Smallmouth in the Pend Oreille Watershed

Smallmouth Bass Fishing Increases in the Pend Oreille System

While growing up in Sandpoint, fishing as I did through the ’60’s and beyond, I never saw, hooked or felt a smallmouth bass in either Lake Pend O’Reille (pronounced Ponderay) or it’s outflowing river which flows west under the Long Bridge at Sandpoint down to its height regulator, the Albani Falls Dam on the Washington border, where incidentally, it turns northward to enter the Columbia River at Kettle Falls.

My point is: we never had smallmouth in these waters until the flooding that occurred almost uncontrollably in the winter/spring snow melt of 1997/98, when surviving members of this species along with pike washed down through the Cabinet Gorge dam east of Clark Fork on the Clark Fork River and into the Pend O’Reille watershed.

Once here, this voracious spiny ray became the dominant shoreline species, feeding heavily on the fry and minnows of numerous shoreline spawning species including Kokanee. Not only did they flourish, they grew in size quickly to yield regular catches of 4 and 5 pound fish. Perhaps, per pound, the hardest fighting sport fish in fresh water.

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This beautiful young woman, now Mrs. Steven Byrum, displays her one-pound catch of fighting fins with a genuine smile of achievement on the shoreline of Pend Oreille River.

Why Smallmouth Bass are so Popular in Sport Fishing

Pound for pound, these feisty spiny rays are at the top of their class for freshwater sport fishing. The reason quickly becomes evident when you hook into your first smallmouth. You learn suddenly that this fish that attacked your presentation from the rocks or structure below is not going to quit; it simply, determinedly, will not stop fighting to get away. Even in the net, even in the boat, if you’ve landed a smallmouth, you’ve landed an energetic powder keg.

Well if you fish, you know that translates to fun and a sense of proud achievement when you can hold up a collection such as these displayed by Rick Lawrence, founder of Fish N Fool Lures, whose lure-making enterprise revolves around the lore of smallmouth no-quit fighting power.

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When I asked what he was using, Rick tossed me a pack of Fish-n-Fool_Lures. I just happened to catch them, label facing, in mid-air as I was in the process of taking his portrait.

Now a Supreme Fishery: Smallmouth on the Pend Oreille

It’s been nearly 20 years since this species introduced itself into the Lake Pend Oreille watershed. They are so prolific here and adapt so well to varying types of water that they’ve moved up the Priest River, which carries an abundance of them, into Priest Lake where they smallmouth fishing there has only recently been recognized as “superb.”

Rick doesn’t kill his fish. He puts them all back because it’s the catching that’s important to him. I, on the other hand, am one who likes to eat fish and I’ve found that smallmouth, cooked properly, are excellent table fare. When I’m with Rick, out of tremendous respect for his professionalism, I too release all of what I catch and without regret, keeping only the pictures of memory. But Rick knows I eat fish and that I take my limited share for that purpose when I’m not with him.

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A proud young man holds up his smallmouth victory with the happy smile of “see what I caught?” And rightfully so, this is the kind of fish that captures the hearts of so many young men and women who are blessed to learn while they are still children. I, too, was such a child and I still love to fish in my old age.

A Smallmouth Recipe

Okay, so how do you cook these little dynamos so as to please anyone hungry? I’ve done everything from fillets rolled in corn bread meal dunked in whipped egg to butter-fried with mushrooms, but never have I had such a great bass plate as one taught me by the wife of a Real Estate colleague one late afternoon over an open fire.

Mrs. Brewster is a full blood Taiwanese woman who came to North Idaho with her husband, Chuck Brewster, and their beautiful kids. We entertained them at an open fire at my place on the Pend Oreille River after catching several smallmouth. To my amazement, after gutting the fish and removing their heads, she laid them out on the grill of my open, stacked-rock fire pit and turned them frequently, skin and scales still on.

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Three smallmouth, skin and scales still on, were laid on a grill in my stacked-rock fire pit, cooked to perfection by turning until done, turned into the best outdoor fish meal I may ever have had.

Now this was new to me. And I had no idea how good these fish could taste cooked in this manner. When we removed them from the heat of the fire and brought them to the picnic table, the skin with it’s undisturbed scales literally slid off to reveal a juice-packed white flesh that came easily away from the skeletal structure. Moist and full of flavor, smallmouth cooked in this manner was a memory I cannot and never will forget. Every year now, when I’ve taken a catch home and the weather is nice and I’m outdoors, I cook them in this manner and that much to the delight and surprise of whomever might be my fortunate guests. It beats every other cooking method or recipe I’ve ever tried and it needs no tartar sauce whatsoever. Delectable!

Try it. You’ll love it.

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