The Umpqua River in southwestern Oregon is widely considered to be among the best smallmouth bass fishing streams in the world.
The river is easy to reach and access is plentiful for much of the water between the forks outside Roseburg, near Interstate 5, down to the mouth at Reedsport.
On a warm summer day, a reasonably capable angler can catch and release more than 100 bass.
But the Umpqua also shines in the early season, when catching shear numbers is difficult – some days it’s tough to get any – but this is when landing really big bronzebacks of 20 inches or more is a better possibility.
The Umpqua, in ODFW’s Southwest Zone, is open for bass angling all year. Natural bait is allowed in the main river but prohibited in tributaries outside the tidewater zone.
ODFW removed all size and number limits on bass in 2016. However, many anglers let the larger bass go and Harrington’s smallmouth bass trips are all catch-and-release.
Consult the current Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations booklet for various bag limits and angling rules for other species.
Know Before You Go
Check the river level with the link on this page. Spring smallmouth bass fishing is best when the river is running between 5 and 8½ feet.
When to Catch Big Bass
Harrington starts his spring smallmouth fishing in March, typically when the water temperature rises to 45 to 47 degrees, when the large female bass move into spawning areas.
Fishing is best when water temperatures are stable or rising.
While the approaches change through spring, early season techniques are most effective until about mid-June, when the fishing gets crazier but the average size dips.
Where to Catch Early Season Smallmouth Bass
In the spring, it’s essential that anglers look for flat water that is 5 to 10 feet deep.
Keep searching these areas until you find aggressive bass.
Don’t bother fishing for bass in current at this time. When the river is running higher, there will be less flat water, but the bass will be concentrated in water that remains calm at bigger flows.
Water color is only an issue in bass fishing if it’s clear. “Then you have to stay off them and make longer casts,” Harrington said.
Smallmouth are numerous from about Brandy Bar in the tidewater zone of the lower river up to the forks northwest of Roseburg and up into the South Fork Umpqua.
Access is easy to find on much of the Umpqua. Look for parks, bridges, boat ramps and other public rights-of-way to gain access to the river.
Once on the bank, walking below the normal high-water mark is allowed.
How to Catch Springtime Smallmouth Bass
Fishing in March
The pre-spawn period on the Umpqua is roughly March and April, depending on water temperature. Once females get into that pre-spawn mentality, they are pretty easy targets.
“Anything that comes into their area, they eat it or kill it,” Harrington said.
In March, he takes advantage of that attitude by pitching crankbaits, which draw vicious strikes from the most aggressive fish.
Also, if you prefer crankbait fishing, this also is the time to get your fix because thick moss makes will goop your hooks once the warmer weather sets in.
Early on, while seeking out bass, Harrington likes blunt-built plugs with a tight wiggle on the retrieve. Luhr Jensen’s Speed Trap is a great choice, in either size. Effective colors include oranges and reds, while chartreuse works well in stained water.
Once he locates bass with a crankbait and picks off the most aggressive ones, Harrington switches to one of Gary Yamamoto’s Senko Worms, usually a 5-inch version in natural colors.
These soft baits target the more lethargic fish that also are likely to be holding in promising water.
He either “dead-sticks” Senkos by tossing them into the target area and letting them sink without motion, or he’ll add only a slight twitch.
“When the water’s cold, less is more when it comes to action,” he said.
While the bass hook themselves when smashing crankbaits, they tend to carry off the Senkos.
When fishing these soft plastic lures, never set the hook. This is tough to train yourself to do, but when you feel motion on the end of your line, simply lift the rod tip and reel in quickly.
Usually with the rod lift, a bass naturally will suck in the lure and get hooked.
Fishing in April
Harrington still uses crankbaits as the pre-spawn period progresses, but at this time the numbers of smolts migrating downstream increases and spinnerbaits and jerkbaits are a great addition to the arsenal.
Continue fishing these lures in flat-water areas.
For spinnerbaits, any brand or blade type will do, with white and chartreuse the top colors. Use a retrieve that’s steady at a slow to medium speed.
Lucky Craft’s Pointer series of plugs is high on Harrington’s list for favorite jerkbait lures, which closely resemble smaller fish. Rapala’s X-Rap is another good choice in this class.
Retrieve jerkbaits with a more erratic retrieve, jerking and pausing as your bring it back, imitating a wounded or fleeing minnow.
Fishing Late April Through May
Sometime in mid-spring, depending on conditions, the females will be on the nest for about a week before moving off.
Once the females move off the nest, they seem to almost disappear and are very difficult to catch for a couple weeks as they recover from spawning. Then they will begin to feed again.
Once the females leave the nest, the males take over guard duty, and for three to four weeks they are extremely susceptible to several fishing methods.
The nests are easy to spot. They appear as circles about the size of Frisbees and are darker than the surrounding river bottom.
If you can hit the circle, you can catch male bass (sometimes the same bass repeatedly).
Harrington often will drop a Senko into the nest.
Or try any type of jig – jig and pig, hair jig, plastics, lizards, snakes … it almost doesn’t matter.
White is a great color for sight-fishing because it’s highly visible and once it disappears, you know a bass has picked it up.
Also at this time of the year, crankbaits are still an option, even the occasional topwater lure. Also, fluke, grub and tube baits all can be effective in the late spring and going on into June.
If All Else Fails
Once the water hits about 52 degrees, typically into May, Harrington’s absolute favorite way to fish for smallmouth is with 5-inch fluke baits, such as Herb Reed’s Slug-Go or similar soft lure.
Again, white is a great color because it’s highly visible to the angler and to the smallmouth it resembles an intruding and possibly tasty small fish.
Work your fluke in a jerking motion, back-and-forth, “walking the dog” either right on or just below the surface, over the heads of bass protecting their nests.
It seems few self-respecting bass can let that fluke pass without attacking.
“It’s just the best,” Harrington said.
Guide Todd Harrington has guided on the Umpqua River since 1998, primarily through his Living Waters Guide Service. Harrington offers catch-and-release trips for smallmouth bass from March through November and also guides clients after salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, shad and striped bass.