Go Early, Fish Late For O’Sullivan Smallmouth
Dam Bass And Naked Toads
By Terry W. Sheely
The guy at the store had said to throw top-water stuff. Make it gurgle and fuss and kick up spurts.
That’s crazy talk, I thought, I’ve fished here before and killed ‘em banging the bottom with herky-jerky plastic ringworms, and a three-inch crawdad-colored Tubebait that scoots through the rocks like an aquatic Pac Man.
A frustrating hour later I clip off Pac Man, knot on a paddle-footed Naked Toad, smear it with Smelly Jelly crayfish goo, hurl it into a field of weeds sprouting out of a pile of rocks, and crank it across the surface. The lure’s clownishly over-sized paddle-feet kick up a fuss of water and create a surprisingly loud thump-thump-thump sound.
A squadron of cormorants banks across Goose Island. In the distance I can see a lone boat pulling, probably, a walleye spinner and crawler toward Crab Creek Channel. The lake is flat and the surface is full of high gray clouds.
I throw the naked thing again. Crank the handle twice and there’s an explosion under the frog that startles the lure right out of its mouth. Next time I wait a couple of eternal seconds after the explosion before pulling the trigger and finally there’s a solid bend in the rod and a red-eyed smallmouth going nuts.
The driver of a tanker-trailer rig rolling across the 3 ½ miles of Potholes Dam, lays on the horn, a sort of trucker’s thumbs up, TRN publisher/editor Jim Goerg, switches to a top-water plug and I get a lip hold on a gorgeously green 2½ pound smallmouth that’s glaring across a Naked Toad.
Gotta love Potholes Reservoir in the spring.
Before Jim and I load Jim’s 16-foot Triumph with more gear than any two-dozen fishermen need and head east on I-90 across the Cascades, I had talked on the phone with Mike Meseberg. Mike and his wife Marilyn own MarDon Resort, an institution in Columbia Basin fishing circles, and the best source of fishing information available for Potholes Lake (O’Sullivan Reservoir) and the dozens of small Seep Lakes cupped below the dam in the 4,877 acres of basalt and coulees in the Seep Lakes Unit of the WDFW Columbia Basin Wildlife Area and the neighboring federal refuge.
For me, this is old home week.
I started fishing here back when Mike’s dad Rod owned the place and have watched it grow since the ‘70s. In my job chasing fish stories for magazines I cover a lot of North America in a year, explore some of the most exotic and beautiful places in the country, tackle everything from blue marlin to grayling with lots of halibut, salmon and trout in between—and yet there’s something special about fishing the backyard, chasing spring bass in Potholes Reservoir.
There are 22 varieties of fish in here, plenty of nasty-eyed smallmouth (my favorite), I can fish it on a weekend without a lot of planning, don’t need to argue with TSA folks at the airport, compile an itinerary, arrange for shuttles, buy non-resident licenses or devout a week to the chase. I hump it over the hill on the I-90, campout in a sweet little modern cottage with Micro-wave, stove, fridge, bed, barbecue, shower and the NBA finals on television, moor the boat in the marina and remember why I live in Washington.
The MarDon complex of accommodations from campsites to furnished cabins, marina, ramp, store and anything else a fishing family might need—including a huge fishing dock—sits in the willow trees and cottonwoods at the west end of the dam within sight of Potholes State Park. Mike looked out his window at the lake and said simply: Lot of high water this year. Things have changed. Fish aren’t concentrated. But they’re here-just everywhere.
High water, as it turns out, means that my favorite rock piles are now submerged reefs, bassy islands are revealed only by green willow branches poking through the surface, most of the sand dunes are indefinable sandbars, and the reservoir banks are somewhere back in the scrub brush and tree line. Not how I remember it.
Jim and I pitch our duffle into a two-bedroom furnished cottage, drop the center-console off the ramp and head for the face of the dam. I tuck down inside my rain gear, out of the wind and unseasonable bluster.
Potholes Reservoir Dam is the foundation for State Highway 262 and one of the longest earth-filled dams in the U.S. The face is rip-rap rock backing up 28,000 acres of fishing water. In the 60 years since it was built, rocks have spilled off the dam face creating reefs and underwater piles of broken structure that harbor baitfish and crayfish, which attract bass by the hundreds, along with plenty of panfish and trout.
One of my favorite spots is a cluster of rock piles between Goose Island and the dam face. When we get there, only one other boat is in sight. Clumps of weeds push into the surface marking the shallowest humps.
We start working the structure with weighted baits. Jim gets the skunk out of the boat with the first bass on Outlaw Bait’s 3½ -inch Gitter Tube in mocha and black glitter. I go through a box of tackle, trying this, rejecting that. Finally, a 15-inch smallie sucks in a red-bodied, silver-bladed Yakima Bait spinnerbait bounced dangerously through the rock piles. I lose the lucky lure on another rock pile a few minutes later and switch to a 4-inch Tingler worm in green pumpkin and add a couple of more fish before switching to a 3 ½ inch Outlaw Firetail tubebait in crawdad green with hot red fringe on the tail. Bass hit this lure like they mean it, pounding it into the rocks. The secret, I find, is twitching it along the bottom, darting around rocks, scooting over the flat spots-looking like a crayfish.
We’re catching bass, but there’s a lot of casts between hits and it’s not the excitement I had envisioned. And then I tied on Reaction’s Naked Frog and paddled it across the surface.
Surface fishing for O’Sullivan smallmouth isn’t something that can happen every day, but on this day, with high overcast, flat water, steady barometer, and scattered fish, the noisy surface lure was exactly what was needed.
The lure covered a lot of water, searching for those scattered feeders, kicked up a fuss and every strike put my heart in my mouth. There’s something about a big flaring mouth and green scales blowing up under a peacefully paddling frog that just ricochets adrenalin through my soul.
It’s early June, prime fishing time, but the high water and unseasonably blustery weather has kept the fair-weather anglers home. A couple of boats are trolling off Medicare Beach for rainbows, we can see three boats working the open water for walleye, there’s another bass boat a few hundred yards from us along the dam, and a couple of ladies are curled up in lawn chairs on the MarDon dock stillfishing with nightcrawlers for anything that bites.
And almost anything can bite off the dock.
Mesebergs support a major net-pen rearing project near the marina that puts thousands of rainbow trout into the lake each spring. The small trout growing larger in the net pens also serve as accidental decoys that attract bigger predators---like five-pound rainbows, walleye and largemouth and smallmouth bass. Hand-size bluegills, perch and crappie are also caught by dock dunkers.
At one time or another I’ve chased just about everything that swims in Potholes, including huge carp with a bow and arrow, but smallmouth are my favorite.
On the second day, I ask advice and again hear from a bass guy loading up in the resort store, that top-water is still the lure du jour and that if we’re not setting the world on fire off the dam, we should head for the shoreline and flooded willows near the state park.
It proves good advice.
Jim tags a nice day opener with a floating Rapala sporting tiger stripes and treble hooks. I’m still having a love affair with the Naked Frog and can’t get it off the rod. A little west of the state park in a jungle of willows, sage and ugly brush, I cast the frog across a pile of water junk, and just about in the center of the weeds it disappears like someone pulled a bucket under.
The fish is heavy, bull-headed and knows what it’s doing. Too quick, it has the line wrapped around half a jungle of weeds and brush, pulls hard and pops off. “That was a reallllll good fish,” I tell Goerg.
Try to land the next one, he says.
Moving along the state park waterline, casting to willows and clumps, we catch several more smallies, and one decent largemouth, hoot and holler with a double-on and happily watch the rain squalls run down I-90 to dump on Moses Lake to the north.
A bass man with commercials on his shirt, an outfitted bass boat under his feet and an electric motor threads through the weeds and brush, casting a small surface popper with yellow tail feathers into pockets. He hits four bass while I watch, tells me he’s caught 17 in the first half hour, and I jilt the naked frog for a popper.
The one constant about fishing Potholes Reservoir bass, according to Mike, is that there is no constant. Bass are constantly changing locations and feeding areas in response to changing water levels as the lake rises and falls with irrigation needs, sunlight, and feed. A rock pile that delivers like a pirate’s chest one week may be barren the next, and barren structure can turn hot just as quick.
Low water tends to concentrate the bass and walleye into definable areas, but not always.
Come to this place prepared to prospect. A trailerable 15 to 18-foot boat with electric trolling motor is ideal, but bank fishing is not only possible from the dam, docks, state park and beaches on the east side, but productive as well for just about everything that swims. Medicare Beach on the reservoir’s southeast flank is famous for walleye and rainbows, the dam face is a safe bet for bass and panfish, especially crappie, the MarDon Dock is a potpourri. The state park, while it covers 640 acres, is a tough place to bank fish. There is some fishing near the boat ramp, but most of the waterfront at the park is brushy and difficult to access. Some campers, without boats, will use float tubes to test the edges.
The dam, according to local guides, and the state park area are often the hottest spots for smallmouth, but the sand dunes and channels on the north end of the lake are great for largemouth. The dune complex is littered with beaver houses and willow brush that the big bass love. Walleye anglers just about always head for the Crab Creek Channel, which pours out of the dunes, especially when the reservoir level is low enough to concentrate walleye in the trough.
Best tip I can give is to pull into the MarDon store and fill up with a lake map and current information before heading out.
Jim and I wrapped up our spring breakout odyssey with a short drive into the Seep Lake complex below Potholes Dam. Dozens of prime fishing lakes are tucked into this state and federal landscape, many stocked with rainbows, browns and tiger trout, others with walleye, bass and panfish, and some with a mix. A lone boat is trolling the upper end of Soda Lake, probably for walleyes or trout. We see coyote tracks, watch a large flock of geese and a squadron of diver ducks drop into a hidden pond.
And then we head home.
What you’ll fish for:
There are 22 species of fish in the reservoir. Popular game fish are:
Largemouth and smallmouth Bass, Bluegill, Bullhead Catfish, Crappie, Perch, Rainbow Trout. Walleye, Carp.
How you’ll get there:
From Seattle (185 miles) eastbound on I-90 past Vantage, cross the Columbia River, turn Right (S.) onto Hwy. 243, then Left (E.) onto Hwy. 26. Continue through Royal City, to Hwy. 262-A Rd. SE at MarDon Direction sign, then Left (N and E.) on Hwy. 262 to Potholes State Park and MarDon Resort.
For more information:
Cottages, motel rooms, lodges, tent and RV camping, groceries, restaurant, boat launch, marina, moorage rental boats, fishing dock, bait, tackle, fuel, maps, guides
On the web at: http://mardonresort.com
Toll Free: 800 416 2736
Bar & Grill:509 346 9688
Tackle/Gift Store:509 346 2651 x16
General Store (Shell gasoline):509 346 2503
Potholes State Park and Campground
640-acre camping park with 6,000 feet of freshwater shoreline on Potholes Reservoir.
61 tent/RV spaces, 60 utility spaces, dump station $5, restrooms and showers.
Maximum RV site length is 50 feet.
4-lane boat launch, 100-foot dock. Daily launch permit $7.