May sees the hungry bass move onto spawning grounds in the Columbia Gorge.
By Jason Brooks
The following story was originally published in the May 2015 issue of Northwest Sportsman Magazine.
THE DALLES—Later this month, the prized spring Chinook run will dwindle in the Columbia River Gorge. But don’t put away the rods just yet: The warming water temperatures that speed the kings upstream spark other fishing opportunities.
Smallmouth bass get ready to spawn in early May, and later this month and into June the fish move into the shallows looking for food and places to make their beds. The prespawn also sees them become increasingly aggressive and hungry. This timeframe will see the sloughs, coves, bays and current points found in the backwaters of The Dalles Dam to the base of John Day Dam warm up and bass go on the bite.
WHEN NOT WORKING in the fishing department at Sportco in Fife, Wash., Curtis Blunck can be found bass fishing various American Bass Association and Northwest Bass Circuit tournaments throughout the Northwest, including the Lower Columbia region. Blunck has two top 10 finishes in recent years, and is always willing to talk bass fishing and give some tips on how to find and catch smallmouth.
“A great way to locate fish is to throw out a crankbait and drop the trolling motor, slowly cruising likely areas until you catch a fish,” he says.
Blunck’s favorite crank is a Rat-L-Trap in shad pattern, as it looks like a typical baitfish or smolt that the bass in the Columbia feed on. Another great lure is a crawfish Wiggle Wart.
“Keep in mind this is a river with current, so you need to think a little like a steelhead fisherman,” Blunck points out. “Look for seams and boulders or points that create a break in the flows, where the fish can sit and rest while food comes at them.”
As water temperatures rise, smallies move up and into the shallow waters in preparation to spawn once the river hits 55 to 60 degrees. But during this period, the fish have more on their mind than nesting.
“They really put on the feedbag once the prespawn starts,” Blunck says.
He switches to tube baits with a ?-ounce jig head, and says he likes white or chartreuse, depending on water clarity.
A pro-staffer for Trokar, Blunck stresses that sharp hooks are a must, as well as changing up to a weedless hook in shallow water, where weeds can become a problem. He also runs braided mainline on his Okuma reels so he can fight the aggressive fish to the boat as quickly as possible, take a quick photo and then send them back to feeding.
I USED BLUNCK’S advice last year while out fishing for bass with my son, Ryan, and my stepfather, Willie Ross, better known as Walleye Willie, a fulltime guide out of The Dalles. We trolled along the edge of an island and a weedbed where smallmouth were waiting for smolts and other small fish. After only going about a hundred yards, the rod bent over and a big bass was jumping and thrashing around. These fish fight hard and are really fun to catch. We lost that one, but a few minutes later it was fish-on again.
We continued to fish until the sun was too hot and we called it a day. This is probably one of the best things about bass angling on this part of the Columbia: the mornings are brisk and calm and the scenery is incredible. By midday, the famed winds kick up and it’s time to motor back to the launch and enjoy other parts of the gorge.
A great base camp for bass is Maryhill State Park, on the Washington side of the river. It offers camping, a small swim area for those hot days and an excellent boat launch. You can even fish from the park’s shores and catch smallmouth. It is also just down the hill from Maryhill Museum and Washington’s Stonehenge, a replica of the one in the United Kingdom.
There are several small rock islands within a few miles upriver of the state park. They create current breaks and often have shallow coves on one side or the other that hold fish. Smallmouth like waters in 5 to 20 feet this time of year.
Just downstream of Maryhill is the large Miller Island, a former cattle ranch that is now a wildlife sanctuary. It has a shallow shelf on the Oregon side and a large cove on the Washington side with weedbeds. It is also large enough to create a wind break so you can avoid being blown around. But keep an eye on the main part of the river, as you will need to navigate it safely to get back to local boat ramps. If the waters get rough, it is time to head in.
JUST BELOW MILLER Island is the mouth of the Deschutes River, on the Oregon side. The calm waters at the mouth are great for bass fishing, but if you’re a Washington-licensed angler and enter the river’s mouth, under the I-84 bridge, be aware that you are now in Oregon waters and need an Oregon fishing license. Also be sure to check the regulations, as the Deschutes is heavily regulated.
When fishing the main Columbia, a fishing license from either state is valid, but you must follow the state laws that you hold the license for and make sure to check the regulations for size and slot limits if you want to keep any. Most of those who fish for smallmouth like the challenge and fight of these aggressive fish and release them to catch another day.
In addition to another camping option, Deschutes State Park, there is also a rough launch just inside the river’s mouth for smaller boats.
Another option is to stay downstream at Columbia Hills State Park, which has a rough launch with no dock on the Columbia. It also contains Horsethief Lake, a great place to swim and relax or do a little bass fishing. NS