Hells Canyon - Mecca for Adventuresome Anglers
Where in the West can you hook deep-bodied rainbows beyond count, teeming smallmouth bass, seasonal hordes of steelhead, "bothersome" channel cats, and prehistoric white sturgeon big enough by historical record to pull a horse backwards - all in the same pool?
by Wayward Watson
In what rock-cathedral Northwestern gorge can you stand by a cactus-lined river and hear the roar of killer rapids around the bend, chukars cackling madly in naked basaltic cliffs, and the distant whistle of elk in forested fastness a vertical mile above your streamside camp?
Within what major relatively new National Recreation Area and legislated wilderness region can a backpacker tour a maze of icy alpine trout lakes, plunge 8000 feet downwards through sunbaked geological history to a torrential desert river, then raft, jetboat, or continue hiking and fishing along narrow foot-trails another 25 miles to civilization?
In the "Grand Canyon of the Northwest," that's where.
More formally known as Hells Canyon of the Snake River, this awesome, history-rich gorge forms a 100-mile boundary section between Oregon and Idaho. From 9400-foot He Devil Peak in Idaho's snow-dusted Seven Devils range to the Snake's boiling turbulence at 1400 feet, Hells Canyon drops more than 8000 feet in elevation, making it the deepest gorge in North America and truly the "West's deepest fishing hole."
In 1975 Congress declared an 80-mile section of the canyon as Hells Canyon National Recreation Area, nearly half of which is formal no-motors Wilderness. The half-mile-wide "wild and scenic" Snake River corridor itself is open to motorized travel, mainly jetboats - a mixed blessing to pure-wilderness types given the otherwise impenetrable ruggedness of the canyon.
The river below Hells Canyon Dam is swarming with rainbow trout averaging about a pound and ranging quickly upwards to the 20-inch length, at which point your catch is defined as a steelhead. Bret Armacost of Hells Canyon Adventures, a local rafting and jetboating service, thinks this surge of rainbows might actually be half-grown steelie smolts that fail to migrate downriver.
Whatever the explanation, rainbows are so plentiful in Hells Canyon that even average anglers must take special measures to prolong their sport. A new angler typically catches a quick six-fish limit the first day, quits using bait the second day, and goes to barbless and/or single hooks the third day. Though the swirling Snake averages about 100 yards wide with some pools plunging a hundred feet deep - obvious spinning rod water - many anglers use fly rods for the added sport and greater ease of releasing fish.
As for best lures and techniques, it doesn't seem to matter much. Virtually any fly, bait or lure - even big steelhead plugs and spoons - drifted deep or shallow will be viciously swatted. For even faster fishing, try bank casting in big-rock rapids where boat anglers can't slow down. In such places nearly every boulder seems to shelter several hungry, high-leaping rainbows.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Via Idaho State Highway 71 from Cambridge, or Oregon 86 from Baker, to Hells Canyon Dam. Via Forest Service Road 493 from White Bird, Idaho, 17 miles to Pittsburg Landing. In summer only: via Forest Service 517 from Riggins, Idaho, to 800-foot Seven Devils Campground, then by three main side-canyon trails down to the Snake. Via paved and graveled county roads 23 miles south from Asotin, Washington, to Grande Ronde takeout.
Various other Forest Service roads lead into canyon overlooks on both sides of the river. One of the main access points is the Wallowa Valley Loop Road, Forest Road 39. It cuts across the recreation area between Joseph, Oregon, and Richland, Oregon. There's a paved overlook off this road. The overlook at Hat Point is very popular. To reach it, go to Imnaha, Oregon and travel the gravel road marked for Hat Point Lookout. You can climb the lookout tower once there.
WHERE TO STAY:
This entire region is wilderness or near-wilderness. Limited commercial lodging in Brownlee/Oxbow area and more distant towns like Riggins, Cambridge and Richland. Superb Idaho Power Company RV and tent campgrounds near upper canyon reservoirs.
Rainbow trout, June through the following March or April; steelhead (if there is a season), September to March or April; smallmouth bass, anytime except winter or spring runoff time; sturgeon and catfish, anytime except during high water.
Idaho resident fishing license, $23.50; non-resident, $74.50 or daily at $10.50 for first day and $4.00 for each consecutive day. Steelhead permit, $11.50. Bank anglers must be licensed by the state they are in (Oregon or Idaho). Boat anglers can have licenses from either state. Jetboat, rafting, and guide fees and services vary widely.
WHO TO CONTACT:
Hells Canyon National Recreation Area Headquarters, P. O. Box 490, 88401 Hwy 82, Enterprise, OR 97828; 541/426-4978.
Hells Canyon NRA, Riggins Office, P. O. Box 832, Riggins, ID 83549; 208/628-3916.
Hells Canyon NRA, Snake River Office, P. O. Box 699, Clarkston, WA 99403;
Reprinted from -- Western Outdoors, April 1986 issue.
Updated for this online publication.