There are some truly great bass fishing in many parts of the state, including some fantastic smallmouth waters in western Oregon. But truly, Eastern Oregon is tough to beat for its many rivers and reservoirs absolutely loaded with bronzebacks. The following are a handful of the very best places east of the Cascade Mountains.
The uppermost reservoir on the Snake River between Oregon and Idaho is near the top of every warmwater fishing fan in both states. Its large population of good-sized smallmouth bass is part of the reason.
For Oregonians, the Powder River Arm is particularly popular, but anglers equipped with a boat might do well to move away from the busier ramps to find abundant rocky smallmouth habitat throughout this big waterway. The bass will tend to be in shallow water and often extra aggressive during the spring, around the spawn, and will attack lures with a vengeance. In the summer and fall, you’ll most likely find bigger bass holding in deeper water, where you can get after them with soft plastics, jigs and other lures.
This is huge water stretches through long impoundments formed behind giant hydroelectric dams. And it can be tough to fish both for its size and the wind that whips up most afternoons, but the shear numbers of smallmouth bass (and some very big ones) in the big river is incredible. A number of bass tourneys here attest to that.
Start at just about any launch on one of the reservoirs, also known as “pools.” These pools are, from downriver to upriver, formed by Bonneville, The Dalles, John Day and McNary dams.
Smallmouth bass will key on rocky structures, whether manmade riprap or natural rocks near shore or underwater. During the spring spawn, smallmouth will be in shallow water, so focus on shorelines. In the summer and fall, bass will move into deeper water and often be found behind rocks and points and other structures that allow them to stay out of the main current while they wait to ambush prey.
The mid-Columbia also has very good fishing for salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, shad and walleye.
John Day River
This is a famous smallmouth bass river, with a very dense population of small to mid-sized fish and a reasonable chance at a fish of 20 inches or more. The bigger fish can be caught all year but often are targeted close to the spring spawn. In the summer, catching 100 (even 200) smallmouth bass in a day is possible, but not without sore muscles.
The free-flowing section above Tumwater Falls offers tons of fishy water, although long sections are accessible only by drift boat or smaller craft. A seasonal permit is required. Bank access to this fishery is best between the communities of Spray and Kimberly, and on the North Fork up to Monument.
Below Tumwater Falls is a roughly 10-mile section known as the John Day Arm, where the Columbia backs up into the lower river due to the John Day Dam on the larger river. This area has less current and is more like reservoir fishing, but the population of smallmouth bass, channel catfish and other warmwater fish is good. This is mostly a boat fishery, with a launch at LePage Park just off Highway 84 at the mouth.
For detailed articles developed with the help of one of the John Day River’s best guides, including tips that will catch smallmouth bass anywhere, see:
This is an 80-mile-long reservoir south of Vale and Ontario and actually more popular with Idaho anglers than Oregonians. They know a good thing when they see it, since Owyhee not only has great smallmouth bass fishing, it also is very good for crappie, channel catfish and fair numbers of good-sized largemouth bass.
Most smallmouth anglers fish the lower half of the reservoir, starting at launches near the state park and dam, which fortunately are easier to reach than the remote upper end.
On average, the bass here are slightly smaller than on Brownlee Reservoir, but Owyhee’s location and size means you’ll have plenty of room to fish here, with lots of bass-holding structure around every bend.
This may sound like sacrilege to some, but to ODFW warmwater fish biologist Terry Shrader, the upper Owyhee River might just be as good or even better for smallmouth bass than the internationally known John Day River. The typical Owyhee fish is in the 10- to 13-inch range, whereas the John Day has loads of smaller fish. The John Day likely has more fish overall, and both rivers likely have similar numbers of trophy fish in the 20-inch range, Shrader said.
But don’t expect the Owyhee River above Owyhee Reservoir to displace the John Day in bass-fishing popularity. While the John Day is a comfortable half day’s drive from Portland, and has reasonably good access, the Owyhee is a half day’s drive past the middle of nowhere.
Then, once you get there, access to the river isn’t easy. The upper section is long and flows mostly through private property. The best way to fish it is on a whitewater raft trip from far-off Three Forks to Rome, or from Rome to the reservoir. (There also are channel catfish below Rome.) Each is about a four-day trip.
Go prepared. The upper float overall is easier water, but there is a rapid that can rate as high as Class V that could be deadly, depending on flow. Portaging around that one is the safer bet, but it’s no walk in the park. The float from Rome down to Leslie Gulch (in the upper reservoir) overall has more whitewater, but the biggest the rapids go is Class III and IV.
By the way, below the reservoir the Owyhee River has excellent fly fishing for brown and rainbow trout.
More Local Smallmouth Bass Fisheries:
- Hells Canyon Reservoir: There’s a pretty decent smallmouth fishery here, though not as good as the reservoirs above it.
- Oxbow Reservoir: Special rules limit the harvest, resulting in some good-sized smallmouth here, but overall fishing isn’t usually as good as it is in Brownlee Reservoir just upriver.
- Prineville Reservoir: Lots of smallmouth bass close to Central Oregon’s main cities, but they run small. See: Fishing at Prineville Reservoir.
- Snake River: Smallmouth bass are abundant in the river both above and below the reservoirs.