Aug 2, 2012

Good Morning Columbia River Bass

Columbia River Morning

I got out on the Columbia River last week with resident Bass Guide, Greg Darling. When he offered the invite I started to drool because well, the Columbia is so vastly beautiful, and I wanted to try something different. The thought of standing barefoot on the bow of a boat and casting and stripping flies to Small Mouth Bass warmed up my insides. Yes please, broaden my horizons! I get caught up in the same old things sometimes – chasing those species that just never seem to release you. Barbed. And although you learn something every day out there, the diameter of the learning pipe is so much wider when trying something new. Info just comes gushing in and you do your best to try to hold onto it all amid this refreshing new experience. Or how about this: Would it be fair to say that it’s good to start with a dry sponge sometimes?

I have dabbled in this fishery before. But being too busy with the Trout and Steelhead scene has left me little time to branch out. As it turns out, this big old river that runs by town, the Columbia - one of the largest drainage ditches in the world – is home to a few Bass. Well maybe more than a few and maybe home to some really large Bass at that. Oh yeah Greg, I would love to. You bet.

We pulled up to the ramp at 5:45 AM. Two ladies stood on the concrete smoking butts, but they were the only souls in sight. The river was flat and metallic looking. I glanced out over the expanse and followed the dark forested ridgelines up to the canyon rim on the Oregon side. Off to the east, the young sun highlighted a distant hole in the clouds. Eventually, the boat was in the river, and we were in the boat.

Columbia River - Stevenson

Between casts I’m looking around. I’m snatching up quick glimpses of the river and The Gorge and I can’t help but feel a peaceful enthusiasm wash over. I’m like a little kid peering into a new world where there is a different sort of fish lurking in this unfamiliar territory. And Greg is there talking about the different strip speeds I should try.

“Yea, I like that action there. Sometimes you want a big ruckus on the surface. You know, real fast–“

“Like that?”

“Yep, just like that.”

And then he’s talking habitat and how the time of year plays a big part in where you find them. I’m filling up one word at a time as this giant cork popper sails out over the surface, and then rips it up on the way back.

“Well let’s try a different spot,” says Greg after we find no interest from below.

“Sure,” I say and I scan the canyon upstream wondering about our next possible stop. The water seems endless. We can stop and fish wherever we please. We are still the only ones in sight and so we go for a cruise without cause for worry or hurry, as nobody will be there when we arrive.

Greg has this electric trolling motor that is hooked up to a GPS and a remote control. He can set the course and the speed or simply get us to hold in one spot, which is aptly named the “anchor” position. In the right hands, the behavior of such technology is astonishing. Greg had the remote clipped to his belt and with only a quick click, we are moving stealthfully through some fine habitat.

A Fine Captain - Greg Darling

We are fishing the soft water off a rocky point. We have laid down the top water flies in favor of some streamer patterns. I’ve got a heavily weighted Skulpzilla tied to nine feet of leader off a floating line. After letting the fly sink for a spell I start my retrieve and when it’s just about to the boat I feel this quick jolt in the line and then nothing. Hmm… grass or Bass? Tough to tell. We keep fishing. So far we have been on the river for a couple hours with not so much as a sniff.

But Greg likes the way I’m fishing. He says I’m in the zone and my retrieves look good, so I guess I like the way I’m fishing too. And you know, as a long time streamer angler for trout, I rather like chucking and ducking and watching my fly land where I will it. What I’m finding is that Bass are similar in at least one respect to Trout and Steelhead: They don’t bite all the time. Nope, and we don’t eat all the time, so I can’t blame them. But I want to be there when the bell chimes - when their bellies start to growl. I know that if you fish long enough, sooner or later, the switch get’s flicked. And Greg agrees as he hands me a rust-colored clouser minnow. A little leader maintenance and I’m back in the game with this clouser swimming along four feet under.

I’m just about to pull up for another cast when this dark shape shoots out of the murk and misses the fly. I am in back cast mode and my fly lifts out of the water and as my line sails back behind me, I see this hefty shape make one more turn like it’s looking for that morsel that somehow just seemed to vanish. Fish is in the water, fly is in the air. Damn. And the fish disappears before the fly can complete the U turn. Damn.

“That was awesome Greg! The way he just appeared and swirled on it. Looked like he really wanted it.”

“Yeah, I wish I had my fly ready to go. You know sometimes when they’re up next to the boat and all amped up like that, the other guy can plop one in there and they’ll attack. Man, if I was ready, we might have got him. That’s what I like about Bass fishing too, you know…”

“What’s that?” I ask

“Sometimes you can really work together, fish together and have a lot of fun stinging some of these fish together. You know?”

“Yea, I like that. That sounds good.” I ponder this for a few moments.

Greg fires up the outboard and we’re off. We are a dot in the canyon. So much air and water before us. The sun is up and the river is getting some mid-morning wrinkles. As we head west, a train rolls east with its swirly messages maybe painted in some yonder urban studio.

Inlets and Islands - Columbia River

We arrive at an inlet. A small beach leads into a rock spire wall. Around us are rock islands with trees growing from the cracks in the rock and the river engulfs it all. My rusty-colored clouser minnow bangs his head on the rock and drops into the river. It wakes up. I am stripping when something attacks. It is a violent take. It is a sharp moment of contrast when my rod comes bent and starts to shudder. This animal is digging, pulling line and I keep thinking that I only want to see this fish. Let me just get it close enough so that I can see you.

He grants my wish.

Nice fish, nice fish... the words of Jimmy Houston echo as I reach down to grab him by the lip. Nice? They’re all nice I think, but this one… this particular bass with his big mouth and green and black skin, tall back and piercing black eyes… this bass that ate my fly here on the Columbia is absolutely stunning.
I held him up, straight up and down and he hung there... mellow, watching.

“Does it hurt the fish, you know – his jaw, when you hold him out by the mouth?” I asked.

“Nope. Not a bit. There you go, hold his body out – there got it.”

We got a shot of this bass in my hands. It was the finest bass I ever saw. And then I released him.

Columbia River Smallmouth Bass

We fished for a few more hours and I caught a few more on the same fly.

Greg mentioned that I should make it out here on a good day, when you can hook a lot of bass and some of them really big, in the four to five pound range. And I thought about that. But I knew that today was enough to make it one of the finest days. I still felt that I could be one of those guys who get to say:

“You should have been here yesterday,”

And person would say:

“Why’s that? You caught a lot of fish?”

And then I say:

“No, not really.”

And then I have a hard time explaining.

Down the Hatch

Have a good time,  

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