The drought of 2015 had an unexpected up-side in that it was a very good summer for bass fishing. Both smallmouths and largemouths across the Northwest found the weather much to their liking. The season started early, lasted late and put smiles on the faces of anglers east and west.
That being said, it was not all roses. "The drought has had an impact on the drawdown lakes," said Gary Galovich, Oregon warm water biologist. "It has definitely affected the central and eastern parts of the state."
Drawdown lakes are used for irrigation, and if they are not properly recharged each year with precipitation, the fishing can suffer.
How well these lakes will recover will depend on the amount, and timing, of this year's precipitation. One thing is for sure: black bass fed well and grew well during last summer's un-paralleled warm weather.
With all this in mind, let's look at what the Northwest's best bass waters have in store for anglers this year.
Bruce Bolding, a WDFW warm water biologist, said the Evergreen State's bass waters "spread east to west, for both largemouth and smallmouth." When asked about the state's best waters, he quickly included Potholes Reservoir and Moses Lake.
The Potholes Reservoir is a unique impoundment that inundates a fertile dune country, and the result is a mosaic of habitats that includes countless islands, shallow bars, depressions and backwaters. And, as good as it has been in the past, it's even better now.
"The best way to identify a good fishery is by tournament weights," said Levi Meseberg, one of the excellent fishing guides associated with the Mar Don Resort on the Potholes. "In recent years we've seen a jump in those weights." Anglers had to post 20 pounds per a limit of bass to win in past years, but those anglers will need 23 to 25 pounds to win now.
"Two things have improved the fishing dramatically," noted Meseberg. "First, for the last seven years the reservoir drawdown has started later, after the spawn. Now we have high water for longer."
The result is better weed growth, better young bass survival and better conditions during the spawn.
"Second, they have added deep water structures. These provide cover for the young fish once the water is drawn down," Meseberg noted. The excellent fishing shows no sign of slowing. "We have very good populations of all year classes," added Meseberg. "We're not going to see a downturn anytime soon."
March bass will be in a pre-spawn mode, and Meseberg looks for these transitional bass by flipping tube jigs or covering flats near drop-offs with spinner baits and crankbaits. For spawning bass he likes to sight fish the flats with drop-shot plastics.
After the spawn, he turns to topwater.
"There are lots of bays, islands, and lots of good shallow cover," said Meseberg. "Potholes is a fun topwater lake."
Just to the north of the Potholes Reservoir, Moses Lake is a favorite bassing destination for David Swendseid, a tournament angler and R&D guru for Duo International, the maker of Realis and other bass lures. "That fishery is phenomenal," said Swendseid. "There's a bunch of bass in that lake." Known for its walleyes and smallmouths, the lake produces good sized largemouths, too.
Moses Lake has been very consistent in recent years, and unless the severe drought continues, it should produce plenty of big bass again this year.
This 27-mile-long lake is perfect smallmouth habitat, and fishing for these bass can be incredible. The lake warms slowly, but by May schools of big smallmouths gather at Barker Flats to spawn.
The Columbia offers bass anglers unlimited and under-fished bass habitat. The river holds both smallmouths and largemouths, but the bronze-backs dominate.
The Hanford Reach
The last free-flowing section of the Columbia River is where the Washington state-record smallmouth was taken, and this unique water still holds smallmouths large enough to dethrone Ray Wonacott's 8.75-pound smallmouth. Bob Adkinson is a recently retired guide in Washington's tri-cities area. He has fished the Columbia extensively for decades, preferring the water below the McNary Dam, and the Hanford Reach. "It's been very, very good in recent years," noted Adkinson. "Bass fishing up here is phenomenal."
Adkinson said the fishing gets going in April, and runs through October. "There are some big smallmouth," he said, "and you find the biggest bass early and late in the year." He advised that September can be a great month. Shallow water methods work well. "Most of the fish are in 3 to 8 feet of water," he added. Crankbaits and spinnerbaits are favorites, and the spinnerbaits work especially well when it's windy.
Pasco to Hat Rock
This section of the Columbia is a favorite of Swendseid's. "It's a lot like fishing a desert lake," he said. "It has deep sides, and the flow is subtle." Targeting suspended bass hanging along the steep sides, he tosses the Realis Pencil 101 twitch bait early in the morning and afternoon, and switches to spy baiting with the Realis Spinbait come midday.
This lake in Kitsap has great habitat with fallen trees and docks. "It's one of the best spots in the state," said WDFW's Bolding, "and it gets little attention."
Roosevelt Lake Smallies
One of Washington state's largest lakes, Roosevelt, is full of excellent smallmouths every year. Other species get most of the attention, though, and bassers often find themselves without competition. Roosevelt should prove to be good again this year.
Situated along Highway I-90, this great largemouth lake is a true sleeper. "It's really good for size and numbers," said Bolding, "but it doesn't get much attention."
Big, sprawling Lake Washington is one of Washington's best bass lakes, and both species of black bass can be found here. Smallmouths dominate the fishery, but Largemouths make use of the shallow shorelines, too.
The lake once boasted more weed beds and vegetation, but these habitats have been replaced with other shoreline cover. Old piers, docks, floating homes and more provide a kind of "urban cover" for the bass.
This is western Washington's other large bass fishery, and like Lake Washington, this lake now produces more smallmouths than largemouths. Shoreline cover such as docks, pilings, and more are good places, and the smallies also like the many gravel-lined shores put in by homeowners.
Riffe Lake is an impoundment on the Cowlitz River, and its smallmouth fishing is often overshadowed by other species.
"If I was to send someone in this region somewhere other than the Columbia for smallmouth, it would be Riffe Lake," said Stacie Kelsey of Washington's Region 5 inland fishes program. "It's a really nice body of water, and it has great fishing for smallmouth."
Most of Oregon's bass western bass waters survived the drought, but after two dry years in a row, the lakes in central and southeast Oregon were in desperate shape going into winter. Anglers would do well to check water levels before heading out to fish these areas.
Oregon's Smallmouth Rivers
Oregon boasts several rivers with fantastic fishing for smallmouths, according to Galovich. "The John Day, Umpqua, Columbia and Willamette rivers should all be in good shape this year," he noted.
UMPQUA River SMALLIES
Galovich has spent time snorkeling this un-believable smallmouth fishery. "The numbers and size of the bass are impressive," he said. "But, bank access is limited. There is a lot of private land."
Galovich reported that boat anglers will find the best numbers and sizes of bass in those sections of the river that flow through private lands. Smallmouth fishing in the Umpqua shows no sign of slowing anytime soon.
Columbia River Bass
Ed Chin, tournament angler and president of The Bass Federation of Oregon, reports that the Columbia is still a first-rate bass destination. "It's still kicking out some great smallmouth," he says. Early in the season he will fish from Bonneville Dam to the John Day Dam. "It will warm up faster," he said. "The lower sections, near Portland and below, will light up later in the year."
Henry Hagg Lake
Henry Hagg Lake near Portland gave up the current Oregon state-record smallmouth bass. "Sometimes I don't think Hagg Lake gets its due," said Galovich. "I'm always impressed with what we find when we sample there. The numbers and quality of the bass are very good." Both largemouths and smallmouths can be found in Hagg Lake.
Chin reported that Oregon's coastal bass lakes are good early bets. "They don't have as hard a winter, so they warm up quick," he said. "They are good early destinations."
One of Chin's favorite largemouth lakes, Cullaby consistently produces some really big largemouths. And, there is no reason to believe it won't do so again. The shoreline is a bass fisherman's dream, with lots of vegetation and cover. There is an excellent boat ramp at the Cullaby Lake county Park.
This is one of David Swendseid's favorite coast lakes. "The fishing there is getting good," he said. "In fact, it's getting fabulous. It's not uncommon to get largemouths from 3 to 5 pounds, and bigger. There aren't a ton of fish, but they are big." Look to the many reed and grass beds, Swendseid advised, noting that anglers often find themselves with little competition from other fishermen at this location.
One look at a map, and you can see why North and South Tenmile Lakes produce such good largemouth fishing. This south coast fishery offers bays, sloughs, and inlets everywhere, and they are packed with the shallow weedy habitats largemouths love. These lakes truly are two of the best trophy bass haunts in the Northwest.
Swendseid reported that the lakes have been producing very well in recent years. He looks to the aquatic vegetation. "You want to try to find places with grass," he said. "Don't fish in them, but fish around them." He likes to work big swimbaits for these fish.
CENTRAL OREGON BASS
This central Oregon drawdown reservoir has excellent largemouth habitat, with plenty of flats cut by old creek channels. Look for the bass away from the coldwater streams entering the lake, including the Deschutes River. As the lake drops from irrigation withdrawals the bass will move into the old creek channels. They can run up to 6 or 7 pounds.
This lake is a favorite of Swendseid's, although he warns it was left very low in 2015. "Fishing looks good if it fills back up," he said. "There's a bunch of tributaries that are good for largemouth." Like Wickiup, the lake is loaded with good shallow flats and channels. Swendseid throws a lot of crankbaits at this location.
Illegally-introduced largemouth bass have flourished in this shallow, fly-fishing only lake southwest of Bend. "It's a very unique bass fishery," says Galovich. "It's a Cascade Lake, very scenic, it's fly-fishing only, but the numbers and quality are there." If the thought of landing a 5-pound largemouth on fly gear sounds like fun, this might be the lake for you.
Fishermen that like to fish big water can get their fix at Brownlee Reservoir in eastern Oregon. This Snake River impoundment is famous for all kinds of warmwater species, and the smallmouth bass population is stable. This lake should provide some excellent fishing this year. Anglers should target the many rocky shorelines and points. The lake also holds some largemouths.
Bass fishing at Dorena is "down a bit," according to Galovich, but it still produces some nice largemouths.
Cottage Grove Reservoir
Fishing for largemouths in this impoundment should be good for numbers and goods-sized bass again this year.
This southern Oregon bass lake has plentiful backwaters that grow some quality bass. Look for both largemouths and smallmouths here.
There is not enough space to cover all the fine bass fishing that can be found in these two very large western states, and there are plenty of bass waters still undiscovered and under fished. So, get out and test some of the waters near you. The next "sleeper" bassing gem is just waiting be found.