The other evening, I turned off the television, picked up a fly rod and got into an elevator.
Thirty seconds and 14 floors later, I stepped onto the streets of downtown Portland, Oregon.
I started walking. Five minutes later, I was standing on the bank of the Willamette River near Tom McCall Waterfront Park.
Two minutes after that, an angry, red-eyed smallmouth bass walloped a popping bug chugging across the surface.
Bass Are Everywhere
The Pacific Northwest is trout, steelhead and salmon country, but invasive smallmouth and largemouth bass swim in fresh water all over the place.
In fact, some of the world’s best smallmouth bass fishing is found in the massive Columbia River. The John Day River is a destination for smallmouth addicts. The lower Yakima and Deschutes rivers – world-class trout fisheries — also have smallmouth bass.
Now, I could argue that the smallmouth bass explosion in the Northwest isn’t great news, as they love to eat baby salmon, steelhead and trout. But smallmouth are here — and here to stay. So, why not pester these fish?
Especially when they become city bass.
In the Shade of Skyscrapers
I edit a car collecting magazine for a living, and that means living in Portland, Oregon during most weekdays. I spend my weekends in the trout-rich Columbia Gorge and Central Oregon, but five days is a long time to go cold turkey from casting a fly rod.
So, I feed my addiction. Shamelessly and happily.
From late April through late October – weather and river levels permitting — I catch smallmouth bass that live in downtown Portland. They lurk in the Willamette’s boulder riprap, concrete walls, docks, log pilings and rubble. I’ve landed fat 18-inchers underneath the Burnside Bridge — but watch out for the used syringes between the rocks.
Addicted fly anglers aren’t the only junkies out on the river.
In early summer, the smallmouth — and a few largemouth — sidle into the slow, shallow, rocky spots along the shore to get a little crazy during the spawn. One riverside marina hosts a fin-to-fin orgy for several weeks. If you look closely, bass nests make the bottom look like the craters of the moon.
Dragon boats, sailboats, water-ski speedboats and stately, money-sucking yachts bob over bass fighting, spraying eggs and squirting milt. It’s possible to sit in a 75-foot yacht and watch bass fishing videos while real bass spawn right under the keel.
In the early evening, riverside skyscrapers block the sun, putting the west bank of the Willamette into an early twilight. Billions of dollars spent — and we bass addicts get an extra hour or so of fishy twilight.
Portland is famous for winter rain, rose gardens and all kinds of weird people. I’ve found that toting a fly rod to the river doesn’t faze anyone. I don’t wear waders or a vest.
I do carry a small box of poppers and Clouser Minnows in my pocket. I wear hiking boots, as I spend a lot of time clambering over boulder riprap and concrete rubble. One of my favorite spots is a riprap bank with outcrops of broken concrete and ancient log pilings. A thick hedge of vicious blackberry vines blocks casual visitors — and tangles careless backcasts.
Blackberry vines are green barbed wire — scalpel-sharp thorns slash into your hands when you try to extract that $10 Derek Darst deer-hair popper.
If you want to learn how to stop a backcast and keep it high, fish with blackberry thickets at your back.
Still, a little blood is small price for the simple pleasure of finding myself alone along the river. It’s even better when a my popping bug gurgles out a seductive rhythm near those pilings.
Pop. Slurp. Pop. Slurp.
Willamette River smallmouth are rarely huge, but they hit that popper hard — in swirling, sucking boils. A 10-incher makes a lot of racket on the water. Every now and then — especially in spring and fall — big, brownish-green bass upwards of 20 inches wallop the fly and try to snap your line on a sunken electric scooter.
Remember, this is happening in Oregon’s biggest city, and good fishing for trout, steelhead, salmon and, yes, bass, is less than an hour’s drive away. But there’s an allure to fishing close to home. A few casts before dinner wash away a bad day at the office.
Back in the late 1960s, before federal clean water acts forced people to stop polluting at will, the Willamette River was Oregon’s open sewer. But the state — and a lot of business and people — got behind cleaning up the river.
The Willamette in Portland is still far from a pristine spot — you’ll find some nasty latex flotsam bobbing on the water, especially after a nice weekend — but the water is clean enough so salmon and steelhead can swim through Portland. Water skiers and jetskiers buzz around on warm afternoons. Clean water is good for everybody, especially anglers who live in the city.
I’ve cruised around online and found lots of articles and stories about urban fishing. There is a thriving carp fly fishing culture in the Los Angeles River, and I’ve seen people land nice stripers in New York City’s Hudson River. It might pay to check our your local urban river or lake.
In my eyes, smallmouth bass are welcome neighbors.
The other day, I was fishing a favorite rocky bank, which is just below a popular hotel and seafood restaurant.
It was a balmy, 80-degree evening, and a couple leaned against a steel railing — right where I hopped over a few minutes before — and enjoyed a pre-dinner drink.
“Look at that guy,” the woman said. “He’s fly fishing!”
“There are no fish out there,” the man said. “I mean, we’re in Portland.”
I made another cast and waited for the rings to spread away from my popper.
“Hey buddy,” the man called to me. “There are no fish out there!”
I ignored him and chugged the popper. On cue, a nice smallmouth hammered the bug.
The bass jumped a few times — each leap was incredibly gratifying. I have spent well more than 40 years fly fishing, and I’ve bungled countless casts in front of strangers during that time.
The woman said “WOW!” each time that 12-incher broke water. This made everything more fun.
I lip-landed the fish.
“Show him to us!” the woman said.
I held the fish just out of the water and looked up at the guy. He looked away.
The smallmouth quickly tired of this. It shook hook out of my grip and landed back in the water — and then darted off. It was a city bass with a city attitude after all.