Smallmouth Fly Fishing on the Grande Ronde River
Bronzebacks of the Ronde
The Grande Ronde is easily my favorite river in the vicinity of Pullman.
The huge desert canyon it carves through Oregon and Washington is filled with wildlife, gorgeous water, and excellent fishing options through much of the year. The three primary species to target are smallmouth bass, resident redband rainbow trout, and the iconic inland steelhead. There are also whitefish, bull trout, and chinook salmon here (feel free to target the whitefish, but the bull trout and salmon need all the help they can get and should be left alone as much as possible).
This is the best target for beginners in the river. Assuming the Grande Ronde isn’t flooding (my usual cutoff for “fishable” is when the river is under 2,000 cfs as the gauging station in Troy), late May and early June are when you will catch the largest fish, the big pre-spawn females. They can be brutes. The largest I’ve seen was a 22” beast, and I’ve seen photos of bigger. As the summer progresses, more bass move into the river from the Snake, increasing numbers but decreasing the average size.
The most efficient way to fish smallmouth in this river is to drift it. Smallies love rocky cover and outcroppings, and will also be found in deep slow pools and pockets, overhanging brush, logjams, and generally anywhere they can use as an ambush point. The Ronde has a lot of long riffles and runs, which means there can be long distances between bass-holding water, so if you’re on foot be prepared for some hiking between likely spots. If you’re drifting, it’s a lot easier to throw your clouser in every little pocket between holes, and a lot less work to cover river miles too.
I specifically say “clouser” because as far as I’ve seen, there’s not a great reason to use much else for smallmouth here. They’re almost never selective about what they eat, and the seductive jigging action that Clouser Minnows naturally produce is almost irresistible for bass. Plus, the Ronde has a pretty grabby riverbed, so flies that ride hook-point-up will get hung up way less often. If you get tired of ripping streamers around, smallmouth are also fond of floating insects. Throwing around a hopper pattern, Madame X, Chernobyl Ant, or anything with lots of foam and wiggly legs can be fun. But day in and day out, don’t go looking for smallmouth in the Grande Ronde without a box full of Clouser Minnows in a variety of sizes and weights. Particularly effective color combinations are white/white, olive/white, chartreuse/white, and black/black. Expect hard hits, and dogged, extremely strong fights, especially if the bass have some current to use against you.
Catch and (Don't) Release
My usual caveat applies when fishing for smallmouth in the region. I’m a fish biologist by trade, and smallmouth are by all definitions an invasive species in the Columbia Basin, one that is causing serious damage to our battered salmon and steelhead runs. The reason the smallmouth fishing in the Ronde is so good is because they gorge themselves on baby salmon and steelhead, and every smallmouth swimming in the Ronde means hundreds of salmonids no longer are. For that reason, I implore you to remove as many of these fish from the water as you want (they’re really good on a grill, in case you’re wondering, and there’s no limit in Washington State at time of writing).
Bass are already here, so we might as well fish for them, but think twice before you put them back in the water. You’d be doing the Ronde a favor if you don’t. Just my two cents.
2 Indispensable Resources for Smallmouth Fly Fishing
By Mr. Clouser himself. This book can teach you all you need to know.
...but this one should definitely be in your library too.
The Main Beats
Troy, OR to Boggan’s Oasis, WA
After burning to the ground recently, Boggan’s Oasis has been fully rebuilt in all its former glory and is once again a major landmark on the Ronde. Most smallmouth fishing takes place downstream of Troy, though the odd bass is caught upstream from time to time. This section is the most easily-accessed on foot, as Grande Ronde River Road follows the river the entire length. Sampling new water is easy; fish a likely hole, hop in the car, drive to the next one you see, wash, rinse, repeat. Drifting is always going to produce more fish, but this section allows you to cover the most river miles by car, and skip a lot of the riffle water that smallmouth don’t generally favor. Conventional wisdom suggests that the higher upriver you go, the fewer bass you’ll find, so weight your efforts closer to Boggan’s. Good starting points are the huge, deep holes that form at the base of basalt cliffs. Just upstream of the old fish hatchery, in the vicinity of the river’s several primitive campsites, and around the Cougar Creek boat launch are good starting points.
Boggan’s to Shumaker Grade
This stretch is a beauty, and one of the standard steelhead beats, but there’s a lot of great bass water here too. You can reach the first few holes downstream of Boggan’s on foot, but the road ends abruptly and cliffs on both sides of the river make foot travel down from here impossible. Drifting is the only realistic option here, and if you do you will find plenty of big deep holes and rocky haunts for bass. The takeout for this drift is the bottom of Shumaker Grade, which can be accessed from Anatone on the plateau above the canyon. There’s a lot of driving involved in shuttling cars from the launch to the takeout, but the scenery, solitude, and great water character definitely make it worthwhile.
Shumaker Grade and Chief Joseph Wildlife Area (Shumaker Unit)
The area around Shumaker Grade is a great choice for anglers that want solitude and a great hike. The holding water is a bit widely spaced, but following Shumaker Grade to the river, then turning left to follow the rough dirt road downriver will dead end at Chief Joseph Wildlife Area’s Shumaker Unit. This large tract of public land extends for miles downriver, with a rough trail along the northern bank the whole way. Drifting here is an option if you’re committed to drifting all the way to the next takeout near the mouth of the Ronde.
That said, this is a great place to take in the Ronde on foot, walk as far as you want, and truly get a sense of the grandeur of the river. An hour’s walk will take you deep into a roadless section of the canyon, and the best water begins as the river makes a series of sharp S-bends. Where the river is forced up against the cliffs, perfect ambush holds for bass form, and this section is truly loaded with fish. If you fish thoroughly and at a variety of depths, most of the holes in this stretch will produce at least a few fish, on up to a dozen or more. This section marks the beginning of the true “Blue Ribbon” smallmouth water in the Ronde, which continues from here to the confluence with the Snake. Some rough camping is available in the vicinity of Chief Joseph, and grilling up the day’s catch while the sun sets over this wild section of river is a great way to end a summer’s day. Be aware that this area has a lot of rattlesnakes, so tread carefully.
The Blue Ribbon Stretch
Chief Joseph to Confluence
While drifting is the only realistic way to fish this stretch there are two major things to be considered:
1. It is a long drift. It's way more comfortable as a multi-day float, but still doable for a long single day float.
2. A raft is a way better choice for navigating this stretch than a drift boat. There is a section near the mouth known as The Narrows that funnels the river into a chute that can be hazardous at very low flows, and downright suicidal at very high flows (ideal is around 700 cfs). Make sure you scout the section with Google Earth before you go, and/or go with an experienced rower who has done it before.
Ye be warned...
This is the stretch of river that most people talk about when they mention smallmouth bass in the Grande Ronde. Drifting is the only realistic way to fish this section, as there are no road access points until the Snake River Road bridge near the Ronde’s mouth. The put in is at Shumaker Grade, and the best takeout is actually on the western bank of the Snake River downstream of where the Ronde joins the Snake. This stretch is marked by true desert scenery as the Ronde winds through steep canyon walls to its terminus. The rowing here isn’t overly tricky, but high water can push some of the rapids in this section into Class 3 territory.
Unlike the other stretches, there doesn’t seem to be as much of a gradient in terms of fish concentration. There are just smallmouth everywhere, top to bottom. Water that might have been skipped in stretches upriver are worth a shot here. The tradeoff is that there are usually more people here, and the ambiance feels a bit less like the rugged and wild Ronde that so many know and love. Still, if you’re after a body count, or you’re hosting a new angler with a short attention span, this is your stretch.
For outmigrating baby salmon and steelhead, this is The Gauntlet they must survive before they reach the Snake. The most productive patterns as a result are smolt imitations, and as usual, the almighty Clouser Minnow in olive and white is about as good as you can do. A lot of the smallmouth spawning activity takes place in this stretch too, so don’t ignore slow, shallow corners of tailouts and backwaters with lots of gravel, especially as the season progresses. Males with guard nests aggressively, so swinging a fly into their vicinity is a sure way to draw a strike. Again, don’t worry too much about disrupting spawning bass; there are so many that you can’t make much of a dent in the population, and you’ll only be doing generations of salmon and steelhead a favor.
If you don’t have a boat or raft, don’t despair. You can still get in on this stretch and enjoy the finest bass fishery the river has to offer, at least in the very lower portion. Access is down the Snake River on Snake River Road, which will take you right to a large gravel parking lot just downstream of the confluence (the takeout for drifters). From here, you can turn up the Ronde, and fish anywhere that you like along the road up to the bridge. There is also a road down the other side of the river that has plenty of pullouts and is worth some exploration. In addition to targeting individual likely lies and holes, swinging flies across tailouts and broader sections is a great tactic to make sure you cover water thoroughly. It’s hard to stack up the same numbers on foot, so fishing the water you have access to more thoroughly is a better strategy.
Don’t overlook the confluence itself while you’re here. There is often a marked difference in the water color between the Snake and the Ronde, and bass will use the murkier water of the Snake as a smokescreen for ambushing prey. The dropoff where the Ronde dumps into the Snake is another obvious choice; break out the sinking lines and heavily-weighted flies for this one. Towards the end of the summer into fall, this stretch will get increasingly crowded with steelhead anglers, so my favorite time to fish this water is right at the start of the season in late May or early June. Be ready get on your horse if you tie into a pre-spawn female. I’ve had several fights that started in the Ronde end in the Snake after being forced to chase them downriver like a steelhead!
No matter which section appeals to you, they all have something unique to offer and all hold bass. Smallmouth may be a disaster for salmonids, but at the end of the day they are fantastic, hard-fighting game fish, and there are few better places to chase them than the Grande Ronde.
Time to tie up a batch of clousers.