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Bass barrage

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Darrell Moore says there’s a trick to catching more than your share of smallmouth bass on Oregon’s Umpqua River, but doing so simply turns a good fishing day into a great one.

“You can catch them on a bare hook, but you need to learn the twitch,” says Moore, owner of Elkton Outfitters and a veteran smallmouth guide.

Flip out a white plastic bait called a fluke, then twitch it quickly and randomly to imitate a juvenile shad, one of an Umpqua smallmouth’s main foods. Make it dart just right and chances are you can’t reel it back to the boat without a bass grabbing it.

“Twitch, pause. Twitch, pause,” Moore says. “You don’t want them to have a chance to think about it. Just to grab it.

“Once you get the twitch down, you’ll catch five to 10 times more smallmouth,” he says.

Even a bad twitch can still lead to good days of bass fishing on the mainstem Umpqua, a fishery that lives a true yin and yang existence on what otherwise is perhaps Oregon’s most storied wild steelhead fishery invaded by nonnative smallmouth.

The Umpqua was made famous by writer Zane Grey’s near poetic waxings on wild steelhead mainly in the North Umpqua upstream of Roseburg.

Yet smallmouth discovered here nearly 60 years ago have carved out their own niche to a point where their vast numbers — state wildlife biologists estimated their abundance at an eye-popping 4,000 fish per mile — and catch rates of more than 100 per day make the Umpqua one of the top 10 smallmouth rivers in the West.

And part of the allure is the optics.

The mainstem Umpqua is quite clear, so anglers casting out their white flukes can see them darting around. When the white disappears, it’s usually a smallmouth.

“There’s a lot of times they just take off and you can’t feel them there, but you can see the bait disappear,” Moore says. “That’s how you know they’re there.”

No one knows exactly when and how smallmouth invaded the Umpqua, but most piscatorial pundits point to the Christmas flood of 1964 blowing out one or more farm ponds that had smallmouth in them. The fish found their way into the South Umpqua and mainstem Umpqua, and quickly took to the warm and stagnant summer flows that often hit 80 degrees.

But bass anglers began noticing that some smallmouth were preying on young wild steelhead and salmon smolts as they moved through the mainstem Umpqua in spring and fall. That generated intense heartburn among wild steelhead advocates who saw smallmouth as a potential assassin to the famed steelhead fishery.

It wasn’t long before steelhead anglers started catching bass, and found that some of them belched up smolts — young salmon and steelhead heading to the sea. Concern spread among Umpqua faithful and state fishery biologists amid fears the smallmouth would overrun the basin and displace salmon and trout.

Over time, the species carved out a niche for themselves, essentially creating a two-tier fishery in the basin — smallmouth in the lower, warmer reaches and steelhead and salmon in the higher, cooler reaches.

An ODFW study in 1993 concluded that small salmon and steelhead make up only a minor component of a smallmouth’s summer diet, which is filled mainly with infant shad and crayfish. That’s largely because wild steelhead and smallmouth have only short windows of interaction.

When smolts move through the mainstem Umpqua in the spring, the flows are high and cool and the smallmouth are largely dormant. In summer, when the predatory smallmouth are patrolling in force, juvenile salmon and steelhead gravitate toward tributary streams or cooler water higher in the basin.

But little other research has been done on the competing Umpqua fisheries.

There is no limit on the number of smallmouth anglers can keep each day, a declaration ODFW generally offers only on illegal invasive species.

The smallmouth season runs March into mid-October, depending upon when water temperatures drop and slow smallmouth movements. You can expect 75 to 100 fish per person per day in the heat of the season, Moore says.

Most are 10- to 12-inchers, with a handful of fish above 15 inches, Moore says.

“That’s a real good smallmouth,” Moore says.

Public access in the mainstem Umpqua remains poor, with popular spots like the Yellow Creek day-use area off Highway 138 popular. Moore fishes out of the Big K Ranch, where private access puts Moore on thousands of smallmouth in the rocky waters above and below the ranch’s boat ramp.

The smallmouth aren’t shy of a driftboat’s shadow. They actually flock to the shadows, allowing even novice kid anglers an easy opportunity to catch a smallmouth simply by dangling a worm right off the side of the boat.

“Every cast is like a surprise,” Moore says. “You never know if you’re going to catch a big one or a little one.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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