Columbia River Crappie
By Stan Fagerstrom
One of the fish that's often overlooked in the sloughs and backwaters of the Lower Columbia River is the crappie. The spring of the year is the best time to find them.
I’m always surprised at how many fishermen still associate the Columbia River and its backwaters only with the migratory species.
Certainly the Columbia provides a broad thoroughfare for salmon, steelhead, sea run cutthroat, shad and the smelt that make their way in from the pastures of the Pacific Ocean. Over the past few decades more and more Pacific Northwest anglers have come to realize that the Columbia also is host to some of the largest walleye to be found anywhere in the United States. There are also times during the year when the big river provides excellent action for smallmouth bass.
But it isn’t the Columbia’s salmon, steelhead, bass or walleye I have in mind for this three-part column series. What many still continue to overlook is that the big river also provides darn good fishing, if you find the right spots, for panfish like perch and crappie.
For many years I was the outdoor writer for The Daily News in Longview,WA. Longview is right on the Columbia River in the southwest corner of the Evergreen State. I recall a phone call I had one spring evening. "I catcha big croppie,"said an obviously excited oriental voice. "You wrika takee picture?"
It wasn’t uncommon for me as an outdoor writer to get calls from fishermen who had boated a big one, but they usually came from anglers who had caught lunker salmon or steelhead, the fish the Pacific Northwest is best known for. It turned out my caller that night was a good-natured Chinese American who worked at one of the local restaurants.
I was finally able to establish he had caught a crappie of more than two pounds. He'd caught it in the Columbia's Coal Creek Slough just west of Longview. He was as excited as if he'd just found a Fortune Cookie that told him he was going to win the Irish Sweepstakes.
But he was no more surprised to discover the backwaters of the Columbia River contain crappie than lots of others I've met over half a century of fishing and writing about it in this part of the world. It used to be hard to even find someone to brag to when you caught a good bass in the backwaters of the Columbia. That's changed. Today you'll find bass boats prowling the big river and walleye-angling specialists searching its sloughs for those elusive critters. But panfish like crappie still get less attention.
I cut my angling teeth fishing the Columbia River’s backwaters. The pressure today is ten times what it was when I started, but crappies are still there. You'll get your share if you know where to look and what to do after you get there.
I’m talking primarily about the lower Columbia where it divides the states of Washington and Oregon. Though harnessed by a series of dams upriver, the Columbia remains one of the world's major waterways. The crappie you're after won't be in the main river. You'll find them in the backwater sloughs along both the Washington and Oregon shores. What's- more, you'll find them all the way from Portland to the Pacific.
Like crappie fishing everywhere, the lower Columbia is best in spring. When I lived in Longview I often kept a small boat on certain of the Columbia's sloughs. I've caught crappie year around in the lower river, but the best fishing comes from late February through early July.
You've got to find crappie before you can catch them. While there are spots here and there you can fish from shore, a boat is a necessity if you're hoping to put a serious dent in the Columbia's crappie population. Don't fool around in a tippy 10-footer if you've got to run the main river to reach the place you wish to fish. The power of the Columbia's current is tremendous. Every year a few more fishermen find out just how deadly it can be. Don't screw around with it in a small, under-powered rig.
A big boat isn't a necessity if you’ll take time to find places where you can launch into the river's sloughs and backwaters without having to get out into the Columbia itself. Even then, however, keep in mind you're dealing with tidewater. The depth at a launching ramp may fluctuate several feet with the tidal surges of the Pacific Ocean. The ramp you slide your boat into at high tide may be high and dry when the tide goes out.
I'm often asked for ways of finding out what the best spots are for lower Columbia River crappie fishing. Other than having someone who lives in the area show you around, I think the best bet is to join the Oregon Bass and Panfish Club. The club headquarters in Portland. It has a membership of more than 300 and is one of the most active groups of its kind in the West. At one time the club published a list of the best panfish angling spots in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington.
I’m told that the club isn’t now doing that but there is a wealth of information on bass and panfish in the monthly bulletin the group publishes. Even more informative, are the group’s monthly meetings. They are held the fourth Thursday of each month at the PGE Service Center Auditorium, located at 3700 S.E. 17th Ave., in Portland.
An annual membership in the club is only $15. A family membership is $20. Anyone wanting additional informative regarding the club can call my long time friend Jack Webster. Jack was the club’s bulletin editor for years. He’s extremely knowledgeable where bass and panfish in this part of the world are concerned. You can reach him at
(503) 282-2852. Whether you call Jack or visit a club meeting, I guarantee you'll be warmly received regardless of how the contact is made.
They're not the biggest,
and they don't fight like a steelhead or salmon.
Be that as it may, few fish tantalize your tastebuds more than a meal of fresh panfish.
Stan took the fish pictured here out of a Columbia River slough.
In the next part of this three-part series on crappie we’ll take a look at how best to go about actually catching these good eating panfish.
[ 05-16-2002, 11:43 AM: Message edited by: Stan Fagerstrom ]