Sunday, February 15, 2015

Small water crafts for Bass in the Willamette Valley

Russell "Frogman" Wright holds some green chrome caught from his float tube near the Willamette River
Some of the most versatile water-crafts in the realm of the bass angler are not shiny, glitter coated nitro boats, built for reaching speeds suitable for bootlegging and outrunning the Sheriff on the river. These boats serve their purpose for tournament anglers trying to make wiegh-in. They aren't the most practical watercraft for ponds, smaller lakes, or areas where gas motors are prohibited. Canoes, kayaks, pontoon rafts and float tubes all serve a unique purpose to fit different applications.

I've paddled many friends into fish with
my big green canoe. Like this largemouth
caught from Freeway Lakes near Albany, OR.
 (Photo by the Author)
Canoes are a little more on the bulky end of small watercrafts. An advantage to canoes is their versatility. You can apply them to almost any kind of water. While some of the larger canoes made of polyethylene are extremely durable, they're also heavy and awkwardly long, requiring at least two people to load and unload it from the roof rack of a vehicle. Hauling them a long distance by foot is something you'll have decide on with your fishing buddy for the day. Many of the larger models are designed with a flat stern so a trolling motor can be attached. You'll have to check your local regulations about registering the boat if you decide to use one. Most places will require you to have a floatation device and a paddle on board as well. It's generally a good idea to use the paddles as much as possible. A little elbow grease goes a long way to push through the water with ease, and you have more control over starting, stopping, and quietly stalking bass. You'll only get so much battery life out of using the motor, so try to reserve it for when you're jetting across the lake. Don't pull your lines out of the water either. I've hooked many bass trolling spinnerbaits slowly over deep shelves. If you are looking for an alternative that would make a better potential solo boat, reduce the length and look for something with a much lighter fiberglass hull. Shorter canoes will also be more maneuverable, not just because of their turning radius, but because they will be swayed less by winds and current. You should keep in mind that these crafts are tipsy, and easy to get swamped with water or even sink if you aren't careful enough. Avoid taking them through narrow chutes on small rivers. The length of these boats makes it dangerous to squeeze through if you're not lined up correctly.

Kayaks are not much different than canoes, but are better suited for currents in streams, creeks and rivers. The cargo holds will keep your gear not only dry, but intact when navigating areas where canoes are likely to cause disasters. A low center of gravity will allow you to turn the bow into chutes and direct the boat where it needs to be while drifting downstream. There's a wide varitey of kayak models. The sit-in kayaks will take on water without a skirt, so some anglers just prefer sit-on models, some of which you can stand on like a paddleboard with some balance and experience. Foot propulsion is luxury that will allow you to be hands-free fishing and not consumed with positioning the boat. The low-profile of the boat will allow you to reach areas you might not be able to access by a canoe or a johnboat. Maintaining your balance while casting and setting the hook also takes some patience.

Pontoon Rafts are also better suited for currents in streams, creeks and rivers. You're not likely to sink your vessel, and if your gear is tied down well enough, your belongings should be secure when taking rapids. They're more similar to navigating a drift boat, and their wide base makes them a little
Shane Elkinton shooting through Smith Ferry Rapids on the Umpqua.
Note that he is wearing a life preserver.
(photo taken by Wyman Gast)
more stable than a canoe or kayak. While they take up space in width, they are also easily maneuverable because of their length. If you plan on spending a lot of time on the water, you'll probably be a lot more comfortable in a pontoon than cramping into a kayak or being hunched over in a canoe. Pontoons are lightweight and easy to carry over shallow areas where you may have to portage. Another attractive element to pontoons is that they can be deflated and broken down to fit in most vehicles, and don't require a trailer or tie-downs to strap it to the roof rack. Some models are also built with a flat stern to mount a trolling motor, with the battery fitted in a basket behind the seat. You'll likely have to adjust to having the extra weight in the rear of the boat if you decide to mount a motor. An anchor pulley system is pretty standard on most models. Using the anchor will allow you to fish from a stationary position while in a current that would otherwise cause the craft to drift. It's always a good idea to have spare parts on board. A spare oar, oar locks, and patch kit are essential. Be aware when navigating strong currents, that even with the stability from the wide base, they are not immune to tipping if you snag a boulder and high side the craft.

The author with his first smallmouth from a float tube
The float tube is not a glamorous accessory. It's appearance resembles more of something you'd see summer sunbathers lounging in while being carried downstream by the current. You are essentially wearing a spare tire with waders and flippers. Make sure when purchasing flippers that you get the kind that cover your entire foot. Flippers that have straps on the back and an open heel will quickly wear through the neoprene in your waders. You may look ridiculous waddling to the water's edge, but it is a valuable addition to any fleet for anglers in search of the Pacific Northwest's "green chrome." While there are limited applications for float tubing, there are many times they can be the only viable option to exploring water where gas motors are not allowed and larger boats aren't practical to drag
around. Float tubes should be dried out, deflated and put away in a storage container so they aren't damaged when not in use. A bonus is that a float tube is a watercraft that will fit in the trunk of any car. They also provide an element of stealth that is difficult to match with other watercraft. There's even a special connection to having your feet in the water that is un-explainable. Unfortunately, you will have to exert a maximum amount of energy to create a minimal amount of movement, so it's best to plan trips in calm waters by avoiding windy days and currents. Long excursions may require a headlamp to get to the good water at dawn or in case it takes you longer to get back than you expected. Be prepared with a patch kit on board so you're not left stranded in the water.

There's lots of water to explore from small crafts. Freeway Lakes in Albany is a series of stocked trout ponds that also hold warmwater species. It's a short walk from the car to the water, and a canoe or kayak will allow you to move quickly between 3 separate bodies of water that are connected by two canals underneath bridges, one of which is directly underneath I-5, hence the name. The smaller lakes are where the rainbow trout are stocked, but the largest lake holds the most bass. Due to the prevalence of weeds, and the narrow corridor between each lake, a canoe is a perfect craft for this water. Pitching worms into woody debris will produce fish early in the year. Later in the summer, the weedbeds will grow to the surface and frogs will produce topwater strikes. A canoe or kayak will glide over tall weeds with ease.

The Willamette Greenway near Corvallis is another series of quarry ponds that provide opportunities for bass and other warmwater species. The lakes are separated by land barriers, but overflow into each other during flood levels on the Willamette River. Largemouth will go for plastic worms, jigs or bluegill & yellow perch pattern baits. A lighter canoe or a kayak with a wheel cart will expand your accessibility to areas that don't receive as much fishing pressure, but it's a hike to the water from the parking area. It's also uphill on the way back, so that's something to keep in mind.

The Umpqua is known for steelhead, salmon and ice cream, but also hosts one of the more prominent smallmouth bass fisheries in the state. While the size range is generally lower, smallmouth are in abundance, commonly providing anglers with 100+ fish days. Any number of smolt-imitating patterns will draw strikes. The South Umpqua and mainstem support the greater populations of smallmouth due to warmer water temperatures. The mainstem fishes best in late summer through early fall, depending on rainfall and water temperature. A pontoon is better suited for floating over shallow riffles, through rapids and anchoring down in swift currents on the Umpqua. Be sure to research and map out the areas you intend to float based upon the comfort of your boating skill level.

Olalla Lake near the coast prohibits gas motors, and is host to many small craft anglers and pleasure boaters. Any small craft should be able to get you from the bank into a number of sloughs that contain bass, but the sheer size of the lake makes float tubing a lot more trouble than it's worth. It's common for high winds to push across the center of the lake, so stick close to the shorelines to travel more efficiently. This lake has a large population of yellow perch and is also stocked with rainbow trout, so the bass have ample food sources.

Cheadle lake in Lebanon provides good early pre-spawn fishing, but also sees it's fair share of anglers due to it's easy bank access. Much like many of the small lakes in the valley, as the water level recedes, the days get longer, the sun shines brighter, and the weeds grow taller. Using a canoe, pontoon or kayak to access areas of the lake with less fishing pressure can produce results. You'll be able to glide over weedbeds to other areas of the lake. Float tubing in thick weeds is a good way to
lose a flipper and get stranded, so it's best to stick to a water-craft with a low profile that sits high in the water. The gate to the inner parking area is also locked at dark, so it's best to launch close to the water and move your vehicle outside the gate if you plan to fish until sundown.
Many lakes known for pleasure boating also provide good opportunities for bass fishing from small crafts. Foster, Dorena and Cottage Grove lakes are popular with skiers and wakeboarders, but they don't normally show up until later in the summer. These lakes can provide great early pre-spawn conditions with very little boat traffic earlier in the spring.

Of course, many of these small water-crafts can be used in a number of applications on different bodies of water. Choosing the right craft for each application can be vital to creating a successful and comfortable day of fishing. Having a complete arsenal of small water-crafts can expand your number of fishing opportunities, however, if you don't have that luxury, learn what types of water your small craft is best suited for, and focus on dialing in the best techniques for that piece of water. These creatures grow older and wiser to the wide range of angling tactics, so accessing water that receives very little fishing pressure will greatly improve your chances of catching more and bigger bass. Simply putting into the water and quietly moving through untouched or rarely fished areas can be rewarding in itself.

Special thanks to Shane Elkinton for his contributions on this article. You can view his blog here:

This article was published by the Good Men Project on May 3rd, 2015

This article also appeared in the April 2015 issue of Northwest Sportsman Magazine
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