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  Great Washington Getaways Home  |  Columbia River below McNary Dam
Photo: Steelhead salmon
One of the most diverse fisheries in the state, the mid-Columbia River provides opportunities to catch smallmouth bass , walleye, salmon and steelhead (above).
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  Plymouth Park
  Crow Butte Park
  Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau
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Mid-Columbia River smorgasbord:
McNary Dam to Crow Butte Park
The Columbia River below McNary Dam is big water flanked by sloughs and dotted by islands. The long section of the impounded Columbia between McNary and John Day dams is sometimes referred to as the John Day Pool or Lake Umatilla. In this part of south-central Washington, the river is an oasis of life in a sun-drenched landscape marked by vast agricultural lands that include some of Washington’s finest wineries and most productive agricultural lands.

The upper reaches of the John Day Pool itself – the stretch of river extending upstream from Crow Butte Park to McNary Dam – has one of our state’s best and most diverse fisheries and is remarkable in summer for its excellent walleye and smallmouth bass fishing. Waves of summer salmon, steelhead, and shad also stream past, offering opportunities to split time between coldwater and warmwater species in an uncrowded and sun-drenched summer fishing and camping playground.

The Army Corps of Engineers’ Plymouth Park and Port of Benton’s Crow Butte Park offer nice tent and RV camping opportunities in key fishing locations, and the Tri-Cities is an hour or less from any location along this fun and productive stretch of river. For more information on the region’s lodging and vacation attractions, check the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau.

Trophy-size walleye and lots of bass

The McNary-to-Crow Butte fishery is popular year round, but it’s an especially family-friendly place during summer when hot temperatures ignite the warmwater fish bite and humans’ desire to cool off. Families on summer camping, fishing, and watersports vacations can score fat walleye fillets in the mornings and evenings and can swim and chase smallmouth during the day in their deepwater summer haunts. Both species are in abundance here.

This area may not have as many walleye as Potholes Reservoir or Moses Lake–both well-known walleye producing powerhouses–but the fish tend to be much bigger on average. Several fish weighing over 18 pounds have been caught in the Tri-Cities area in recent years, including the 20.3 pound state record in 2014, and the previous 19.3 pound previous state record in 2007. In fact, the entire stretch from the Snake River downstream to McNary Dam and beyond to Crow Butte is well-known trophy territory, producing good numbers of walleye over 10 pounds and lots of 2- to 7-pound fish that produce higher quality fillets than the big females. Many walleye diehards and tournament anglers catch and release large females (fish over 7 pounds) to conserve the resource while in search of Washington’s next state record.

Smallmouth bass are tasty but are released more often than not due to an absolute catch-and-release ethic in much of the bass‑angling community. This is not so for walleyes, and not because of their numbers or a lack of catch-and-release ethic among their pursuers. Many regard walleye as the finest-eating freshwater gamefish; for some, they’re just too good to release.

Feel the Hot Lips bite

During summer, it’s the depths of the main river channel that hold fish, not the seemingly fishy shoreline structure. As high waters subside, usually in June, smallmouth go deep and frequent mid-river bars, humps, and rock piles. Channel and bar markers often reveal these features. Contrary to popular summertime bassin’ practices elsewhere, the best way to target these healthy-sized bass is to troll deep for them.

You too can experience what the locals call the “Hot Lips” bite, named after a very popular and effective lure. During this time, trolling crankbaits on or very near the bottom works great for walleye and smallmouth. The bass run slightly deeper than the walleye, although the two are often caught together. By using small-diameter braided lines in 8- to 12-pound tests and deep-diving crankbaits trolled fast – both upstream and down – trollers can get crankbaits on the bottom where they need to be to catch both species. The key is to cover lots of water in and around structure in the main channel from depths of 18 to 45 feet, looking for humps, bars, and other underwater structure than might hold fish.

Salmon and steelhead also available… if you use barbless hooks

Photo: Woman and boat holding Chinook salmon caught while fishing the Columbia Rive.
A nice Chinook caught on the Columbia River. Photo by Dennis Dauble.

At no time during the year is fishing for these warmwater fish more straightforward or the supply more bountiful than in summer. There is also the chance of catching Chinook salmon and steelhead, especially at the mouth of Oregon’s Umatilla River, the “green can” buoy above Plymouth, and the edges of the main river channel below McNary on the south side of the river.

Walleye and smallmouth prefer bright and flashy colors such as chartreuses, oranges, yellows, reds, and greens. Metallic greens are especially good when prospecting for both warmwater and anadromous species, although salmon and steelhead will sometimes attack any plug that rattles and wobbles in front of them.

If you enjoy barbecued salmon and steelhead, make sure you are in a position to legally retain them. Many walleye and smallmouth anglers in this stretch have been surprised by catching a beautiful salmonid. Barbless hooks are required when fishing for salmon and steelhead, and anglers should always check the fishing regulations before hitting the water.

Try bottom-walking with a worm harness

Photo: Walleye caught on the Columbia River, Washington.
A nice walleye caught on the Columbia River. Photo byJeff Holmes

For anglers who prefer to jig and blade bait, the aforementioned colors are effective, as are silver blades. Blade baits are thin, fluttering metal blades that are vertically jigged to imitate baitfish. The tried-and-true method of using bottom walkers to troll spinners in front of worm harnesses works year-round and is also very popular.

Bottom walkers are weighted trolling devices that allow anglers to drag their lures behind them while contacting the bottom with little fear of snagging. Worm harnesses are comprised of two hooks spaced a few inches apart to allow anglers to hook a nightcrawler’s head on the front hook and the middle of its body on the second hook. The result is a long, straight nightcrawler that flutters behind a spinner blade when trolled.

Salmon and steelhead will sometimes attack these offerings, too, as will migratory shad, which show up in this stretch beginning in early June and continuing through mid-July. One of the beauties of fishing in this productive stretch of the Columbia River during summer is you never know what you’re going to catch.