The Grande Ronde River in June offers the rare pleasure of hot fishing and no crowds — a treat that's savored as much by a fishing guide as it is by the average angler.
"This is the most relaxing guiding I do all year," said Clarkston, Wash.-based outfitter Toby Wyatt as he stashed an arsenal of spinning and fly-fishing rods along the gunnels of his driftboat.
River permits issued by the Bureau of Land Management are free, mandatory and self-serve at put-in points.
Services for anglers include:
"It's not just the smallmouth bass that I love. We could hook up to 100 good fish today if we tried hard, and yet we're not likely to see another angler in this 12-mile section of river."
The next eight hours on Monday from Schumaker Road downstream to the state take-out before the Snake River proved he knew what he was talking about.
The Grande Ronde can be a zoo of fishing pressure during the peak steelheading periods in fall and early spring — even in this stretch, which has little public road access.
But after the crowds and steelhead run have faded and the runoff subsides, the bass emerge from their doldrums in June willing to fill the void for anglers.
"There are rivers with bigger smallmouth, but it's hard to beat the Ronde for average size," Wyatt said after Tri-Cities angler Jeff Holmes reeled in a pair of 2-pounders in three casts with an eighth-ounce, motor-oil-colored tube bait.
Wyatt normally focuses on "drive-by fishing." He maneuvers the moving drift boat so clients have easy casts to countless pockets where smallies hold along shore or cliffs, behind boulders, in eddies and their favorite lairs along current seams.
But on Monday, at the request of his two anglers, Wyatt anchored occasionally in back eddies and sloughs to join in the casting.
"I'll take quality over quantity anytime," he said after immediately catching and releasing a smallie over 18 inches.
Wildlife along the river banks seemed to emphasize his point that June is a quality month for float-fishing the Ronde. Instead of running, wild turkeys gobbled at his boat. The casting seemed to entertain a river otter. A bald eagle chick perched beside its nest in a ponderosa pine above the water.
Three big mule deer bucks resting under a riverside shade tree didn't get up as the boat drifted by.
"The other great part of this fishery is that you don't have a motor buzzing in your ear all day, Wyatt said, noting that he leaves his trolling motor at home and jet boats are forced off the river most of the year either by Asotin County laws or by low flows that leave the rocky riffles too thin on water for sleds.
"All we'll hear today is the sounds of the river, the birds and fishing."
The loudest of the river sounds is the roar of whitewater through a notorious bend of rapids 5 miles upstream from the confluence with the Snake. The Narrows — rated Class 3 to Class 4 depending on water levels — are the most difficult rapids on the entire 91 miles of prime rafting flows from Minam, Ore., down the Wallowa to the Grande Ronde and out to the Snake at Heller Bar.
"The Narrows are the limiting factor for a lot of fishermen, and part of the reason we didn't see anyone fishing today," Wyatt said. He was able to slip to the side of the tallest waves in his 20-foot driftboat and easily negotiate the rapids at flows of 4,800 cubic feet per second.
"A few people didn't make it," he said, noting two memorial crosses are staked out along the stretch.
"There's something new," he said, pointing to a recently swamped aluminum drift, its bow barely showing above the water where it was sunk in the rocks just below The Narrows.
Flows of 2,000 to 4,800 cfs might be the best for general anglers in terms of fishing and surviving the Schumaker-Heller Bar stretch in their own boats, he said.
"I learned through trial and error and a couple of boat upgrades," he said.
At one point around 11 a.m., the fishing just above The Narrows had been so hot, the anglers expected to hook a fish on every cast into appropriate water.
Curly-tailed jigs were deadly and virtually any color seemed to work, from salt-and-pepper to a green-bodied, yellowhead jig resembling a Green Bay Packers mascot.
Fly fishing was productive, too, especially with a sink-tip line. An olive bead-head streamer with a yellow tail and rubber legs worked well. Poppers will be more productive as the water drops and warms a bit, Wyatt said.
Sometime in July, the larger smallmouth will get harder to find.
"Some of them go out into the Snake," Wyatt said. "But I've snorkeled the Grande Ronde, and I can tell you that every deep hole in summer holds big bass.
"When you could fish bait, those fish were easier to catch. Now, with the selective-gear rules (bait prohibited; single barbless hooks required) they're harder to catch, so a lot of anglers don't think the bass are there."
Below The Narrows, the river becomes accessible by the road up from the Snake. Four anglers were fishing from the bank — the first competition of the day for angling water.
"The (five miles of the) Grande Ronde from The Narrows down to the Snake has excellent public access," Wyatt said.
Nevertheless, the fishing remained good, even though Washington has dropped fishing limits for smallmouth in the Columbia River and its tributaries to help give more protection to juvenile endangered salmon and steelhead.
"But most bass fishermen catch and release," he said. "So I don't see the new liberal rules having a big impact on the bass fishery. I'm keeping a few smaller ones today because my dad will enjoy eating them, and I can use the skins for sturgeon bait."
Not far below the Grande Ronde Bridge and along the public road just two miles upstream from the Snake, Wyatt landed the largest bass of the day. The beefy, 21.5-inch smallmouth put his 7-foot rod to the test, and earned him high-fives after the release.
"This is the most heavily fished section of the river, and look what you can find," he said. "This is awesome.
"But the best part is a good day of fishing on a river with nobody on it. I've worked eight hours and I feel like a new man."