Play Book of Reaction
It has to be acknowledged it’s more difficult to catch winning bags of smallmouth 16 to 18 pounds on the Columbia River after the spawn – if you fish reaction exclusively. For the sheer pleasure the chuck and wind crowd enjoys in the Deep South launch on this river and tie on some of bass fishing’s standard baits. Common offerings that still perform. Doubtful the draw play will ever be dropped from Alabama’s playbook. With the rock in the right hands doesn’t it still produce? Roll Tide.
The Bonneville Pool 40 miles east of the Portland Or airport is the first of a series of river run reservoirs that includes nearly all of the entire distance the Columbia River runs through the state of Washington. The four dams from the Tri-Cities area downstream to Bonneville form the state line between Washington and Oregon. The dams inundate both the main channel and it’s flood plains on either side. Though the river cuts a gorge a few thousand feet deep there are expansive flats 3 to 6 feet in-depth extending from the shoreline to the main channel. The basalt rock formations and the tributaries that drain the slopes of the Cascades offer breaks and structure. The railroad dikes along both shores were built using crate size boulders and if the depth is over 15ft, they form more areas that hold fish.
A favorite way to fish the rip rap is to use a Rapala DT-16 or a Normans DD-22 and cast nearly parallel. Heavy action baitcast rods and braided line tied directly to the bait. Deflect these crankbaits off submerged boulders and hang on, it triggers ferocious strikes. The spawn date is a moving target on the Columbia, but counting rock with a crankbait on hard bottomed flats during pre-spawn and spawn the experience is incomparable. No nest cleaning nibbles for these fish. Smallmouth spawn too deep and the water in spring is too murky to sight fish.
If there is one bait to tie on for the river, it has to be a lipless crankbait. No other presentation covers the mid depths better, and they perform in all conditions from March to November. They cover water quickly and blasting them through weed stems creates a “poof” of silt smallmouth have to react to. Chartreuse craw in spring when the water has a lot of stain, and red craw and shad in summer as the water clears. Snap your line when you hang up in the rocks and most snags pop free. Hold on, that’s also when you get bit.
Spinnerbaits are much more seasonal and more subject to conditions. Throughout summer occasional fronts pass over the northwest. Not unlike their green scaled cousins, smallmouth are sensitive to weather changes and strike windows can shrink. Late July my tournament practice partner launched with me on the pre-front and it began to rain lightly. On a gravel reef with sparse weeds in 3 to 4 feet we watched as fish whirled around and crushed the bright-colored blades. A 3lb smallmouth will strike a spinnerbait with so much fury you’re at risk with anything less than 14lb test. Even harder when the bait pulls cleanly off a weed stem. If you have to wrap your arm in an ice pack it’s been a good day.
Go big generally applies to the reaction fishing on the Columbia. It’s a mile wide in places and the wind blow hard through the gorge on many days. Run off from the mountain ranges means there’s usually some color in the water. The exception is late summer in stable weather. These conditions call for a west coast offense. Put away the one ton spinnerbaits and get out finesse. War Eagle manufactures spinnerbaits in¼ oz size in ½ oz weights. Wispy shad colors instead of whites and Chartreuse. Also small willow blades in gold and nickel combinations. Gold can be key.
Similar adjustments for top water as well. As fall approaches downsize when the water is clear and the surface is slick. Use mono or a monofilament leader. Spittn Images, finesse poppers, and Superspook Jrs. More strikes when you add a marabou rear treble. The top water is at it’s most ravenous during August and September. Water temps hover near 70 degrees and the big baits: Superspooks, Vixens, and Jackall Bonnies tied directly to braid produce epic strikes and some of the season’s largest fish. These lures are bigger than the bait, but these fish don’t care. They want a big meal. Go vertical down the field. Experiment with your cadence. Cast your top water up against a deep rock bluff or over a point and let it rest. Then watch as it absolutely gets murdered. A few 6lb smallmouths caught on top are reported every summer.
Next to surface strikes, the strikes you can see in the water are the most exhilarating. Jerkbaits anytime, but when the water is slick or there’s good light penetration these baits call up these blunt nosed brown bombers. Catch your breath first and then try to coax them to strike. Suspending jerkbaits out perform floater/divers. Use the most violent action and fish will dart and crush these baits. A Pointer 110 in Clown flashes light great distances and it matches the color and length of a smelt from the Pacific called Candlefish. This species runs in the river every summer. With adequate water clarity jerkbaits put quality fish in the boat every time you tie them on.
Think of the water column when you choose reaction baits for the big river. The basics apply. The pool heights fluctuate a few feet. When the pool is high it submerges stumps on the flats. If the winds are calm, twitching a Bomber Long A the three hook model in orange and gold is deadly. If the pool has dropped, fish will pull off the shallow locations. Rarely will they stray far from a current seam. Also fishing anything shallow is better in low light conditions. The play book of reaction fishing was written for these hardy fish and this huge intimidating river system. No need for soft plastic audibles at the line of scrimmage, just open a page and run a reaction play.