Desert Canyon Trio
2014.6.20
A complex of three large dams and reservoirs on the western Idaho border at the top of America’s deepest gorge offers abundant and varied delights for anglers. This article is adapted from Idaho’s Top 30 Fishing Waters.
Oxbow Reservoir

Oxbow Reservoir, though much smaller than Brownlee, offers trophy smallmouth as well as other species.

Bass, Trout, Crappie, Big Catfish

Nestled between two steep mountain ranges along the Idaho-Oregon border lie three magnificent desert impoundments: Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon Reservoirs. Starting just 86 miles from Boise, this “desert canyon trio” offers one of the most exciting fishing extravaganzas in the Northwest.

In these deep and vast waters lurk lunker smallmouth and largemouth bass, all-you-can-eat crappie, line-breaking rainbow trout, and two species of catfish that “weigh an anchor!”

Near Farewell Bend, Oregon, the Snake River waters begin backing up in Brownlee Reservoir, the start of over 95 miles of slack water. Oxbow Reservoir is the second of these 3 Idaho Power projects built between 1955 and 1968 for hydroelectric power. The third reservoir, Hells Canyon, is the gateway to the deepest gorge on the North American continent.

Camping

Located in this Hells Canyon complex are four parks with RV hookups, camping, picnic areas, and boat ramps. These were built and are maintained by Idaho Power: Woodhead Park, the first park on the Idaho side of Brownlee Reservoir; McCormick Park, on the Idaho side of upper Oxbow Reservoir; Copperfield Park, just below Oxbow Dam on the Oregon side; and Hells Canyon Park on the Idaho side of Hells Canyon Reservoir. Camping also is available at Farewell Bend State Park on upper Brownlee, Spring Creek Campground, Steck Park (Idaho side), and countless roadside turnoffs that provide camping solitude.

While all three Hells Canyon reservoirs offer outstanding year-round bass and trout fishing, Brownlee is probably the most popular and hard-fished. This 40-mile long impoundment has some of the best fishing in southwestern Idaho. It has produced Idaho record smallmouth bass and catfish, and near-record crappie. Coho salmon, the ever-popular fightin’ rainbow, big scrappy bluegill, and an occasional perch are all present here. For these reasons I’ll concentrate on Brownlee, but keep in mind smallmouth bass and rainbow trout fishing is also terrific in both Oxbow and Hells Canyon farther down the gorge.

In February, March and April, warming water temperatures start fish moving about in search of food and spawning areas. Rainbows and cohos are usually the first to draw spring anglers’ attention with a six-fish limit and no size restrictions. For quick action, try trolling Flatfish, wedding ring/nightcrawler combos, and small spoons in the shallows near and in Brownlee Creek and other inlets like Powder Creek, Sturgill Creek, and Rock Creek. (Acquiring a detailed lake map from local tackle shops helps in locating hotspots.) In early spring I’ve seen fishermen, trailing medium sized Rapalas, bag limits of healthy 16”-22” rainbows by noon.

Spring Fishing

In spring and summer, warm and clear waters scatter trout deeper. Try using gangtrolls and multi-flashers downrigged between 15 and 70 feet, just outside larger inlets. Fall brings aggressive feeding back into small coves and shallow bays, a good time for dunking a worm. As the season turns from fall to winter, trout move back into their deep-water hangouts of summer, or cruise mid-lake hangouts of summer, or cruise mid-lake shallows for warmth. Drifting smaller baits may be the ticket then.

Many fisherfolk find bank fishing as rewarding as trolling. Bait-dunking with worms, eggs, marshmallows, and corn is favored, but don’t overlook small spinners, spoons, and jigs. Between Brownlee Creek and the dam, I’ve seen nice stringers of trout taken by bankers casting a #2 Mepps parallel to the shoreline.

Not only trout are accessible from the bank – for catfishermen, it’s a tradition! On Brownlee many miles of open shoreline are accessible to bank-walking whiskerfish anglers. Most use assorted stink baits, but I’ve caught “back-to-back” 5-pound channel cats on a salt & pepper 4” grub.

Idaho’s state record flathead was challenged twice in 1988 by a Brownlee fish. One catch weighed in at 36 lbs. l.6 oz. – barely 3 ounces shy of the 1979 record of 36 lbs. 4 oz. A Brownlee record that fell recently was a 3-lb. 14-oz. bullhead caught in 1986.

Smallmouth fishing is my favorite sport on Brownlee. On early spring days, I like to work rocky points with gradual slopes and easy access to both deep and shallow water. This is a natural setup for bass transitioning from deep winter homes to spring spawning areas. As the sun’s rays increase in mid-spring, you’ll find active fish near shallow spawning areas, small gravel banks, and mud flats sparsely covered with rocks.

The mouth of Powder River is good, but an Oregon fishing license is required to fish up the channel itself. This long side-arm is noted for great smallmouth and largemouth action, plus some outstanding crappie fishing.

Other spiny rays (crappie, perch, and some bluegill) can be found all over Brownlee from early spring to late fall. No secret here: use cutbait, worms and little yellow, chartreuse or white jigs from shore or while boat-drifting in small coves, over rocky points, and along steep banks.

For spring smallmouths, use crawdad-colored crankbaits and small grubs (plastic worms 3”-5”), or a brown “pig and jig” (rubber-skirted jig with a pork rind trailer). Snow runoff and cool, murky water usually means slow, slower, and slowest for lure presentation. My favorite colors for grubs are crawdad hues of brown, green, orange and red (depending on the season). I also like minnow colors (crappie & bluegill) or smoke, smoke-sparkle and salt-and-pepper.

Summer

Entering summer, start looking for bigger fish on underwater shelves and submerged islands in 30 to 60 feet of water. A good depth finder is vital for finding such places. If you keep catching smaller bass (Brownlee is loaded with them!), switch to larger baits and cast to prominent structure like steep, rocky points and old road beds. By the way, if small bass keep inhaling baited hooks and jigs, please cut your line and release the fish unharmed. The few cents a hook or even a jig costs don’t outweigh the worth of a smallmouth bass.

Fall

Fall bass fishing on all three Hells Canyon reservoirs is almost as explosive as in springtime. As water cools, bronzebacks become more active in shallow water around points and rocky outcroppings. Not much change in lures, but start slowing them down again. Winter? Well, winter for me means getting my tackle ready for an exciting new year. For other bassers, it means using a “cold” vertical-jigging spoon in 70 feet of water.

Trophy bass rules on Oxbow have helped create a fishery for big smallmouth that can compare to any in the country but check the rules book for the special regs that apply to this reservoir.

Superb trout and catfish action is also available in the tailraces just below all three Hells Canyon impoundments. (Below Hells Canyon Dam, you might even catch a sea-run steelhead!) For my money, the most varied and exciting fishing in southwest Idaho awaits anglers in the Hells Canyon complex.