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Targeting All 4 Seasons of Big River Smallmouth

Jason Patton

Be prepared for seasonal transitions, patterns, and presentations. Here’s how. 

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Nathan Bromley with a rainy day smallmouth caught on a Tualatin Craw pattern from Willamette Weapon Lures

As the Willamette and Columbia fisheries begin to warm up in the spring with the return of consistent sunlight, dogwoods begin to bloom and lots of fishy activity goes on beneath the surface that most anglers in the Pacific Northwest tend to overlook. However, warmwater fisheries in the Northwest have a place on the map. Bassmaster Magazine has repeatedly listed the Columbia as one of the best bass fisheries in the country.

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Willamette Weapon Lures imitation of a Redside Shiner in spawning colors

The abundance of area, forage species, clean water, and little fishing pressure have developed a world-class smallmouth bass fishery. Shad, smelt, pikeminnow, redside shiners, speckled dace, yellow perch, sculpin, bluegill, crappie, and even ESA-listed smolts are just a portion of the diet of these fish. However, the most common food source is crawfish. They’re plentiful, easy prey, and always in season.

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One of the many crawfish patterns from Willamette Custom Lures

Most bass spawn during the early spring, but as the water temperatures continue to rise, so do many of their forage species. As they bloom, a feast of fishes come into the system, those early spawning bass are recovering, and the late spawning bass are becoming protective of their territory.

The baby smallmouth imitation from Willamette Weapon Lures is ideal for targeting territorial spawning fish
The baby smallmouth imitation from Willamette Weapon Lures is ideal for targeting territorial spawning fish

As they transition from protecting their nests, bass begin seeking out food to replenish the energy they’ve expended during the spawn. Many of the forage species often spawn on abandoned beds, and sculpins raid the territory, sneaking off with whatever they can grab.

There are a number of small northwest tackle manufacturers that have zeroed on mimicking those food sources. Willamette Weapon Lures custom paints lures to match the specifics of native forage species.

Willamette Weapon Lures Sculpin Pattern
Willamette Weapon Lures Sculpin Pattern and the forage species it’s intended to mimic

While there are a wide variety of crawfish, bluegill and yellow perch patterns from numerous tackle manufacturers, keep in mind many of these fish have already seen them, and possibly fallen for them. Throwing something new and realistic in their path can often trigger strikes from reluctant feeders. When the female bass have dropped their eggs and moved off the bed to search for food, they’ll feed on anything they can fit in their mouths. Slightly lethargic at first, they’ll mainly target crawfish, then as they begin to gorge themselves and regain their energy, they’ll move on to other forage species as their metabolism rises.

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The yellow perch imitation by Willamette Weapon Lures

During the post spawn, fish will often hang near ledges, current breaks, and cover, anything that provides them with a point to ambush and charge their prey. When it comes to big rivers, bass behavior isn’t much different from salmon and steelhead. Bass will hang in fairly shallow water as long as deep water is close by. Deep, slow moving channels are like highways, and bass will stage in some areas where food will come to them.

A pattern with an accurate representation of forage species will catch anything that consumes it, like this trout
A pattern with an accurate representation of forage species will catch anything that consumes it, like this trout

Bass gravitate to warmer water as much as cover, so fish anywhere something creates a shadow on the sunny side of the river. Cover like logs, boulders, and rockpiles that are standing in or creating a seam in the current will often hold fish. Rock or gravel bottoms will always hold more bass, while sandy bottoms are often deserts of silt, void of life all together.

Having a depth finder will help locate schools of baitfish, rock piles, ledges, and other structure that bass will gravitate towards. More importantly, having a variety of presentations to offer the fish will better prepare you for adapting to where they are in the water column, and match whatever they are feeding on.

Jason Patton shows off a Willamette River smallmouth caught on Willamette Weapon Lures
Jason Patton shows off a Willamette River smallmouth caught on Willamette Weapon Lures

Bass anglers are notorious for bringing a plethora of rods and reels rigged and ready to go. There’s a good reason for this. Having a rod for soft plastics, spinnerbaits, and crankbaits is one thing, but having 3 rods for crankbaits to fish at various depths depending on where the fish are in the water column is a game changer. Having a squarebill that dives 2-4ft, a mid depth crankbait that dives 6-8ft, as well as a deep crank that can hit the deep side of ledges can make a difference, especially if you’re not retying to adjust to where the bait is all day.

Topwater bass fishing isn’t just for tossing frogs into heavy cover; don’t rule out injured bait fish imitations like a zara spook in open water. Fishing topwater over flats with moving water that rest above ledges with deep water can be very productive. As it gets later in the summer, smelt, and other smaller fish tend to get pushed out of that deeper water and onto the flats where the bass feed on them. Bait fish are also following bug hatches at the surface and the bass are simply following the food chain. Having a rod rigged up and ready to go when there are fish feeding on the surface can put you on fish that are looking to the sky and neglecting those bottom bouncing jig patterns.

Nicholas Chin displays a Smallmouth that smashed a Willamette Custom Lures walking bait
Nicholas Chin displays a Smallmouth that smashed a Willamette Custom Lures walking bait

These tactics can be productive well into late fall when until rains begin to show again. Small swimbaits fished slowly over ledges can produce fish as well as many of the same presentations you’d normally fish during other times of year with slightly different methods can also produce fish as the bite begins to slow down and fishing becomes tougher.

Willamette Park in Oregon City is located at the mouth of the Tualatin River. Rock ledges, fallen timber, rocky points, boulders and shallow flats in the area all hold smallmouth. During the summer the fish will transition from spawning to feeding on baitfish, so if you find bait, you’ll find bass by targeting ambush areas where they’re staging to feed.

Another variation of the Tualatin Craw from Willamette Custom Lures
Another variation of the Tualatin Craw from Willamette Custom Lures

Just above the falls, Willamette Park in West Linn or Rogers Landing in Newberg holds fish on ledges and steep drop offs. Deep diving crankbaits and drop shot rigs dominate that deep water. The Cedar Oak ramp is a good lower Willamette River area with similar structure. Even the Multnomah Channel and Columbia Slough are excellent fisheries that are easily accessible from Cathedral Park.

Bryan Chapman of Willamette Custom Lures and his son Dominick with a Smallmouth caught on a bluegill pattern
Bryan Chapman of Willamette Custom Lures and his son Dominick with a Smallmouth caught from the Willamette River on a bluegill pattern

Upriver, many of the larger tributaries like Hood River, John Day, and Snake River host populations of smallmouth that often stage at the mouth of the river to feed on outgoing smolts, shad, and other baitfish that are migrating to spawn. Even further upriver, the Coeur d’ Alene and Clearwater fisheries produce consistent lunker bronzebacks.

While some of the sloughs and areas just off the beaten path of the mainstem are hidden gems, much of the big river habitat holds a lot of potential for successful fishing in both quantity and quality. These fisheries also hold a lot of potential for angling opportunity, consistently being included in Bassmaster Magazine’s listings of the country’s top bass fisheries. The diverse smorgasbord of forage species the Big C has to offer and the wide expanse of water with structure that is unique to smallmouth habitat, these are without a doubt world class fisheries worthy of the attention.

NEXT: IF YOU’VE GOT THE ITCH TO DO THE TWITCH, WATCH THIS VIDEO

Targeting All 4 Seasons of Big River Smallmouth