Finding bass in the Umpqua
Headin' Outdoors with Scott Staats
Southwest Oregon's Umpqua River is quickly becoming known as one of the West's best smallmouth rivers. July and August are prime times to go after the bass. The scenic river is surrounded with steep forested mountainsides, lava rock and ledges.
"The drop-off structures in the river really attract the bass," said Gary Lewis, owner of Gary's Guide Service in Roseburg, Oregon. "You can catch smallmouth from anywhere on the South Umpqua all the way to the ocean."
On our last trip with Lewis, my wife and I floated a nine-mile section of the Umpqua downstream of Roseburg and saw only five other boats. We caught over 100 bass, including a few over 15 inches. Even the smaller fish were very aggressive fighters. Bouncing purple plastic worms off the bottom worked best, although casting Rapalas also produced fish. Lewis showed us how to use a variety of flies and poppers as well.
The day started out great and only got better. While shuttling vehicles between boat launches, a group of turkeys crossed the road ahead of us. A mile farther, two spotted fawns ran up the yellow line.
Lewis likes to cast the Rapala and let it set for a few seconds then give it a couple of twitches. This will attract the attention of a hungry smallmouth and the fish usually explodes on the lure. Instead of reeling in the crankbait as most anglers do, he keeps it moving erratically to resemble a wounded minnow. He prefers cloudy days for topwater plugs. Six-pound test line works best on spinning rods.
On just about every cast that day, several bass followed the lure to the boat. Many fish were in the five- to 10-inch range, but the larger fish were lurking just below and would often plow through the school of smaller fish and strike.
There are many ledges in and along the river. A lot of the action came by casting just past the drop-offs in shallower water then bringing the crankbait to the edge of the drop-off, stopping it and giving it a twitch. Most of the time, a bass would hit within a few seconds.
When river levels are low, Lewis said it only helps by concentrating the fish. A motor is a must with several long stretches of calm water. Afternoon winds can make rowing a struggle.
Lewis uses all barbless hooks. For flyfishing, he uses poppers and pencil flies on the surface. Girdle bugs, wooly buggers and shad imitations work well under the surface.
Lunchtime along the Umpqua River was just as enjoyable as the fishing itself. Sitting around a table on a slab of lava rock, we sipped a glass of wine and watched a pair of great blue herons land across the river. Farther downstream we could see two osprey nests containing noisy young. Next, we were served salad and fresh bass fillets. Nothing like roughing it on the river.
Besides ospreys and herons, we also saw bald eagles, cormorants and a variety of ducks. At one spot on shore, several turkey vultures fed on a large salmon. Western pond turtles basked on rocks jutting out of the water.
"Bass fishing is good throughout the entire river system," said Dave Loomis, fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Roseburg. "If you get on the river, you'll find bass." He said smallmouth bass were illegally introduced into the Umpqua River system sometime in the early to mid-1960s.
Loomis recommends bringing along your entire tackle box. "That's the fun part about bass fishing – you can throw out a white grub one time, imitation crayfish the next, then try topwater with Rapalas.
Try a slow retrieve, then fast. Sooner or later, you will catch fish." Anything small and on the bottom, such as crayfish, works best this time of year, he said. Flyfishing is also very popular. He said there's no reason to go buy several dozen worms when plastics work just as well.
There are many miles of bass fishing to be had in the Umpqua drainage. Roseburg is at river mile 117 from the mouth. There are 80 to 90 miles of good bass habitat below that; the lower 25 miles is estuary. On the South Umpqua, there are about 40 to 80 miles of bass fishing. There are another 30 to 40 miles on Cow Creek that supports smallmouth as well as several other tributaries. No bass have established above Winchester Dam on the North Umpqua.
Although ODFW hasn't surveyed for bass in many years, Loomis said there are probably a couple of hundred fish per mile. He's seen hundreds of bass in some of the pools at once.
Smallmouth numbers have leveled out over the last few years. There aren't as many larger fish in the river as there used to be, Loomis said. He attributes that to a couple of reasons. The bass have balanced their population and anglers are keeping some of the bigger fish.
Loomis said he rarely sees anglers keep the 15 fish per day, which is allowed. He's seen several fish over five pounds come out of the river and a few around 22 inches. He hears of several 17- to 19-inchers being caught each year. The river has many 2-year-old fish that range from five to eight inches.
The bass spawn in the spring, when water temperatures reach 60 degrees. They choose spawning sites within bedrock shelf areas that contain small pea-sized gravel pockets. The fish remain active when water temperatures reach over 60 degrees. Ideal water temperatures for catching bass in the river are around 68 to 70 degrees. Below 60, the bite slows tremendously and at 56 they are gone, Lewis said. That's also the magic number when the fall chinook really start hitting.
Smallmouth do very well in the Umpqua for many reasons. They have a plentiful supply of crayfish, dace, shiners and insects to keep them fed. There is good opportunity for spawning after the snowmelt in May and the early spawning leads to good growth the first year.
Loomis said that September is the best fishing for larger bass, which become more aggressive that time of year. Earlier than that, anglers have to get through all the smaller fish before they reach the larger ones. Some years, the action is still good in early November. As long as the water stays warm and relatively clear, the smallmouth will bite.
"The diverse habitat is what makes the Umpqua such a unique river system," Loomis said.
"It starts in the Cascades, coming down the North and South Umpqua to the valley floor, to the coastal range, and finally to the estuary."