Bigmouth, smallmouth bass provide fun challenge for Oregon anglers


We spent a couple of hours fishing but with water temperatures still in the 50s the bass were somewhat disinterested. So the day was more about getting the boat ready for a long season and marking potential future fishing spots on the GPS.

Before about 1890 there were absolutely no sunfish species in Oregon. No bass, no crappie, no bluegill and several other species of warm-water fish. They all were absent from the water bodies in Oregon. There were also no carp, shad, striped bass or catfish and it was decades before any of the dams and reservoirs were built. It was a time when all our waterways were unrestricted to fish migration and every river in the Columbia River Basin was still fully connected, leaving fish free to wander. 

Then in 1893 the Portland Rod & Gun Club proposed to stock several hundred yearling largemouth bass – that had been acquired from the Washington Fish Commission – into a handful of locations mostly near Portland. The largest deposit of largemouth bass was a group of 500 that were released in the Willamette River around what became Newberg, Oregon. A couple of years later Dove Lake, said to be near Salem, got 75 bass, Mill Creek near Dallas (in the western Willamette Valley) received 25 and a branch of the Powder River (a Columbia tributary near Baker) got 75 of the warm-water fish. The justification for bringing largemouth bass to Oregon was that “people had to travel 30 to 40 miles to find good fishing, the bass will fill that hole” and Oregon’s leaders agreed.

Smallmouth bass came along in about 1929. The adaptability of smallmouth had already been recognized by fisheries managers and a plan to stock Lake Oswego with 475 smallmouth bass was rejected by the United States Bureau of Fisheries. But we Oregonians are well known for our independence and despite the objections of the federal government, the smallies ended up in the lake. An unknown number were later released near Peoria on the Willamette and 5,000 were stocked in the lower Yakima River in 1925. A few years later the Yakima River was stocked again but the quantity of fish released is unknown. 

Though largemouth were welcomed to Oregon waters smallmouth “came under the cover of darkness.” Crappie, perch, bluegill and catfish arrived about the same time. They were believed to have been mixed in with the bass that came west in barrels, across the Continental Divide by train. 

Today, large and smallmouth bass can be found throughout the entire Columbia River Basin and in many natural lakes and in every flood-control reservoir in the Willamette Valley. In a few of those water bodies the largest of the sunfish species in North America have achieved trophy status, comparable to any region of the country.

The two subspecies have found their niche in Oregon. In general, smallmouth bass occupy river habitats and largemouth have settled mostly into our many naturally occurring lakes and man-made reservoirs. Largemouth prefer lush still-water lake habitats, with lots of cover and structure. While smallmouth do extremely well in sparse river habitats, they also adapt well to lakes. Especially those with more physical structure-like rock piles, underwater shelves, drop-offs and waterways with gravelly beds, as opposed to lakeside brush, lilly pads, downed trees and other organic structures that largemouth bass find more to their liking.

I have to add that salmon and steelhead anglers in the Columbia Basin have long expressed their concerns over the perforation of the imported fish, particularly smallmouth bass that will eat just about anything that can’t outswim it – and smallmouth bass in particular have found the habitats of the Columbia Basin ideal. They now range north to the Canadian border, as far east as the Salmon River in Idaho and as far south as the Coast Fork of the Willamette River. At Dorena Reservoir in Lane County the resilience of smallmouth bass has been fully on display.

Likely transferred from the Umpqua River, smallmouth have begun to crowd out the largemouth at what was once a largemouth trophy fishery. A 2011 study by the University of Washington cited several concerns about the predation of endangered salmon in the upper Columbia Basin by smallmouth bass. It issued a few recommendations which mostly centered around doing more research and admitted that its study was essentially inconclusive for the lack of objective scientific research. The one positive development from the study was about that time, Oregon made it a felony to introduce a fish or other aquatics to a body of water it was not harvested from. Some also suggest that in a warming climate, bass and other sunfish represent the future of fishing in the Pacific Northwest. But for better or for worse the fish are here to stay and they are incredibly fun to catch.

In Lane County and in the other counties that border us, a number of world-class bass fishing destinations have literally grown in our backyard. I already mentioned Dorena Reservoir (1,800 acres) that still has plenty of largemouth, that tend to grow larger than smallmouth, and I’ll add Cottage Grove reservoir (1,000 acres), where largemouth still dominate the lake. Both are good-sized water bodies that fish well in the spring as they reach full pools. Both lakes have decent boating accommodations and again are minutes from most places in the southern Willamette Valley. 

In far western Lane County is Siltcoos Lake (3,400 acres), a natural and sprawling body of water that is the largest lake in western Oregon and the region’s second-most popular bass destination. You will find a diversity of structure on Siltcoos Lake that includes docks, boat houses and plenty of natural formations. 

In Douglas County the Main Umpqua River has become renowned for its smallmouth bass fishing and I often mention the Umpqua smallmouth fishery in my biweekly report. A barrier dam has kept the bass from salmon and steelhead spawning areas in the north fork and confines them to the main river west of Umpqua, Ore., and in the South Umpqua to about Myrtle Creek. Also on the Douglas County coast is Tahkenitch Lake (1,600 acres), a natural lake with the least amount of development of any lake on my list. The lake has several arms that reach eastward into some of the most remote parts of Douglas County and offers an experience to fish somewhere that feels like “wilderness.”

Finally, Tenmile Lakes in Coos County, a natural lake which is actually two lakes separated by a boat channel. The North and South lakes are nationally recognized as one of the Northwest’s premier bass fisheries and host to a couple of annual bass tournaments. Man-made and natural structures are abundant as are the number of bass that thrive in Tenmile. 

In my next report I’ll add more in-depth information about how to catch a bass, and more specific information about tackle and lures – the selection can be somewhat overwhelming. And I’ll share how the boat I use and its electronics work as a fish-catching package. 

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