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  Great Washington Getaways Home  |  Grande Ronde
The Grande Ronde River
Even experienced whitewater experts smile with relief after running the Grande Ronde’s most formidable rapid, “The Narrows,” located about three miles from the confluence with the Snake River. This Class IV rapid is easily avoided, and only expert rowers and those enjoying guided trips with experts should run the cataract. The 21 miles of river from the Washington Oregon state line to the Shumaker Wildlife Area is marked by gentle class I and II whitewater. Photo by Jeff Holmes
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Hells Canyon Country in Washington:
Grande Ronde River bass and trout
Tucked away in Washington’s extreme southeast corner, almost 500 miles from the ocean, the Grande Ronde River offers recreation opportunities throughout the year. From September to early April, it’s one of the state’s finest and most famous steelhead streams. But in the summer, the river turns into a smallmouth bass, rainbow trout and channel catfish fishery to behold.

And those are only the fishing highlights. Opportunities also abound for families to float, swim, mountain bike, hike, hunt, and watch abundant wildlife at multiple access points along the river, including state wildlife areas and boat launches. See WDFW’s Grande Ronde corridor public recreation maps (at bottom) and the US. Bureau of Land Management website for details on the Grand Ronde River and permit requirements for rafts and drift boats using the river. Camping opportunities are numerous in the cool comfort of the surrounding Blue Mountains in the Umatilla National Forest, at Fields Spring State Park  and on public land along the river. A range of accommodations can be found in Asotin County, especially in the Clarkston area, or at Boggan’s Oasis (river crossing at Hwy 129), and along the Snake River Road. For more, see the Hells Canyon Visitor Bureau.

Forty miles of beauty – and fine bass fishing

“The Ronde” snakes a serpentine path for almost 40 miles from the Oregon border to its confluence with the Snake River at Heller Bar, what most consider the entrance to Hells Canyon, the deepest gorge in North America. Migratory smallmouth bass from the Snake, including occasional brutes to 7 pounds, make their spawning run into the Grande Ronde as floodwaters recede and water temperatures rise in early June. Big numbers of the bass remain in the Ronde throughout summer, until cooling waters push them to their wintering holes on the Snake.

Bass fishing
This 21.5-inch smallmouth gobbled a 3 inch curly-tailed grub in “smoke” color.  Photo by Jeff Holmes

Smallmouth are voracious biters and fighters. They eat mostly crayfish, minnows and salmonid smolts, and prowl for food actively early in the morning and in the evening during the heat of summer. They can also be caught all day in deeper pools, back eddies, and deep current seams. Effective crayfish-imitating lures include tube jigs, curl-tail grubs, and crankbaits in shades of brown, green, and black. Pumpkinseed, watermelon, smoke, and salt-and-pepper are river favorites. Good minnow imitations include fluke-tailed grubs, Senkos, floating and sinking minnows, and spinners. During summer, the river falls under selective-gear fishery regulations, and all lures must be fitted with single barbless hooks.

As always, be sure to consult the Fish Washington pamphlet for regulations and details on fishing opportunities throughout the year.  

The Grande Ronde’s rocks provide habitat for bass and their prey, but are unforgiving to anglers’ lures. Fish carefully, and sharpen hooks often. Similarly, be cautious to avoid poison ivy and (usually) docile Western diamondback rattlesnakes. Both are easily sidestepped.

Trout fishing peaks in early summer

From June to mid-July, the Grande Ronde is an excellent rainbow trout fishery for spin and fly anglers alike, producing good catches of 10- to 18-inch fish until river temperatures shut down trout fishing in late summer, when the water climbs toward or above 70 degrees – perfect for humans and smallmouth, lousy for trout.

Bass Fishing
An angler lifts his fly rod high to leverage a 15 inch smallmouth bass into an awaiting net. June and early to mid-July are the best times to float large drift boats in the Grande Ronde; rubber rafts and pontoons become better options as flows drop and expose rocks. Shore fishing opportunities exist along miles of river accessible by vehicles. Photo by Jeff Holmes

Some of the rainbows anglers encounter in early summer are hatchery steelhead smolts, which are prolific and easy to catch after their April release from WDFW’s famous Cottonwood Creek rearing facility, about 4.5 miles upstream of the Highway 129 bridge, or from upstream Oregon hatchery programs. But the river's beefier rainbows are the notoriously hard-fighting redbands, which frequently run 14 to 18 inches with the average closer to 12. Grande Ronde trout are suckers for spinners, spoons, and small jigs, as are the river’s bass. Similarly, trout often grab gear intended for smallmouth, allowing anglers to catch both species in the same day, often in the same hole.

Fly anglers start to show up in numbers in late summer as early-arriving steelhead first nose into the river, but fly fishing is good all summer for bass and most of the summer for trout. Excellent flies include Woolly Buggers, Bunny Leeches, Muddler Minnows, Zonkers, and anything imitating a crayfish or a sculpin. For trout, these streamer patterns work too, but best results come on Prince Nymphs, stonefly nymphs, Copper Johns, caddis pupae, hopper patterns and golden stonefly dries.

Bighorn sheep
Public Recreation Access of the west section of the Grande Ronde River
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Public Recreation Access of the east section of the Grande Ronde River
Click to enlarge
Bighorn sheep
Bighorn sheep are commonly seen on the banks of the Grande Ronde and on the steep slopes and cliffs above the river. 
Photo by Jeff Holmes