The Snake River scribes the border between Idaho and Oregon and Idaho and Oregon and Washington. Who is guarding the gate? It’s a horde of smallmouth bass, ready to do battle.

By Gary Lewis

In the late 1800s, engineers sought a passage to build a railroad in the Snake River gorge and when, after a decade, they threw up their hands and left, they called it Hell Canyon. Today we call it a piece of heaven between Idaho and Oregon.

After the sun went off the water on Hells Canyon Reservoir, the bass elevated in the water column. Scott Sneer, of Vancouver, Washington, caught this smallmouth when it hammered a topwater plug cast toward shore.  [Photo by Gary Lewis]

After the sun went off the water on Hells Canyon Reservoir, the bass elevated in the water column. Scott Sneer, of Vancouver, Washington, caught this smallmouth when it hammered a topwater plug cast toward shore. [Photo by Gary Lewis]

There were 15 of us on a boat, on a corporate fish camp trip with Alpha Ecological, a Northwest-based pest control company.

For a couple of days, their attentions were turned to smallmouth bass, crappie, catfish and sturgeon, instead of termites and cockroaches.

We let the current push us away from the launch, downstream from the Hell’s Canyon Dam. Two Ford 351 Cleveland engines rumbled in the deck beneath our feet. Mark Yates turned the boat in a sweeping circle and powered us downstream.

Three miles downstream, Yates nosed the boat onto a gravel beach. Four guys jumped out and then Yates backed out and dropped another group on the next beach.

It can happen anytime on any smallmouth river, but it is more likely to happen on the Snake or the Columbia. Somebody was going to hook a big fish today, I told myself, and it might as well be me. That meant I had to cast a little farther, drift the bait a bit deeper.

Some of the guys threw Blue Fox spinners because bass will grab them and so will trout. But for bigger bass, the best bet is a crawdad imitation. It is hard to beat the fish-catching power of a lead head and a tube.

“Any color will work here,” Randy Mishler said, “as long as it is brown.”

To start, I rigged up with an Outlaw Baits skirted tube and cast to the current  seam. Want to know what the bottom looks like? Look up. This is the deepest gorge in North America and when rock decides to roll, it ends up in the river as so much smallmouth habitat.

With a white fluke rigged wacky-style, Lewis hooked a fish on every cast for about 20 minutes. [Photo by Gary Lewis]

With a white fluke rigged wacky-style, Lewis hooked a fish on every cast for about 20 minutes. [Photo by Gary Lewis]

Along the river’s edge, big eddies turn the current back upstream and here, in the softer water, is where the bass are to be found.

“See those foam lines?” Yates said. “That’s where the bass are.”

The trick is to get the bait as close to the rocky structure as possible, bump the bottom, crawl over the rocks, fall down the other side, like a crayfish on the move.

When the fish commits to the bait, it opens its mouth and flares its gill plates to expel water, which creates a vacuum. The bait is inhaled and as soon as the fish feels the hook, it spits it out. If the angler feels anything, it is a brief tick on the line or a heaviness in the rod tip. That is the time to strike, to drive the hook home.

When the bass are active, a fisherman doesn’t have to be good. And today the fish were active. Our smallmouth averaged about 12 inches long. Those rods that cast spinners also caught trout, the biggest of which went about 18 inches.

At every opportunity, I ran my olive or brown Outlaw tube through the rocks, but at one stop, I switched to the one white bait in my vest, a plastic fluke with a split tail.

Rigged wacky-style, the fluke must have triggered something in what must have been a tremendous pod of bass. On every cast for about 20 minutes, I hooked up, one fish after another, the biggest of which ran about 15 inches.

Cook, fish or cut bait? On a corporate trip in Hells Canyon, anglers prepare a shore lunch, while Scott and Larry Sneer (center) bait up for catfish. [Photo by Gary Lewis]

Cook, fish or cut bait? On a corporate trip in Hells Canyon, anglers prepare a shore lunch, while Scott and Larry Sneer (center) bait up for catfish. [Photo by Gary Lewis]

I am going back to fish camp on the Snake and you can bet I will have a bag of white flukes with me. There was something about the color that made every smallmouth that saw it want it. Twice I hooked bass that battled so hard and long they eventually worked free from the hook without letting me see them.

We amassed a load of keepers in the livewell and along about noon, Sean Ericson built a fire against a boulder. When the fire was down to coals, Randy Mishler rolled the fillets in flour and then into hot peanut oil. Chalula sauce and seasoning finished them off and Mishler served the meal in leaves of lettuce.

Four channel cats arrived too late for the fish fry, but are sure to be guests of honor soon. Larry Sneer landed a sturgeon we estimated at close to seven feet while Jason Muckey brought in a four-footer.
On a long back-eddy, I hooked a fish that bent the rod over hard. I kept the pressure on and when the big bass showed at the surface, it threw the hook.

These smallmouth, some say, are here because railroad men brought them from the East Coast. It is a fish well-suited to the rugged canyon, an eager biter and a brawler worthy of the big whitewater.

If you go, you’ll hear hawks high in the thermals and chukar in the rim rock. Thanks to a few homesick railroad men you’ll hear the splash of bass on the surface and line burning off the reel. You might hear the rumble of a jet boat, but the one sound you’ll never catch in  Hell’s Canyon is the whistle of a train.

To order a signed copy of Hunting Oregon, send $24.95 (includes S&H) to Gary Lewis Outdoors, PO Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709 or visit www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com.

Smallmouth Fly Tactics
Hoofing it along the bank, I converted my Fikkes hiking staff into the fly rod nestled inside and soon had a bass grab my streamer. The fly rod accounted for a number of fish from the seams and eddies on the Snake.
    It’s not hard to catch smallmouth on the fly in smaller streams, but bigger water requires different tactics and the payoff can be bigger fish. One of the best new resources for the fly angler is a DVD from Fly Fish TV called Smallmouth Fly Tactics with Joe Warren.
    In his new video, Warren teaches six techniques and describes how to use depth and temperature charts to target smallies throughout the season. Most important, Warren teaches how to find the fish based on water temperature, structure and depth. Warren’s home water is the Columbia, so he knows a little bit about trophy bass.
    Smallmouth Fly Tactics is available from Cascade Media Works at www.flyfishtv.com and 800-359-3474.
-Gary Lewis
Shore Lunch Peach Cobbler
I bring my Camp Chef Dutch oven because you can’t control the fishing, but you can make sure that there is something good to eat at the end of the day. I whipped up a dessert that I think our anglers won’t soon forget. Here’s how to put the Dutch oven to work at your next fish camp.
    Start the charcoal burning (you’ll need 24-30 charcoal briquettes), or build a fire in a safe place and use the coals to cook your dessert. Spray your Dutch oven with non-stick cooking spray.
    Cover the bottom of the Dutch oven with 1/8 packet of cake mix. Pour in 1 oz of lemon-lime soda evenly over cake mix. Pour in contents of peach can. Use some of the syrup and discard the rest. Pour in the rest of the contents of the cake mix packet, distributing evenly to cover the peaches. Pour in 9 oz of lemon lime soda evenly over the cake mix. Slice several chunks of butter onto the top of the cobbler.
    Cover the Dutch oven. For a 12-inch Dutch oven, use approximately 10 briquettes beneath the oven. Put 16-20 briquettes on the lid. Cooking will take 45 to 60 minutes, depending on amount of charcoal, ambient temperature and wind. Cobbler will feed 8 people.
INGREDIENTS


  • Cake Mix (Crumb Cake, Spice Cake or Yellow Vanilla)
  • 16-20 oz of Sliced Peaches
  • 10 oz of lemon-lime soda
  • Butter
  • Vanilla Ice Cream or Non-Dairy whipped topping
-Gary Lewis