Basaltland’s Backwater Bonanzas

This story was originally published in the May 2015 edition of Northwest Sportsman Magazine.

The sloughs and drowned river mouths of the mid-Columbia and Lower Snake are great places for small-boat anglers to hit for bass, catfish, more.

By Jeff Holmes 

Kayak angling continues to blow up in popularity across the entire United States, including here in the Northwest. Kayaks are especially prevalent on the Westside, and it’s almost becoming uncommon to not see some being paddled and pedaled around the outskirts of popular salmon and steelhead fisheries on the Lower Columbia and Willamette Rivers, among others. The economy, mobility and stability of kayaks makes them the clear consensus craft amongst the nonmotorized crowd these days, including yours truly. I’ve owned several float tubes, a pontoon, a canoe and a small cartopper over the years, but none of them approach a good fishing kayak for versatility. I watched friends and fellow anglers fish from kayaks with jealousy for a couple years until we bought our NuCanoe Frontiers in Bellingham last late spring. Now even my big bank- and boat-loving butt can be seen regularly paddling around my local Tri-Cities-area fisheries, often with my wife. (FYI, fellas: Most women love to paddle, and love it when men take the initiative to do something new and active with them.) You won’t catch me trying to slip in with the sleds at Drano Lake and other combat fisheries, nor likely anywhere a large boat makes more sense for safety, comfort and good company, but I use my kayak where it makes sense to me and where my wife wants to paddle. There are fish waiting to be caught everywhere in the Northwest, and they’re all susceptible to a kayak.

I’m looking ahead to a season of fishing around the edges, and not the edges of big-boat fisheries like many, but rather on the edges of most of the kayak fishing world’s consciousness. In other words, I’ll seek out the vast opportunities all over the Northwest where you’ll scarcely see someone in a kayak. I like solitude and exploration of all kinds of bodies of water, big and small, and May offers a wide range of possibilities to fish before the season’s jet- and waterskiier hatch occurs. Here are a few Eastern Washington options worthy of mention for kayakers and those with small boats.
SNAKE RIVER BACKWATERS
I opened up kayak season 2015 just downstream from Clarkston on a big Snake River backwater at Chief Timothy Park near the mouth of Alpowa Creek. I towed my Thunder Jet over to Clarkston on a beautiful late March day to have a radar arch welded on my boat and thought to toss my kayak on top of the truck in case the urge struck me to fish on the way home.

Duh, it struck.

I enjoyed 80-degree weather and almost complete solitude as I looked for early smallmouth concentrations moving out of the main Snake into the backwaters to feed and spawn. I was early and visibility was only a foot, and I got blanked, but I had a great time and confirmed that it wasn’t my fault when I talked to two anglers in a bass boat who were also getting blanked. Suntan lotion, warming sunshine, and a little exercise made the skunking more than worth it.
But the potential to catch something here increases rapidly as water temperatures rise throughout April and into May. Smallmouth, largemouth, catfish, crappie and perch are all present in the many backwaters and marinas along the Snake. Check out the marinas in Lewiston and Clarkston, Chief Timothy and Wawawai Parks, and various small backwaters along the river that allow entry under small railroad bridges. The Snake itself here is impounded and kayakable too, and the main river often yields even better fishing than backwaters.

The rocky shores of the Snake provide good habitat for bass. While smolt imitations are a good bet in spring, this one bit a crawdad imitation for Jamison Meeks, who was fishing at Lewiston. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

The rocky shores of the Snake provide good habitat for bass. While smolt imitations are a good bet in spring, this one bit a crawdad imitation for Jamison Meeks, who was fishing at Lewiston. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

Further down the Snake at Central Ferry, Lyons Ferry and backwaters all the way to the Columbia add lots of nice walleye to the potential bag.

Catfish are everywhere in the Snake, but the Palouse River across from Lyons Ferry is the best bet. Lots
of large cats stack up here to spawn, and May is the best time to find them concentrated and snappy.
LOWER YAKIMA RIVER AND DELTA
Many thousands of mature smallmouth enter this Central Washington tributary in spring to spawn, and most of them are still in the river throughout May. As summer moves along, most large fish retreat back to the depths of the Columbia to gorge, so May is a great time for numbers and size.

It’s important to note that moving waters and stillwaters are different beasts for beginner kayakers. There are many places on the lower Yakima that would be irresponsible to send beginners, due to swift currents, sharp corners and some rocks to dodge. That said, the river is a treat to fish from the I-182 bridge in Richland all the way to the mouth at Bateman Island on the Columbia. There are occasional power boats here, but avoiding them is relatively easy since it’s best to fish along the edges anyway.

May will find channel catfish in the heat of the spawn, and the lower ends of tributaries such as the Walla Walla, Yakima and Palouse – where Sam Stuart of Moses Lake landed this nice one a few Mays ago – should provide good action for boat-in anglers. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

May will find channel catfish in the heat of the spawn, and the lower ends of tributaries such as the Walla Walla, Yakima and Palouse – where Sam Stuart of Moses Lake landed this nice one a few Mays ago – should provide good action for boat-in anglers. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)

Treat the lower Yak like a trout stream: pull over or anchor up in soft shallow side water and fish seams, eddies and slots like you’re looking for rainbows or cutts. Also make sure to bring a variety of crayfish and minnow imitations in different colors. Crayfish are usually the main meal ticket in May. Along with smallmouth, channel catfish and walleye are also common, and a tight-lipped cadre of walleye anglers won’t like that I mentioned this.
LOWER WALLA WALLA
The first time I floated this western Blue Mountains river, I watched my friend and “guide” dump his kayak 200 yards into our trip, but that was upriver, in the tiny Touchet River a few hundred yards upstream of the Walla Walla. That was 100 percent operator error, but the river does require maneuvering and is best tackled only by intermediate kayakers with a sense for mild adventure. There are some corners and swift, rocky portions that could easily dump a newbie or an inattentive paddler. Take a pontoon or a raft if you don’t have the kayaking chops, or access the river from Wallula Junction and paddle the lower river and the edges of the delta.

Like other Columbia tribs, lots of smallmouth and channel cats move into the river in spring and offer sometimes-spectacular angling. I wrote about floating the Walla Walla last spring in my pontoon, and I’ll be back on it this month in my NuCanoe. The wildlife viewing is right up there with the fishing, which can be frenetically paced. I caught two smallmouth on one cast on my last trip, one of which was over 20 inches.
PATERSON SLOUGH
This large backwater of the midColumbia near the Washington town of the same name houses giant numbers of spawning smallmouth bass in spring. With a warm, lowwater year, much of that spawning probably occurred in April. But those bass – as well as great numbers of walleye – remain in the protected slough until waters get too warm, when they return to the depths of the big river for summer.

Bass and walleye are often concentrated in big numbers around rocky patches of bottom. Use electronics or a long section of 1-inch PVC to probe the bottom in search of rocks, and use marker buoys when you find structure or, better yet, fish. A variety of jigs, cranks, dropshot rigs and other plastic-bait set-ups will take plenty of fish here.

Small numbers of very large largemouth live here, tucked deep into the maze of backwaters. Look for deep pockets in the shallow slough with heavy cover, including beaver lodges. Some large crappie have historically come out of Paterson and other sloughs, but carp, as elsewhere, have degraded habitat for panfish. Still, there are some large perch and crappie, and I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a better place to catch carp, both on rod and reel and with a bow. Erika caught two last time we fished the slough together, one topping 20 pounds!

Access is through the refuge and off Paterson Road. NS

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