Hell’s Canyon Adventures
By Mike Carey
Climbing ever higher I reached the Lolo Pass, retracing the route of Lewis and Clark, marveling at the beauty of the wood-covered peaks. As quickly as I hit the pass, I began a long, 99-mile descent, the road following the Lochsa River as it grew ever bigger and faster, dotted by whitewater rafters rowing through impressive whitewater rapids. As I finally reached the bottom the river spread out and slowed down. I was getting close to my destination, the town of Riggins – a whitewater and fishing gateway to Idaho’s Snake River. Joining up with Rob and Hillary Holman, and their daughter Cameron, and Paul Hamilton, AKA “The Bait Boy”, we would be heading out for an epic trip in the morning with Kilgore Adventures to explore and fish this historic region of Central Idaho.
When people talk about whitewater action and fishing in Idaho, the Snake River, known as Hell’s Canyon, is what most people think of. The Snake River cuts the deepest canyon in the United States, deeper than the Grand Canyon. Multiple class 3-4 rapids to challenge rafters and jetboater alike. The waters hold a plethora of fish species, including rainbow, cutthroat, bull and steelhead trout, chinook salmon, smallmouth bass, mountain whitefish, and our planned quarry, massive sturgeon. I’d caught a sturgeon on the Snake River a few years ago and was eager to have another chance to see these powerful fish on the end of a rod.
With excited anticipation we met at our vacation rental and set plans for the coming day. We would be getting up early to meet with owner Kurt Kilgore of Kilgore’s Adventures and hit the water. Kurt has over 25 years of experience on the rivers of Idaho and was named Idaho Guide of the Month in 2017. His company runs two jet boats on the Snake River as well as ATV and helicopter tours.
The morning came bright and early with the sound of rain outside coming to an end just in time for our drive to Kilgore’s staging area. The town of Riggins lies right along the time zone change between Mountain and Pacific Time, making an interesting 5:30am debate over what time we should be leaving. One thing was for sure – the coffee stand opening at 6am in the middle of this remote town was a deciding factor for us Pacific Northwest coffee addicts!
Driving the pass from Kilgore’s store over to Pittsburg Landing, my legs became just a bit rubbery as we climbed higher and higher. Switchbacks and sheer drop-offs not with-standing, the view was beyond awesome. Watching Kurt tow his giant jet boat up the hill made me glad it wasn’t me behind the wheel. The pass is not for the faint of heart and requires a strong tow vehicle with good tire tread to keep steady on the gravel road. We made it safely to the landing as a collection of Snake River jet boats idled, picking up anglers and site-searers for a trip of a lifetime.
The Snake River is home to some massive white sturgeon, with a state record of 119.5, just shy of ten feet. Kurt was hoping to get us on a ten-footer during this trip. While rare, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game say they are out there and have caught them during sampling studies. They estimate a fish this size could be anywhere from 70-100 years old! One note on safe catch and release of these fish – Kilgores, Snake River Dancer Excursions, and other outfitters are skilled at safely catching and releasing these amazing fish. Idaho Department of Fish and Game have specific gear rules to protect these fish. They include barbless only hooks, minimum of 50 pound mono recommended (no braid as it can cut into the flesh of these fish), and a sliding swivel device going to a lighter gauge line on the drop weight to prevent “ghost gear” in the river. Fish are to remain in the water with no ropes applied around the tail, head, or body. These rules seem to be working as Kurt related the catch and release fishery is vibrant (and year-round).
Joining us in our boat were “Z” and Ken, members of the Inland Northwest Wildlife Council. One of the missions of the council is to protect, create, and enhance the fish and wildlife habitat and environment. Another mission they have which we learned more about is their Disabled Access Committee, in which they work with private companies and government agencies to remove barriers and provide land access to hunters and anglers throughout the Pacific Northwest. It’s a worthy cause that we can all get behind. For more information check out the INWC website or call Ken McNaughton at 509-533-9135.
The outfitters on the Snake River can accommodate wheelchair access, and the large jet boats are safe and comfortable for those with disabilities, making this an ideal outdoor adventure for the wheelchair-bound.
Sturgeon fishing is a bit of a waiting game and a bit of “run and gun”, searching the various holes from the landing all the way up to the Hell’s Canyon dam. Going through those rapids Kurt and other outfitters demonstrate a skill level operating these 26-30 foot jet boats that is unsurpassed.
We ran several class 3-5 rapids, fishing various holes along the way. The bite was tough on this trip due to a recent storm coming through. Each stop we made we also fished for trout and smallmouth bass which are plentiful and a lot of fun while waiting for the big sturgeon to bite. If the rapid running and scenery aren’t enough for you, the non-stop bass action will have you – hooked. These fish run 10-16 inches and are easy to catch, perfect for keeping the younger anglers entertained until the big fish comes along.
Our boat hooked and caught a couple nice sturgeon on this trip. “Bait Boy” Paul got on his first sturgeon, a nice six footer that gave him a real workout. Paul was quite excited with his first sturgeon and had a blast bringing it in for photos and a safe release. Later in the day, Z got into a beauty that was also in the 6-7 foot range. Catching this fish from his wheelchair, I was reminded that it’s not “dis”-abilities, is “abilities” that are what is important. I thought back to the many clients I have seen while working as a home health nurse. What a fun and amazing experience to be able to get someone who is wheelchair bound on an adventure to Hell’s Canyon to catch a giant sturgeon! The term “bucket list” can be over-used I think, but in this case Hell’s Canyon easily makes the list!
For more information on Hells Canyon fishing contact Kilgore’s Adventures at 208-839-2255 or Snake Dancer Excursions at 509-758-8927.