Most fishers regard the ‘Ronde as a rainbow trout and steelhead river. It is, but the fishing doesn’t end there. From May through September, the lower river is dynamic smallmouth country. Snake River smallies surge up the Grande Ronde in late spring—some say fish come to spawn in warmer water while others say they come to feed on the out-migrating anadromous smolts. However, it may be a combination of both—the urge to spawn may trigger the run but the smolts provide the sustenance.
Smallmouth spread upriver to Troy and beyond though the best fishing is in the lower river. For the biggest fish, the pre-spawn females, mark your calendar for mid-June. Expect to have some company on the river. By August when the water is skinny and the sun scorches the canyon to oven-like temperatures, the river can be all yours and the fishing is absolutely worth a little discomfort.
HOOK: Daiichi 1730, sizes 4 to 8.
THREAD: Chartreuse Danville, 140 denier.
EYES: Medium gold/silver Montana Fly Company Sparkle Dumbbell Eyes.
TAIL: Nine Chartreuse rubber legs, and four strands of Chartreuse Krystal Flash.
BODY: Chartreuse Estaz UV Lights.
HACKLE: Chartreuse saddle hackle, palmered. Leave the head somewhat ragged to look more like a crayfish.
A good starting spot is the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) access site next door to Boggan’s Oasis, a small roadside café and convenience store that also takes shuttle requests and has cabins for rent. An easy day trip down to Shumaker takes floaters through riffles and runs walled in by red rock cliffs rising 1,500 feet above the river. Lava dikes—layered bands of rock and dirt baked red by subsequent lava flows—jut into the river, their near-vertical walls create early shadows and late sunrises along the valley floor. There are plenty of fish in this eight-mile run, though more and better fish await those who float on.
Below Shumaker are several slow, deep runs filled with bragging-sized smallies. Riffles slow as the current drives the food towards the rock wall and the waiting bass. It’s possible to spend several days working the middle section, from Shumaker to The Narrows, and still not hit all the places that hold fish.
It’s easy to get lost in the fishing, the solitude and the sheer beauty of the river and lose track of how many lava dikes you floated past since camp. The BLM’s Wallowa-Grande Ronde River Boater’s Guide ($6 from the Baker Field Office, 541-523-1256) and the waterproof map from Troutmap ($20, www.troutmap.com) are invaluable—consult both frequently as you float downstream. Property abutting the river is the usual patchwork of public and private. Camping is only allowed at designated campsites which are sometimes revealed only by a faint trail leading up a grassy bank are not easily spotted if you’re new to the river. Use the maps from both resources to keep track of your location on the river.
Floating from Shumaker to the Snake River means negotiating The Narrows, a challenging, two-step Class IV whitewater drop. When the river is high, it’s possible to avert most danger by running a “chicken chute” on the far right. But in low water, the entire river squeezes through a narrow, rocky chute and most people portage or hand-line boats through. Three miles from the Snake River confluence is another chute, Bridge Rapids, but it’s a runnable Class III for experienced boaters. Below Bridge Rapids, the river is easily accessed from the road and the fishing suffers.
Early season patterns should imitate the escaping smolts. As the season progresses, crayfish become more important, though increase your pattern size through the season since the juveniles mature into adults. By August, I’m typically using a size 2, 6XL fly tied with soft materials that flow and wiggle in even a modest current.
Crow Butte on the Columbia River
The long leg of the golden triangle, the Columbia River, is consistently rated as a top smallmouth bass destination. It’s big water known for powerful currents running through the Gorge where the upstream wind whips the water into ocean-sized swells.
But when the wind is tolerable, the river area around Crow Butte is a great place to be. Roughly 12 miles west of Paterson, Washington, Crow Butte Park has excellent camping facilities and three boat ramps. It’s possible to wade fish along part of the south shore, but a float tube or pontoon is a much better choice if you don’t have a boat—in fact, there are rock islands, exposed rocks and slightly submerged rock piles that attract pre-spawn smallies on the north side that are only reachable from a floating device. If fishing from a boat, you’ll catch more fish working the fly from shallow to deep; easy to do with a sinking-tip or full-sinking line.
Smallmouth move out of the cold water of the main river and into the shallow, somewhat protected backwaters in May when the water temperatures top 55 degrees (you can check Columbia dam outflows and water temps at www.fpc.org/river/watertemp.html). Fish set up shop, spawn, and then spend most of the summer eating before slowly filtering back into the main river. By the end of August, most of the bass will have relocated and oriented themselves around rock humps in deep water, effectively taking themselves out of reach of most fly fishers—at least those who lack fish finders and T-14 heads.
Directly across the water from Crow Butte Park’s westernmost boat ramp is a string of rock islands that typically hold fish. For an added treat, as the water broadens towards the west end of the islands, carp patrol the shallow flats in search of crayfish and aquatic insects. Back along the north shore up towards the east end of the water, you can find smallmouth among the riprap. The middle of the water is where the conventional anglers run bottom-walkers for walleye.
Over the years, Crow Butte and other Columbia River bass have revealed a color preference for chartreuse and brown and it’s why I like to fish a Chartreuse Caboose and D-Dub’s Prickly Sculpin so much; the bigger the better. A recent stomach sample study revealed that Columbia River smallmouth preferred forage fish with prickly sculpins being one of their favorites. That same study showed an interesting relationship between smallmouth and crayfish. As smallmouth grew to trophy sizes, they switched off crayfish and turned to forage fish. So it makes sense to give the fish what they want.
These are but a few of the smallmouth waters in the Golden Triangle—there are others nearby like the Lower Salmon and Snake worth the trip. Explore one or all three of these great rivers, and then seek out other bronze bulldog hotspots. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at what you find.
David Paul Williams is a writer from Bellevue, Washington. His latest book, Fly Fishing for Western Smallmouth (Stackpole Books, 2014), contains more information on the aforementioned destinations as well as others.