Bass in the West

Bass in the West

Oversized and overlooked, these Western bass take unsuspecting trout anglers for a modern fly-fishing ride.

  • By: Kirk Deeter
  • , Ralph Bartholdt
  • , Jeff Erickson
  • and Brian O'Keefe
  • Photography by: Ralph Bartholdt
  • , Tim Romano
  • , Jeff Erickson
  • , John Sherman
  • and Brian O'Keefe
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Click image for slideshow.

Idaho
Spinyrays in the northern forest.

Sandpoint, Idaho—Calvin Fuller has a pet bass that weighs a pound and a half and eats chicken burritos. He hooks it during lunch breaks less than a block from Sandpoint, Idaho’s main drag, under the watchful eyes of coffee-sippers at Starbucks.

Fuller, a local outfitter who operates the area’s only fly shop, cuts between storefronts and down an alley to reach the banks of Sand Creek, then casts a bug-eye streamer. I watch the fat line he’s throwing off a Sage Bass Series rod and it goes tight. He and his pet play again.

A few years ago Sandpoint earned kudos as one of the West’s top fly-fishing communities, despite its distance from north Idaho’s premier trout fisheries, the St. Joe and Coeur d’Alene rivers. Instead of trout water, the midsize community of 9,000 is edged by Sand Creek, a brush-rimmed smallmouth spawning stream that slides quietly under a boutique mall, past a menagerie of boat slips and through the shadows of a railroad bridge and a new highway bypass. From there it melds with Lake Pend Oreille’s 148 square miles of bucolic blue, at City Beach, where a worm fisherman caught a 12-pound rainbow last spring. Fuller landed his biggest bull trout, largemouth bass and smallmouth bass within shouting distance of the harbor. If it weren’t for the fly-fishing, he says, he would be somewhere else.

That may surprise you—and even locals—because most anglers in this logging and tourist town, located an hour north of Coeur d’Alene, cast a traditional dry fly for trout instead of focusing on the area’s best option, those largemouth and smallmouth bass. Fuller and his band of fish-heads, in contrast, spend so much time stripping line in the sloughs and backwaters of the Pend Orielle River, and over the green-water gravel and rock bars of the state’s biggest and deepest lake, their fingers have calluses usually reserved for bluegrass pickers.

“You want numbers, or do you want size?” Fuller asks a new client at his shop with a sweet tooth for smallies. “If you want numbers, I can you hook you up all day. If you want size I’ve got a couple sweet spots.”

Back on the water, this time in a 16-foot boat that looks like a strip of sparkle yarn, Fuller guns the 115-horse Evinrude. We shoot from Trestle Creek, east of town, to the riprap along the Pack River Delta, then around Sunnyside Peninsula and on west to the Pend Oreille River, with its bucket sloughs and weedy banks, all dotted with the skeletons of Styrofoam worm containers. Fuller cuts the engine at each bass haunt and as the boat lurches in its backwash the morning is again filled with quiet. Fuller drops an electric motor affixed to the bow and starts casting. It won’t take long.

According to Idaho’s Department of Fish and Game, this is a developing fishery that has “really come on” in the past few years. A recent survey counted scads of bass, several bigger than nine pounds, between the Long Bridge—a Sandpoint landmark—and a point downstream on the Pend Oreille River. Fuller, talking like a man with a plan, said, “There are three state records in that stretch. And they like flies.”

Introduced unintentionally in the late 1990s, when a high-water event pushed them over an upstream dam and into the lake, Pend Oreille’s smallmouth are widespread from Sandpoint on the lake’s north end to Bayview, 50 miles south. Most of the fish are small, but there are decent numbers that stretch to several pounds. The area’s largemouth are mostly found in the river below Long Bridge, where sloughs stretch their weedy tongues into sandbars like sniffing serpents.

Fuller and a friend, Sam Wike, bump bunny-tails off the docks below monumental homes on the Pend Oreille River. It is early. They have been at it since 5:00 a.m., and homeowners on massive decks wear bathrobes and warm their hands on coffee cups as they watch the two cast. A boil erupts at the end of Wike’s line. He sets hard and misses. He yelps, “That was a huge smallmouth! That was a toad!”

At 10:30 they break for beer and bisque at MickDuff’s, a downtown brewery that’s a short walk from the dock. As the boat glides up Sand Creek, past shop windows and boogie-board tri-hulls, still covered and tied fast to their moorings, Fuller tells about his pet bass.

“It’s a genteel fish,” he says, “with an appetite for streamers and pieces of the burritos sold down the street [at Joel’s Mexican Restaurant].” Fuller says his pet bass has the clockwork appetite of a gourmand and expects to be fed. Wike adds, “This is pretty urban fly-fishing right here,” as he bounces a Keller Sleezeburger with a three-inch bunny-tail off a concrete dock.

Fuller casts. Nothing. Casts again. Nothing. His last cast wakes a sunbather in the grass, 10 feet away. Nothing. “I wonder what happened to it?” Fuller says to himself.

Wike drops his bug into slow water at the edge of a bulkhead below the sunbather and gets ripped. A white belly flashes and the fish is gone. “That was him,” Fuller says, as the men glide upstream toward their date with MickDuffs. “Did you prick him?” Fuller asks. It won’t be long, just enough time for that beer and bisque, before Wike and Fuller are back at it and that bass has forgotten what bit him back.

Ralph Bartholdt is a writer, editor and photographer from Sandpoint, Idaho. Check out more of his work at www.skookumfoto.blogspot.com

The Dirt

Timing and Tactics: Fishing perks in May and June on Lake Pend Oreille as water levels stabilize and the one- to four-pounders start smacking flies. You’ll find those fish in one to eight feet of water and can reach them with floating lines. Concentrate on structure—docks, trestle pilings, weedy edges and rocky points with quick access to deeper water. As summer progresses those smallies move to deeper, cooler water. When they do so, go with sinking or sink-tip lines. For largemouth bass, May and June are prime time. Anglers mostly find those brutes in the sloughs and backwaters off the Pend Oreille River west of Long Bridge, extending to Springy Point. That’s your best time for a nine-pounder. After summer, fishing peaks again in October, when water temperatures drop to about 50 degrees.

Flies: The four best patterns are Keller’s Sleezeburger; Sculpzilla; Miller Time; and the Near-Nuff Frog (the latter’s a popper). Those patterns imitate the kokanee, crawfish, peamouth, perch and frogs that Pend Oreille bass target.

After Hours: For eats, hit MickDuff’s Brewing Company, or Joel’s Mexican Restaurant (the bass can’t be wrong, right?). For cocktails and nightlife try the 219 Bar or A&P’s.

Washington
he Columbia River wind tunnel offers monster smallmouth bass.

Vancouver, Washington—The Columbia River Gorge is a natural paradox, where the Pacific Northwest’s arterial waterway abruptly severs the Cascade Range, forming dramatic cliffs on both its Oregon and Washington shorelines. Like many anglers, I associated the Gorge’s turbid waters with storied fish such as migratory salmon and steelhead, as well as the leviathan white sturgeon that cruise the river bottom. Recently, however, I discovered that this is one of the most productive smallmouth bass fisheries in America.

But be warned: The Gorge is the perfect natural wind machine. Fronts push off the Pacific and are funneled between the cliffs, creating a jet-nozzle effect that buffets against the steady currents. Windsurfers flock to this locale for that very reason. For the angler, the wind makes casting with the long rod a challenge, even on the kindest days. Depending on the conditions, the Gorge can be a place to shoot Clouser Minnows toward craggy islands with the hope of hooking a five-pound smallie, or a place to launch yourself skyward over massive standing waves. The trick? Not doing both at the same time.

Fortunately, my introduction to bass fishing in the Gorge came under the watchful eye of G. Loomis executive and long-time Washington resident Bruce Holt. We fished last May, which Holt says is the most reliable month, in terms of weather and finding smallmouths staging to spawn.

Within minutes of launching his bass boat near Hood River, Oregon, Holt motored across the main current to a pea-gravel island and a series of rotting pilings near the Washington shore. He killed the engine, switched on a trolling motor, and began carving a delicate, deliberate path into the target zone.

“The smallmouth bass always relate to the shoreline,” he explained, as he hooked up on his second cast. “You want to key on protected coves and secondary points. And when the water warms and the fish get into spawning mode, shallow areas with stumps and pea gravel are best.”

Truth is, along the Columbia’s flood-prone shores, the bass don’t have all that many options—the wind and resulting wave action scours a spawning bed clean in most places. In other words, when you find a spot that looks promising, with gravel, structure and a bottom anywhere from two to six feet deep, you’ll find smallmouth bass, especially in spring and early summer.

During fall, which can be very productive on the Columbia, the game changes. Then, fat and healthy smallmouth hang around steep ledges and drop-offs, looking for forage. On the diverse Columbia, that forage could be crayfish, or American shad, salmon smolts, dace and other small fish. Anglers try to figure out what the fish are keying on, but sometimes that’s impossible and you just have to make them mad.

“If they’ll eat a tube jig, they’ll eat a Clouser or a Woolly Bugger or a crawdad fly,” Holt promised.

They’ll also eat a Geezus Lizard, as I learned. To fish that pattern, make a cast, let the fly sink, then start a slow, erratic retrieve by twitching and stripping your line and fly in.

In the Gorge, on good days, it’s easy to find bunches of cookie-cutter two-pound smallmouth, but if you spend enough time here you will bump into fish that weigh more than five pounds. The fishery is that productive.

Is that enough to make me put the two-handed salmon and steelhead rods in storage? No, not really. But there’s something more than sporty about playing smallmouth—big ones at that—on a fly rod, and something especially thrilling about doing so in a place as naturally wild and stunning as the Columbia River Gorge.

Kirk Deeter is the editor of TROUT magazine, and an editor-at-large for Field & Stream.

The Dirt

Timing and Tactics: Spring and early summer are the best times to target Columbia River smallmouth. Focus on shorelines where wave scouring is at a minimum and pea-size gravel and structure are abundant.

Flies: Clousers, Geezus Lizards, crayfish imitations and Woolly Buggers draw strikes.

After Hours: Hood River, Oregon is a happening town, and a good place to launch or pull out a boat. After fishing, hit the Full Sail Brewery Tasting Room, or duck into either the Double Mountain Brewery or Big Horse Brewing. Eats and drinks in abundance.

Nevada
Big Smallies Under the Towering Ruby Range.

Elko, Nevada—The Jagged Ruby Mountains offer northeast Nevada’s most diverse and beautiful fly-fishing. Nestled below 11,000-foot-high peaks along the range’s western front, South Fork Reservoir is one of the region’s best fisheries, partly because you never know what you might hook; the fertile lake is renowned for sizable largemouth and smallmouth bass, as well as “wipers,” a cross between white bass and striped bass. Hefty brown, rainbow and cuttbow-hybrid trout also beckon.

Smallmouth are the marquee bass attraction at South Fork, which measures 1,650 acres and surrendered a 6-pound, 4-ounce state record in 2002. Bronzebacks grow fat (they average two to four pounds), wolfing down crayfish, leaches, shiners, dace and chubs. Damselfly and dragonfly imitations are deadly for these fish, too, worked along the shoreline and stripped several times between pauses. Dahlberg Divers take fish on or under the surface, along with Clouser Minnows, crayfish imitations, Biggs Specials, Woolly Buggers and Double Bunnies, stripped, jigged, or darted along the bottom.

Smallmouth anglers often focus on the reservoir’s north end, especially around rocky points and dam rubble. Smallies also concentrate around subsurface shoals and other structure that isn’t readily apparent, so grabbing a guide, at least for a day, helps tremendously.

South Fork smallmouth spawn from mid-May into mid-June—and that is the best time for casting flies. Summer success slows as reservoir temperatures rise and fish go deep; action accelerates again with cooler fall temperatures. Anglers get hook-ups from shore, but a boat or float tube pays dividends. Largemouth bass are less numerous and lurk in the south end of the reservoir near the inlet, where the water is shallower and more marshy. Try a deerhair popper cast tight to the shoreline during mornings or evenings, with a slow retrieve. Poppers also take smallmouth during calm conditions.

Conveniently located on the reservoir, the South Fork State Recreation Area offers a boat ramp and campground, along with terrific views of the Rubies. The park makes an excellent base and is an easy 16-mile drive for anglers staying in nearby Elko.

South Fork is one of northeast Nevada’s brightest bass stars, but it’s not alone. On the Rubies’ east flank rests remote Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, with spring-fed ponds holding corpulent bucketmouths and trout. And north of Elko, Wildhorse Reservoir in the Owyhee River drainage also supports an excellent bass/trout fishery that routinely produces trophies. Wilson Reservoir is remote, but well worth an effort during forgiving weather—hit Wilson at the right time and you’ll likely find great fishing for largemouth, with some big trout thrown in, too. So, no, Nevada isn’t just a place to throw down your cards, bet on the spread or capture some overlooked, and large, trout. Nevada is bass central, and South Fork Reservoir just might be its best offering.

Jeff Erickson lives and writes in Helena, Montana. He’s got a sweet spot for Wyoming and other off-the-radar fisheries in the West’s Great Basin.

The Dirt

Watering Holes: You’ll get thirsty in Nevada, so don’t hesitate to hit Jack Creek Lodge for a cold one when you’re headed back from Wilson Reservoir. In Elko you can find eats and drinks at Elko’s Stray Dog Pub & Cafe.

Guides: Elko Guide Service/Ruby Crest Ranch, www.elkoguideservice.com; Elko Fly Shop, www.elkoflyshop.com

Season: At South Fork Reservoir and Wilson it’s year-round, but the best fishing is during spring and early summer and again during fall, extending into November some years.

Oregon
Bass In the sand dunes and sagebrush, or even in the shadow of volcanoes.

Powell Butte, Oregon—Like Most Fly Fishers, I’ve sent big-fish brag shots to buddies. One such shot was me with a largemouth bass. I’m not sure how it got to the East Coast, but out of the blue I received an e-mail from Bob Clouser, who said he was really impressed with the size of the bass and asked, “Where in the heck did you catch it? Florida, California, Mexico?” Clouser sees a lot of big bass, so hearing his excitement about that fish was at once surprising and exciting, especially when I replied, “Oregon.”

Yes, Oregon, my home state and the well-documented residence of chromer steelhead, giant chinook salmon, spring-fed rivers, salmonfly hatches, desert rainbows and towering, snow-capped volcanoes. What most people don’t know is that Oregon also offers a lifetime of warmwater opportunity, including thousands of undiscovered ranch ponds where bass as long as an oar paddle live out their lives in uninterrupted bliss. Even along the rugged and postcard-picturesque Pacific coast, there are sand dune bass lakes within two miles of the crashing surf, with habitat right out of the Midwest or Southeast—acres of lilypads, standing and fallen timber, and weedbeds. There are even a few metal-flake Skeeters and Rangers cruising around these lakes. Even in central Oregon, where I live, bass have infiltrated the Deschutes River watershed and now provide amazing fishing for some oversized brutes. How so? Years back a few local wingnuts decided to take fisheries management into their own hands (and buckets) and distribute Mr. Largemouth into the area’s iconic trout lakes. The bass went wild, eating small rainbows, damselfly and dragonfly nymphs, and chubs. Within a couple of years local fly shops were selling poppers and stubby bass sticks, and conducting seminars on how to find and catch these fish. Now, when June rolls around and the snow melts off the boat ramps, many anglers shelve the chironomid and Callibaetis trout patterns and huck poppers into the shallows where the bass drill them. How can you not want some of that?

To demonstrate how the angling culture may be changing in Oregon, take my experience on a 200-acre public reservoir outside Burns, in the eastern part of the state. I was in my float tube and saw a mouse swimming 10 feet off a rocky shoreline. In a few seconds it was attacked. The splash said “lunker bass” to me. I waited a few minutes and changed out my sinking line for a floater and 12-pound tippet. I tied on a Morrish Mouse, known as a great Alaska rainbow pattern, but also a slammer for bass, then cast to shore and twitched the rodent. Six feet off the rocks the mouse got nailed and a four-pound rainbow shot into the air. I was fooled again, but that is Oregon for you, full of variety and surprises.

Brian O’Keefe is one of fly-fishing’s good guys, a fish-head who throws for any species, anywhere in the world, at any time, and returns home with award-winning photos to document the experience.

The Dirt

The Coast: The coastal lakes offer great opportunities, beginning in April.

The Rivers: Oregon rivers, such as the Umpqua and John Day, offer productive smallmouth fishing beginning in spring, extending through summer and fall. Prime time is May through early September. On the Umpqua anglers can take scads of bass on a good day, and some of those fish might measure more than 20 inches and weigh five pounds. On the John Day anglers enjoy 100 miles of flotable fishing, and overnight camping trips are popular. Poppers take small and medium-size fish; Buggers lure fish to 17 inches or maybe a little larger out of the deeper spots. The sloughs off the Willamette River provide great spring fishing for largemouth.

The Lakes: The Cascade Mountain lakes, such as Davis (fly-fishing only), Crane Prairie and Wickiup, all have bass, including some monsters. Boat and wade fishing offer possibilities, especially with poppers after the water warms to 65 degrees, which typically occurs in early June.

Watering Holes: If you are fishing the lakes near Bend, make sure to drop by Deshcutes River Brewery for a variety of excellent tap offerings. Looking for a really good dinner? Drive to Sisters and hit Jen’s Garden for some of the best sit-down dining you’ll ever enjoy.

Guides: Emerald Water Anglers/Little Creek Outfitters, John Day River, www.emeraldwateranglers.com