Sunfish species take the spotlight

My good friends Holly Lathrop and Phil Strader with a very fine smallmouth that Holly caught on a popper.

If you ask several Oregon anglers what’s their favorite fish to chase in Oregon’s lakes and rivers, most will refer to a salmonid species. Trout, steelhead and salmon are found in just about every river drainage, in most natural occurring cold water lakes and many man-made deep water reservoirs. The historical fact is in Oregon salmon and salmonid species are kings and still play an important part in our economy, history and, of course, culture.  

The introduction of sunfish: But more often than ever before, a few of those anglers will mention a sunfish species like crappie, perch, bluegill or bass. Then cite destinations like the Umpqua River, Siltcoos Lake, Tenmile Lake or one of the other quality sunfish-filled waters that now dot our state. In Creswell’s backyard is Dorena reservoir and its growing reputation as a trophy largemouth lake. Though not a species native to Oregon, sunfish – including both the hard-fighting large and smallmouth bass – began to find their way into Oregon waters in about the 1950s. The introduction was done completely under the radar of fisheries management at the time but the fish thrived and settled into what has become an important and growing niche for Oregon anglers. 

About the bass fishing: Both large and smallmouth bass can at times be a demanding species. When compared to salmonids, they tend to be more affected by short-term weather and barometric changes. That can make them appear fickle and in some habitats can cause them to be difficult to catch. But the popularity of big-money bass fishing tournaments in some parts of our country has spawned many technical advances in bass fishing. The use of state-of-the-art fish-finding electronics has grown and is commonly used by many recreational anglers for species other than bass.

Under stable barometric pressures the tenacious character of bass can really be seen as they hunt and feed with abandon, and often at manic pace. At these times of high activity a bass will attack and eat just about anything smaller than itself including frogs, ducklings, small birds, mice and most any other small animals unlucky enough to fall off the bank. This puts the bass pretty high on the food chain in most every water body where they live in Oregon. It also makes them susceptible to a variety of lures and soft plastic baits. 

Let me break this down a bit: Because a quality bass-fishing experience doesn’t necessarily mean a commitment to a shiny new bass boat with an expensive array of fish-finding electronics. Yes, Oregon has its share of technical trophy bass fisheries but it also has several that are ideal for anglers learning the ropes. One of those wonderful places is just an hour drive down I-5 to the Umpqua River where smallmouth bass have brought a different blue-ribbon distinction to the river alongside its salmon and steelhead. 

Fishing the Umpqua River: Not to overexaggerate but the Umpqua may be one of the most prolific smallmouth bass destinations in Oregon. A comparable fishery would be the John Day River in eastern Oregon but that’s a six-hour drive east and doesn’t lend itself to a “day trip,” not when the Umpqua is just an hour away. You’ll find about 70 miles of river to float, with a fair number of boat ramps, along its length and decent bank access from the roads that parallel the river. Since their introduction in the late 1960s or early ’70s smallmouth now range in the Umpqua River from Sawyer’s Rapid at the head of the tidewater in the main river upstream and into the South Umpqua to About Canyonville. 

The South Umpqua does have decent bank access but drops below levels that can be floated by spring every year. So the boating access is only on the main river and begins west of Sutherlin near the hamlet of Umpqua at James Woods Park.

Close to Creswell: The next 20 miles down to Yellowknife are relatively straightforward to float. My preference is a drift boat but I often encounter folks in a variety of river craft, including pontoon boats, canoes, even sitting on top of kayaks. But always wear a life jacket. 

Below Yellowknife there is a stretch that has no landing for about 30 miles that has become a favorite for self-contained overnight drifters that camp one or two nights on the river bank before taking out at Elkton. It’s a wonderful float in the summer sun and the warm water of the Umpqua River. Although there are no boat landings for some distance, bank access is possible from the network of roads that follow the river bank along much of that stretch.

Boater’s facilities and ramps begin again as you near Elkton, where “The Slide” provides boaters access to the river down through Elkton to the head of Sawyer Rapids. You will need a 100-foot piece of rope to safely launch a drift boat at The Slide. I recommend that you do not attempt to run Sawyer’s Rapid at low summer flows. It is a narrow, rock-filled shoot. 

Bass in the Umpqua River are incredibly curious fish and are not generally very selective about what they eat. When conditions are perfect, catching 50 or more in a single day is a bar many reach.

Contact Frank via rivertrailoutfitters.com and [email protected].



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