Smallmouth can present big problems

As the story goes, it was in the early 1960s that the ODFW planted a few dozen smallmouth bass into the main Umpqua River near Elkton. Salmon and steelhead primarily used the main river as a highway to reach their spawning waters in the rivers’ north and south forks and an invasive shade spawning run that usually wraps up by May.  

Fly fishing for smallmouth can be more productive than using conventional gear. My rod of choice is 8.5 feet for an 8-weight fly line. On a recent float where only the largest fish were targeted, I landed about 30 that were all above four pounds.

By the way, shad are gamey in fight and taste, most are harvested as crab bait, and the run is relatively short. But for the most part, throughout the summer and into the early fall, the river was nearly devoid of any real sport fishing opportunities. 

Of course the smallmouth found the northwest river habitat to their liking, and their numbers began to increase. 

In 1964, a 100-year flood slammed into the Pacific Northwest.  For a time it looked as though the recently planted bass had all been washed to sea. But the smallmouth bass may be one of North America’s most resilient fish, and in a couple of years they began to reappear.  

Their numbers growing, the bass shortly became well-established, and by the 1980s the Umpqua River’s reputation as a 100-bass-per-day river nationally recognized. 

In the main Umpqua River bass are of little consequence to the natural occurring species.  

They remain inactive during salmon and steelhead smolt migration and generally prey on other invasive fish like shad smolts and pike minnows.  

But not all is good. Smallmouth bass have been illegally introduced into the other rivers, in western Oregon and their effect is anything but benign. 

In the Coos, Millicom and Coquille rivers, which are much smaller rivers than the Umpqua, smallmouth have been blamed for decimating steelhead and salmon smolts, and hampering the restoration of their populations.  Bass are also a problem on the South Fork of the Umpqua, where a “catch & kill” roundup to lower their numbers is now in its second season. 

For years, the ODFW vacillated around establishing limits of smallmouth you could retain.  But recognizing the devastating potential of smallmouth, there are no limits on the number of smallmouth one can retain while fishing in a stream or river.

This is the only fly pattern I use for Umpqua smallmouth. Pictured is purple rubber leg nymph, on a #4 bomber-style hook. I do alternate the body color to include black, brown, olive and chartreuse.

A lot of people eat smallmouth – fish around 12 inches are said to be the best. But there may also be concerns about catching bass.  Many western Oregon rivers that have smallmouth are in most cases adjacent to private working forest lands where herbicide use is ongoing. 

 In a river habitat, smallmouth bass are at the top of the food chain and could have the potential to accumulate and concentrate toxins from what they eat. 

At over 4,000 fish per mile, the concentration of smallmouth in the main Umpqua are pretty spectacular and are the highest in the least accessible parts of the river. But that is not to say that the fishing won’t be great everywhere in the main river. From River Forks Park down to Yellow Creek Landing river access is available at several locations and the landings are spaced ideally for a one-day float. Unless you are able to access one of the private boat landings down stream from Yellow Creek, the next boat landing is a two- or three-day float to Elkton. 

The most popular are the landings on this wilderness-like stretch are located on the Big K Ranch. The Big K is a pay-to-play experience and the owners do give first priority to the river guides contracted by the ranch and lodgers that bring their own boat. It should be on your “bucket list.”

A lot of conventional bass tackle works for Umpqua smallmouth. Among the most productive are soft plastic baits rigged “drop shot” style, which suspends your baited hook a few inches off the river bottom and away from the moss that grows in the summer.  My preference has always been to fly fish for smallmouth bass; the gear is simplistic, and some of the most basic flies can be as productive as any other rod, reel, or lure combination.

I learned a long time ago that “hunting” or “sight fishing” for the larger fish is the most effective approach. In the clear Umpqua River water the technique might not produce the numbers that repetitive castings could. 

Instead, it elevates you to an angling experience that is world class.

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