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07-19 B1 Panfish

Bluegill and redear sunfish, center, are two of the panfish that can be found in backwater lakes along the Columbia River. Both smallmouth and largemouth bass can also be found in these waters.

The canoe was not working. High winds in the Columbia River Gorge were making it difficult to hold on anchor and fish. We were struggling to catch panfish of any size. All we were getting were very small fish.

We paddled the canoe to the shore. That’s when we found that the big fish were right on the bank.

Of course.

Bluegill and other panfish spawn during the summer so it makes sense that the bigger bluegills were gathering in the shallow, sun-lit water to do their thing. The schools were gathered in inches of water between the bank and the floating weeds.

We began offering the fish small crappie jigs tipped with worms, but once we abandoned the jigs and ran the worms straight, the action became non-stop. Chunky bluegills would grab the bits of worm and run under the weeds. They are a surprisingly game fish when caught on light trout gear.

We were fishing Tunnel Lake 3 miles east of the town of Cook. It was our first stop searching for panfish and bass in the string of backwater lakes along the Columbia River.

These backwaters were created when Bonneville Dam was built along the Columbia River. The flooding reservoir created small lakes behind Highway 14 and the railroad causeways.

Warm water fish

The majority of the lakes and ponds are warm water fisheries and they support some amazing opportunities.

Also, they get almost no pressure.

“The fishermen should definitely hit those,” said Stacie Kelsey of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Inland Fishes Program. “They have got good-sized fish in them, and they never get fished.

“These are areas people just don’t go to.”

Kelsey explained that most of the waters are connected to the Columbia River, often by submerged culverts, so fish can move in and out of them at will. These make the backwaters inviting places for panfish, bass, catfish, and other fish to escape the strong currents and predators in the big Columbia.

Over the decades many of the culverts have collapsed or gotten plugged with debris. And yet, those lakes fish great, too.

“Even those that are cut off still have good fishing,” Kelsey said. “They have really good production.”

One fish we were looking for was yellow perch. This relative of the walleye tastes just as good, and if you find a school the fishing can be great. However, we struck out on them.

Kelsey reports that some of the best fishing for yellow perch takes place in Rock Cove, just to the west of the town of Stevenson.

“That’s a really good spot for yellow perch back in there,” Kelsey said.

For the yellow perch and other panfish, it is hard to beat worms. They can be fished under a bobber, or fished with a drop-shot rig. Both methods allow the angler to keep the bait in mid-depth.

Panfish want an easy-to-grab meal, and will rarely pluck a bait off the bottom.

We eventually left the hungry bluegill of Tunnel Lake and drove along SR 14 looking for another pool. We pulled off the highway to target a lake with steep, rocky banks that seemed like good habitat for smallmouth bass.

It was.

We found some nice bass willing to take jigs and spinners along the banks. However, the largest bass spotted in the lake was a trophy-looking fellow that ignored offerings.

Both largemouth and smallmouth bass can be found in these waters, too. Look for the both along rocky banks, and the largemouth can be found associated with the weed beds and other cover.

According to Kelsey popular baits for bass include soft plastic grubs and swim baits in yellows and greens, and Rooster Tail spinners. Rooster Tails did draw strikes from the smallmouth we found in the unnamed lake.

“Rowland and Horsethief Lakes are good for crappie,” Kelsey said. “There are black and white crappie, but mostly black crappie.”

Small jigs and spinners work best for crappie.

Kelsey also said anglers should pay some attention to South Rowland Lake, just across the highway from North Rowland Lake.

“There’s a lot of huge fish in there,” she said. “There are really big bass along those rocky banks.”


Catch and size limits have been lifted for warm water species in the Columbia River and its backwater lakes, so anglers can put a lot of tasty fillets in the freezer without running foul of the regulations.

Always check the regulations before fishing any water.

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