Smallmouth Bass Fishing: A Feisty Bite

By Adam Pearson, Courtesy of

Fishing for smallmouth bass on the Umpqua River in Oregon requires a basic understanding of how to set the hook and crank a reel.

Photo of Oregon Fishing Guide Gary LewisOregon Fishing Guide Gary Lewis

When the bite is slow in the Umpqua River for salmon and steelhead and the dog days of summer have settled in, smallmouth bass awaken like little rabid beasts.

Meaning, well, they'll attack just about anything that moves — or smells.

"They like to ambush stuff," said Gary Lewis, a Roseburg-based fishing guide, who takes clients angling for smallmouth bass during the months of July and August. "And they bite all day."

Smallmouth Bite When The River Heats Up

When the mainstem Umpqua River warms to about 60 degrees — it's above 70 degrees now — Lewis said the smallmouth bass come alive. And they stay that way until the river cools in September and the action returns to Chinook salmon and steelhead.

Fun For Anglers Of All Ages

Success in landing those prized fish, however, takes hours of patience and seasons of knowledge. But fishing for smallmouth bass requires, at the very least, a basic understanding of how to set the hook and crank a reel, which makes it an easy introduction to angling on the Umpqua River for youngsters and newcomers in the region.

"People catch a lot of fish and have a lot of fun," Lewis said.

Smallmouth bass bite everything from nightcrawlers to Rapala lures, but Lewis' favorite setup — for novice fishermen — is a plastic worm on a lead-head jig with a squirt of Smelly Jelly for extra attraction.

Once you're set, the technique is not too complicated. Just make sure you're fishing over a gravel bottom, and not sand, because smallmouth bass prefer structure. Then drop the worm to the bottom — as if a cork is tied up top — and wait for a bite. It shouldn't take long.

"It's a pretty competitive world down there," Lewis said.

Photo of fishing guide Gary Lewis with a smallmouth bass catch

Fishing With A Fly Rod

Once a fish is hooked, from a boat, other smallmouth bass can be seen trying to steal the plastic worm out of its mouth. But fishing for the little green-sided monsters doesn't require a watercraft.

"This whole river is full of bass," said Rod Antilla, who ups the ante when fishing for smallmouth bass by using a fly rod. "I don't think there's a place where you won't catch them."

Last week, Antilla was fishing the Umpqua River with a friend near Cleveland Rapids, a couple of miles downstream from River Forks Park. He was joined by Linda Walker, who is learning how to fly fish this summer. The two anglers had their personal pontoon boats docked on the bank while they casted flies from a ledge.

"It's neat to see the fish go after the fly you tied," Walker said, about an hour after her morning start and already with a couple of fish to her credit. "It's all a good time."

Catch And Release

Though fishermen can keep up to 10 smallmouth bass of any size, Lewis, Antilla and Walker are strict practitioners of catch-and-release. Even when he's guiding, Lewis urges clients to release fish.

"If they catch a real big one, I don't like them to keep them because they're the nice, big broodstock, the ones that's going to re-supply the river," he said.

A picture in that case, he said, will suffice. Smallmouth bass, Lewis said, can get up to four pounds. However, there's a lot of small, smallmouth bass to be caught while angling for the big one, even if you're using artificial lures.

"Usually, if you're going to keep them to eat, we like them about 10 to 11 inches long," Lewis said. "That way there's enough there to eat."

A retired maintenance watchman for the Douglas County Fairgrounds, Lewis has been guiding for salmon, steelhead and smallmouth bass since 1980 on the Umpqua River. He guides clients on about 200 trips a year. His business, Gary's Guide Service, has been featured in several magazines and in the past few years on TV programs such as American Outdoorsman and Fly Fishing America on ESPN. His clients come from all over the country and the world.

"I get people from Alaska, that come down here and fish for smallmouth bass," he said, explaining they like the experience of catching something other than salmon — and not having to deal with mosquitoes and inclement weather.

For a full day on the river with Lewis it would be hard not to catch at least 50 smallmouth bass, or beyond 70. Lewis said it took years to build a dependable clientele for his business, but each day on the river makes it all worth it.

"It's always better than working," he said.