Bob Johnasen - 2/17/2007
The mighty Columbia River not only provides a beautiful and majestic border between Oregon and Washington, but it also plays host to nearly every species of freshwater and anadromous fish in the great northwest. It could well be referred to as a "Piscatorial Paradise."
With steelhead, salmon, sturgeon, shad, walleye and more competing for the angler's attention, the splendid black bass fishing is virtually overlooked. Both largemouth bass and smallmouth bass, some of very impressive sizes, -- probably even new state record fish, fin the vast pools behind the huge power generating dams.
When the reservoirs behind the dams filled, they created several small lakes behind the rock rip-rap of the railroad and highway road beds. Most of these little lakes are connected to the big pools by culvert, allowing the fish to enter and leave as they please.
Although these lakes provide quality bass fishing opportunities throughout the spring, summer, and fall, May and June offer the best chances to hook up with a truly lunker bass. Big bass seek out the warmer water temperatures of these shallow back-waters during the spring looking for spawning sites.
Most of these little backwater lakes have no launch ramps and are inaccessible to the big boat crowd. You will not be bothered by water skiers, jet skiers, hot-rodders or others in similar pursuits of seemingly exiguous value. These little lakes do however, provide a tranquil, peaceful atmosphere for both the shoreline angler and the small boat fisherman. Hand carried boats, canoes and inflatables can be launched fairly easily on most of these waters.
At times however, small water craft are not practical or even safe on these little lakes. Fishermen familiar with this area are well aware of the brisk breeze that often blows up the beautiful, scenic Columbia River Gorge, bringing with it far more joy to the numerous wind surfers on the big pools than to the bass anglers. Sometimes the breeze is so brisk, it might better be described as a "howling wind." During these periods, you probably would not to launch a boat of any kind.
Some visiting anglers might think that high winds would ruin their bass fishing opportunities. Not necessarily. While fishing from a small boat is definitely the preferred choice, all of these lakes have some shoreline fishing opportunities. As an example, on one bass fishing trip to the gorge, son Donald and I encountered winds that prevented us from launching our canoe. We fished from the shoreline, mostly from the rock rip-rap. We caught bass from several different lakes, including smallmouth up to about three pounds and one lunker largemouth that weighed an incredible eight pounds, four ounces -- truly a lunker by northwest standards. John Weinheimer, the area fish biologist for the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, checked a scale sample and determined that the fish was 14+ years old at the time of her capture.
Donald and I found that the best technique for fishing the rip-rap during these windy conditions was casting spinnerbaits and crankbaits with the wind at about a 30 degree angle from the shoreline. Anglers should use some caution while fishing from the rock rip-rap however. Most of the big rocks are very solid, but occasionally, you will find one that is a little loose and possibly dangerous.
On all the lakes, white seemed to be the best spinnerbait color, followed closely by black, chartreuse and blue. Both single spin and tandem spins in the 1/4 and 3/8 ounce sizes worked well.
Crankbaits in silver, gold, perch and crawfish patterns were all effective. During calm water conditions, (And, yes, there times when the water is as flat as a mirror -- especially in early mornings and late evenings) floating minnow lures in silver and gold with black backs provoked some smashing surface strikes. Minnow lures in the four to five inch sizes seemed to work best.
Most of the Columbia River backwater lakes that I've explored are located in
Washington State's Skamania and Klickitat Counties. In this article, I'll provide a brief description of nine of my favorite lakes -- four in Skamania County and another five in Klickitat County. Starting at the beautiful Bridge of the Gods and traveling eastward on Highway #14, we will fish Ice House Lake, Ashes Lake, Grant Lake, and Tunnel Lake in Skamania County. Continuing eastward we enter Klickitat County and find Locke Lake, Rowland Lake, Little Spearfish Lake and Horsethief Lake. All of these lakes are on my personal list of more than 275 "successfully fished" bass lakes in Washington State.
With the exception of Ice House, all these little lakes are shown in the "Washington Atlas and Gazetteer." This book of very detailed topographic maps is an excellent guide for the exploring fisherman. The atlas is published by the Delorme Mapping Company and is available in most sporting goods stores for about 20 bucks.
ICE HOUSE LAKE: This little three acre body of water is the only lake on this list that is not connected to one of the big reservoirs on the Columbia River. It is worthy of mention however, because of its location and the fact that it hosts some very respectable largemouth bass.
It is located adjacent to the north side of Highway #14, at the north end of the scenic Bridge of the Gods that spans the Columbia River between Oregon and Washington. It is a nice place to stop, shoot a photo of the bridge, read the big road sign about the myth of the Bridge of the Gods and perhaps catch and release a few largemouth bass. I've hooked bass up to about two pounds while casting Rapalas or white spinnerbaits from the shoreline. Small hand carried can be easily launched. Ice House Lake is also planted with rainbow trout and is quite popular with trout anglers during the spring.
ASHES LAKE: This 51 acre lake is located just S.W. of the mill town of Stevenson and is adjacent to the north side of Highway #14. This lake offers some shoreline fishing opportunities along the highway rock rip-rap but is best fished from a small boat. Several years I launched my canoe from a rough launch area at the west end of the lake and caught some smallmouth bass. I am now unsure it the launch area is still available to use.
GRANT LAKE: This little 11 acre lake is located about five miles east from the little town of Carson. It is also adjacent to the north side of Highway #14. A culvert connects the lake to the giant 20,000 acre Bonneville Pool and has an effect on its water level. When the water is entering the lake, creating some current, the culvert area is one of the better places to fish. I've caught several nice sized smallmouth bass in this area while casting a 1/4 ounce chartreuse spinnerbait from the shoreline.
Launching even a small, hand carried boat onto this lake can be quite challenging. Probably the best launch area is from the east end of the lake where there is a parking area. The distance is short but the bank is very steep. I have not yet put a boat on this lake. Parking is also available on the south side of the highway at the west end of the lake.
TUNNEL LAKE: Traveling eastward, you will pass through a series of tunnels that will give a good clue as how this little 13 acre lake was named. It, also, is located on the north side of Highway #14.
There is a rough camp area at the west end of the lake with few amenities -- but free. I camped overnight there once and it was not too bad except when the trains came thundering past in the middle of the night.
Tunnel Lake is planted with hatchery raised rainbow trout and they receive most of the spring time angling interest. The trout can be seen finning the clear waters -- and so can some truly lunker sized largemouth bass. I have seen several big bass cruising the clear, sunlit waters that would easily weigh between five and seven pounds. I haven't spent enough time casting lures or been lucky enough to hook up with a five pounder, but I have had 3 pounders smash a silver Rapala being twitched on the surface.
There is a rough trail around the lake that provides many good casting places. A small hand carried boat or canoe can easily be launched at the west end camp area. Maybe this spring, I will camp overnight again and try for one of Tunnel Lake's lunkers after dark.
LOCKE LAKE: This 20 acre lake is located about three miles east of the little town of Bingen. Again, it is located adjacent to the north side of Highway #14.
There is a rough boat launching area on the north side of the lake. This is no place for a trailered boat but hand carried craft can be launched fairly easily. This is where son Donald and I launched our canoe on one trip to the gorge. We hooked and released several largemouth bass between 1 1/2 and 2 1/2 pounds, but Donald had one lunker right up to the canoe that probably would have weighed more than five pounds. The lures that were most effective were white and black spinner baits and floating Rapalas.
ROWLAND LAKE: Formally called DuBois Lake, Rowland Lake covers about 85 surface acres and is located about one mile east of Locke Lake. It was originally an arm of the Columbia River and was formed by rock fill when the railroad was constructed. Still connected to the Bonneville Pool by culvert, Rowland hosts a variety of fish species including planted rainbow trout and lots of largemouth bass.
Rowland Lake has a large Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife public access area that provides a shallow, gravel boat launch and a couple of pit toilets. The usual WDFW signs are posted -- "No camping or overnight parking." Too bad, it would be a beautiful place to camp with its many large oak and pine trees. Rowland has plenty of shore fishing opportunities for those without a boat.
CHAMBERLAIN LAKE: The next lake, continuing eastward if Chamberlain. This 80 acre lake is located just west of the town of Lyle -- And, for a change of pace, it is located on the "south" side of Highway #14.
Although Highway #14 borders the entire north side of the lake, there is no place to pull over and park. There are guard rails on both sides of the highway for the entire length of the lake. There is, however, some parking space available just east of the lake. A light boat or canoe can be carried down to the lake but it is about a hundred yards of rough steep trail. Shoreline fishermen can cast from the rock rip-rap or the railroad bed that spans the entire south shoreline of the lake. I have hooked both largemouth and smallmouth bass while casting spinnerbaits from this rip-rap.
SPEARFISH LAKE: There are two Spearfish Lakes -- Little Spearfish and Spearfish. Spearfish is managed as a trout lake by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. Little Spearfish is connected to Celilo Lake (the Columbia River Pool) by Culvert and is loaded with smallmouth bass. Most of the bass were quite small but occasionally you can connect with fish up to about three pounds. The smallmouth respond well to crankbaits and top water lures.
Spearfish Lake Park was developed by the Army Corps of Engineers -- And, free camping is permitted. The amenities are limited to pit toilets, some paved parking and a concrete launch ramp into Spearfish Lake. Some of the camping area is protected from the wind by some low hills. For the self-contained camper, this is a nice place to camp and fish. Free camping areas are getting hard to find so please do our part to insure this area remains open by not littering.
HORSETHIEF LAKE: This 92 acre lake is located in Horsethief Lake State Park. It is connected to the Dalles Dam Reservoir (Celilo Lake) by culvert and hosts a variety of fish species including largemouth and smallmouth bass. The lake is also stocked generously with rainbow trout. Anglers with trailered boats will like the very good concrete block boat launching ramp.
Horsethief Lake State Park is a beautiful piece of land, located right on the lake shore. Unfortunately, it seems to cater to the day use crowd of swimmers, picnickers and etc. much more than the overnight camper. The camp area is small. The restrooms are modern but there are no showers.
For the more discriminating camper, Mary Hill State Park (509-773-5007) is located about 15 miles to the east. This beautiful park offers 50 very nice campsites with full hook-ups and 20 standard sites. Overnight campers and the day use crowd both enjoy acres of lush, green lawn and nice big shade trees. The Park also provides an excellent boat launching ramp onto Celilo Lake.
Warm sunny weather is the spring time norm in this area but some times Mother Nature plays tricks. This part of Washington has been described as the area where the sunshine of the east meets the rain of the west. Come prepared with your sun glasses, sun tan lotion -- And some warm clothing and raingear. And, don't forget your camera.
While visiting this area, you may enjoy taking a break from camping and fishing to spend a little time at the historical Mary Hill Museum of Art and the Stonehenge Memorial monument. They are very interesting and are both located near Mary Hill State Park. The Stonehenge Memorial Monument is a conjectural model of the "complete" Salisbury Plain original in England. It was built by Sam Hill between 1918 and 1930 as a memorial to the 13 men from Klickitat County who died in World War I.
To get to this area from the Washington side of the Columbia River, take Highway #14 east from Vancouver. From the Oregon side, take I-84 east from Portland and cross the river at the Bridge of the Gods, Hood River, The Dalles or at Biggs.