeds. He also expects to find fish in the flats during the lowlight early morning and evening hours, which means staying on the water late or getting out of bed way early. Nevsimal spends time working over the Million Dollar Mile area south of Steamboat Rock.
Fall is Carney's favorite time of year when he throws popper-type baits, light spinnerbaits and Senkos fished without weight over the roadbeds and grass-lined flats. Fall offers the opportunity of combining early morning fishing and afternoon upland bird hunting.
STEAMBOAT ROCK STATE PARK
Steamboat Rock, a 600-acre block of columnar basalt jutting 1,571 feet above sea level, forms a peninsula, which is home to Steamboat Rock State Park, a perfect home base. The park offers two camping areas, a day-use area, boat launch, docks, sandy swimming beach, horseback riding, hiking and other activities for the non-fishers in your party. One word of caution, which goes for the entire Grand Coulee area: This is rattlesnake country, so keep your fingers out of crevices and watch where you step.
The area between Steamboat Rock and the east shore, known as the Devil's Punch Bowl, produces largemouth from the reeds, especially in the spring. Try a No. 23 Uncle Josh Kicker Frog.
At the south end of Steamboat Rock you will see tall poplar trees, which give the area its name. The Poplars is known for aggressive smallmouth that chase crankbaits. It is also known for busting boat props on the submerged roadbed. Keep a sharp eye out and motor slowly.
You don't need a boat to catch fish in this lake as there are miles of accessible shoreline. In the spring, try Osborn Bay where the water flows through culverts under Highway 155. In May and June, you can move downlake to an area south of Steamboat Rock known as Million Dollar Mile where you have access to huge flats and scattered weed patches filled with cruising fish.
All too often we hear complaints about how fishing just isn't as good as it used to be. Unwilling to accept declining numbers of largemouth bass, Nevsimal of Coulee Playland decided to do something about fish habitat in 1995, and the Banks Lake Enhancement Program was born. Since 1999 when the first work was performed, that program planted 15,864 shrubs and trees along the shoreline. Additionally, it constructed and submerged 1,027 Fish Habitat Units in the lake. One type, consisting of large tree limbs anchored by concrete blocks in 3 to 5 feet of water, were placed in known largemouth spawning areas. The second type, essentially a huge brush pile, serves as recruitment structures for juvenile fish leaving the nest.
Although the program was directed toward restoring largemouth populations, research has shown that the spawning structures are used by both species. Largemouth spawn under the tree limbs while smallmouth nest alongside the concrete anchors.
WHAT TO USE
Smallmouths love crawdads. Orange-bellied baits should be found in every tackle box. If you bounce the bait along the bottom, the orange should show when seen from above. Crawdads vary widely in coloration from a bright orange to an almost deep purple. The one consistency is they are always lighter in color when viewed from the underside. Match your bait accordingly.
Perch are the primary forage fish in Banks Lake so another choice of baits in sizes and finishes which match perch will work. In deeper water try drop-shotting with green-pumpkin baits.
Senkos, either fished weightless or on a jighead are popular.
Since I love to catch bass on a fly rod, I use a BananaRama, which is a bunny leech modified by adding bead chain eyes to make the hook point ride up. Field research has shown that smallmouth prefer bright yellow with purple and black being t
he next color choices. My next favorite pattern is a black rabbit bugger. Every flyfisher should have crawdad patterns as well.
Smallmouth have replaced largemouth as the dominant species. Fish size has changed over the years as well. A 5-pound largemouth used to be run of the mill but now merits mention. Smallmouth average 2 to 3 pounds, with several 5-pounders taken each year. Nevsimal has fished this lake since 1979, landing fish to 6 pounds, and he has been spooled three times by bass he simply could not control.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
Boat access is good at Banks Lake. You can launch at Big Wally's (www.bigwallysfishing.com or 800-632-5504) at the south end of the lake near Coulee City, from Coulee Playland
www.couleeplayland.com or 509-633-2671) at the north end of the lake by Electric City, or from Steamboat Rock State Park near the middle of the lake. Other access sites can be found online at
www.wdfw.wa.gov/lands/r2banklk.htm. Coulee Playland is a full-service marina with fuel and fishing supplies. Big Wally's offers fishing gear and guide services. Mike Carney can be reached at (800) 811-5827.
The daily bag limit is five fish with no minimum size; no bass between 12 inches and 17 inches may be kept, and only one fish may exceed 17 inches. The Washington Department of Health recommends limiting the consumption of bass caught from the Columbia River system due to fears over heavy metal contamination.