The Columbia and Yakima rivers in southcentral Washington are providing good smallmouth bass fishing now through May, and the Yakima is starting to produce nice catches of channel catfish.
April and May are prime months for smallmouth bass fishing in both rivers, according to Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) biologist Jim Cummins of Yakima, because bass move from the main Columbia River channel to the shallows and up the Yakima River to spawn. The migration is keyed to water temperature. When mainstem water reaches about 49 degrees, the bass arrive in the Columbia's enclosed sloughs like Paterson Slough, the backwaters of Crow Butte in Benton County, and Casey Pond in Walla Walla County.
About 3,000 Yakima River smallmouth bass between the Tri-Cities and Prosser have been tagged over the past two years by WDFW and Yakama Indian Nation fish biologists seeking to learn more about their diet, movements and growth. Anyone catching a tagged bass should call the toll-free number (1-888-604-8568) on the tag to report the date and location of the catch. WDFW biologists will return information on when and where fish were tagged. So far the tagging confirms that adult smallmouth bass enter the Yakima River in early spring and stay until late June or early July when they move back into the Columbia River.
Columbia and Yakima River smallmouth bass generally weigh 1 ½- to 2 ½- pounds, but some 3- to 5-pounders are caught. The daily catch limit is five, with not more than three over 15 inches. WDFW encourages catch-and-release to maintain the best quality fishing.
WDFW fish biologist Paul Wagner of the Tri-Cities suggests looking for the Columbia River's bass in hard bottom areas of gravel or rock, adjacent to large weedy flats and sheltered from main channel current. Large concentrations of bass often can be found at the shallowest point of submerged gravel or rock piles.
Smallmouth bass are bottom-oriented ambush predators that feed on small fish and crayfish. Fishing gear should be selected to match the forage. Nightcrawlers will catch virtually all freshwater fish, including smallmouth, but artificial lures allow easy catch and release. Generally artificial lure selection should be matched to water temperature. Use slow-action plastic lures such as tube baits early in the spring, curl tail grubs on leadhead jigs as the water warms, and floating/diving plugs in late spring. Chartreuse is a popular color on the Columbia River, Wagner says, because it's highly visible in dirty water. Subdued colors are a good choice when fish are less active. Bright colors with metallic flash are good on bright days and darker-colored lures work best on cloudy days. Cast and retrieve lures along shorelines, rapid shallow-to-moderate depth transition areas, submerged points, rock piles and weed lines adjacent to hard bottom areas. Try to maintain bottom contact with the lure throughout most of the retrieve.
WDFW fish biologist Geoff McMichael of Ellensburg suggests that Yakima River bass fishers use quarter-ounce tube jigs (gitzits) in a smoke with red flake color. Bounce the jigs on the bottom of the river in rocky areas with deep, slow water that is close to fast water. Even in muddy water hungry bass still find a way to eat the jigs.
Fishing for Yakima River channel catfish usually starts in mid-April, McMichael says, and remains good through July. Chicken liver or fresh sucker cut-bait fished on the bottom will catch catfish. Fishing is best in deeper areas on the outside bends of the river in the lower 20 miles of the Yakima, and when the river is rising and getting muddy. Fishing at night also is often productive.
About 3,000 Yakima River channel catfish have been tagged to document their movement patterns. As with smallmouth, fishers should report tags by calling the toll free number found on the tag (1-888-604-8465). McMichael says that while the movement patterns are not as defined as those of smallmouth bass, there does appear to be some movement of catfish into the Yakima River from the Columbia River. One tagged catfish was even recaptured last year in the Snake River.
Most catfish average 2- to 4-pounds, with fish from 6- to 10-pounds relatively common and some catches reaching 20 pounds. There are no catch or size limits on catfish caught in the river, but anglers should remember that bottom-feeding fish can accumulate contaminates deposited in river sediments. To reduce exposure to contaminants when eating these fish, remove the fat along the belly and back before cooking, allow the fat to drip off during cooking by barbequing or broiling and don't eat the fish skin.