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Fly Fishing the Snake River's Palouse Backwaters

Updated on January 8, 2019
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CS is an lifelong, obsessive fly fisherman who is forced to work as a fish biologist and conservationist in Pullman, Washington (Go Cougs!).

Backwater "Snake Lakes" Offer Some of the Best Fly Fishing in the Palouse

Snake River Backwaters

Season: March-October

Species: Bass, Panfish, Carp

Difficulty: Easy, great for kids and beginners


Not exactly a secret, the mighty Snake carves its impressive canyon through the Palouse and is the largest water course in the area. The problem this river is that fish aren’t evenly distributed and much of the shoreline looks the same, so anglers new to the area usually spend way too much time blind casting along unproductive shoreline.

The key to success in the Snake (especially if you’re on foot) is to seek out its protected backwaters. These areas warm the fastest in the spring, offer shelter from the main river’s currents, and bring a wide variety of species within easy reach of anglers. These backwaters are a great option for all levels of anglers, as the species diversity allows fly fishers to target the challenge level they want on a given day.

Pumpkinseed sunfish are plentiful in these backwaters, and great fun for kids and beginning anglers
Pumpkinseed sunfish are plentiful in these backwaters, and great fun for kids and beginning anglers

Wawawai Road leaves Pullman and goes directly down to the Snake, and runs along the river all the way to Lewiston. Along that road are several productive spots, most notably Wawawai Park, the mouth of Steptoe Canyon, and the ponds across the road from Blyton Landing. If you have access to a boat, there are great backwaters and pockets along the opposite shore, particularly the mouth of Truax Canyon (just upstream from Wawawai Park).

One of the larger backwaters is at the mouth of Deadman Creek, where Hwy 127 crosses the Snake south of Dusty, and is a particular favorite of mine for smallmouth and carp. Also worth an evening are Boyer Marina, the mouth of Alpoa Creek on the Clarkston side of the river, and Swallows Park upstream from Lewiston.

The fishing will vary with time of year, but the season generally starts around mid-late April when the smallmouth bass get ready to spawn. Big pre-spawn females move in first to build nests and lay eggs, and the males stick around through early summer to guard the nests. Smallmouth fishing is at its best in May and early June, when mature fish crowd into these warm backwaters and are aggressively feeding and defending nests. Clouser Minnows are the gold standard here, with chartreuse, black, white, and olive/white* combos being the most effective. Other streamers such as Wooly Buggers, sculpin patterns, and leeches can be great too. Fish along the bottom and near structure and rocks, and you will often be rewarded with hard takes and tough fights.

Catch and (don't) Release

The olive/white clouser combo is deadly in the earlier part of the season as it imitates young salmon and steelhead migrating to the ocean, and smallmouth bass are voracious predators of these imperiled fish. For this reason, there is currently no limit on smallmouth bass in Washington, and talk of a bounty program in the future. Feel free to keep as many smallmouth as you want; every smallmouth removed from the river means more returning steelhead and salmon.

The larger backwaters are also home to species more often associated with warmwater lakes. In a typical summer night in Wawawai Park, an angler armed with an assortment of nymphs, small streamers, and wet flies can expect to catch bluegill, pumpkinseed, crappie, smallmouth and largemouth bass, and even an occasional bullhead catfish. This is the best option for less experienced fly casters, as these panfish are plentiful, forgiving, and a lot of fun on light tackle. Throw almost any small, colorful pattern towards the reedbeds and strip it back, and you can catch as many palm-sized panfish as you want. Patterns such as Dead Chicken, Carey Special, or any other small wet hackle or nymph with lots of rubber legs and movement are my favorites, but even dry flies can work well here.

For anglers looking for an (often maddening) challenge, these backwaters are all home to lots of carp, and you will likely see them sunning themselves just below the surface. During much of the day, sunning carp are way more interested in sunbathing than eating, but towards dawn and dusk, it’s a different story. Carp will cruise the warm shallows, pausing to root out nymphs, crayfish, worms, mussels, and leeches when the mood strikes them. When they do, a mud boil will often be visible on the surface. Target these feeding boils with dragonfly or damselfly nymph patterns, unweighted wooly worms, or my favorite, tan San Juan or chamois worms. Dropping these patterns in front of slow-cruising fish can as productive or better, if you can land it softly. Just remember the cardinal rules of carp fly fishing: move the fly slowly, and make it as easy as possible for the carp to eat your fly. Time your cast so that your fly sinks right in front of their nose and MAYBE, just maybe, they will treat you to a dogged, bruising fight (carp here routinely top 20 lbs, 8 weight fly rods are recommended!).

The author's buddy with a nice bass from Secret Backwater #2
The author's buddy with a nice bass from Secret Backwater #2

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