By Mike Carey
The shadows stretched over the river, causing an ever-changing view of one of the Pacific Northwest’s greatest treasures, Hells Canyon, on the Snake River bordering Washington, Oregon, and Idaho. Around us canyon walls of basalt lava climbed over one mile to the west rim on the Oregon side and 7,400 feet below the peaks of the Seven Devils Mountain range to the east. Hells Canyon began being carved out by the Snake River around seven million years ago. More recently flooding from glacial Lake Bonneville in Utah 15,000 years ago further shaped this ever-changing landscape into what we see today.
With names like Hells Canyon and Seven Devils Mountains you know you’re entering a special kind of country. I’ve had the good fortune of taking in the canyon two times now, in the spring and in late summer, and can honestly say there is no place quite like it on earth, and certainly nothing close to its rugged and harsh beauty in the Pacific Northwest. Best of all, it is a day trip away from most of the Pacific Northwest, yet once you get there you’ll feel a million miles removed from the frantic rush of day to day living in the big cities.
This year the NWF crew got together with a couple of guests to join Gabe Castle of Snake Dancer Excursions for two days of a “Cast and Blast” adventure. The cast part of the trip was for fall chinook, and the blast part was for the opening weekend of Chukar hunting. To say I was excited is an understatement, having never targeted either species on the Snake River.
After a quick flight from Seattle to Spokane I met up with Bruce Blarney, owner of the General Store in Spokane. We loaded up my gear, including 12 gauge shotgun, and hit the road for Hellers Bar where we would be meeting the rest of the gang and motoring up to Gabe’s cabin. By the way, if you’ve never traveled on a plane with a shotgun, it’s not a difficult thing. There are some specific rules to follow; including you can only transport the gun, in a hard shell, locked case, and absolutely no ammunition. Do give yourself an extra 15 minutes to go through the extra paper work and inspections required.
A quick 2 ½ hour drive later and we had arrived at Heller Bar, which is a beautiful 30 mile drive from the last town of any size, Asotin, WA. We met up with the rest of the gang, Rob Holman, Aaron Borg, and another two guests and loaded our gear into Gabe’s jet boat and ran the three miles to his cabin – in the dark, always fun. Gabe has made this run so often he could do it blindfolded I think.
The next morning we were up and on the water at 6am, working our way up the Snake River. Unlike our previous spring trip for sturgeon, the water level was lower, which actually made for some very exciting rapids to run up. Gabe expertly guided our jet boat through each rapid to our destination, the confluence of the Salmon and Snake rivers. It is here that the chinook will mill about, deciding which way to go. Cold water flowing in from the Salmon River into deep pools make this an ideal holding spot for these prized Chinook that have travel so far and over so many dams to arrive in this special location. Unlike many runs, this run of Chinook is healthy - to the point that the State of Idaho allowing anglers to keep one unclipped Chinook per day. And lest you think the dark color of the fish on the outside means smoker only material, rest assured they do indeed cut deep red with firm flesh, and taste amazing!
We arrived at our spot and broke out the gear. Side-drifting eggs and corkies was the order of the day. We were equipped with G Loomis spinning rods and silky smooth reels, a perfect combination to handle even the bigger chinook that make the long journey home. These fish are hard fighting brutes as we would find out over the next two days.
Minutes into the first drift Rob called out “Fish On” and was into a beautiful king salmon. The fish made multiple runs and jumps as we went through one set of rapids and then another. Finally, wore out (the fish that is), our deckhand Clayton skillfully swooped the fish up as Rob guided it in. Just like that, five minutes into our first day we had the skunk out of the boat.
“That’s just the start guys, pull em up and let’s hit that drift again, the fish are in here!” Gabe didn’t need to tell us twice as the five other anglers on the boat eyed what they hoped would be on the end of their lines next.
We continued on throughout the morning, picking off a fish at this spot, another at that spot… so it went. More strong chinook, running 12-18 pounds, and throw in a few jacks for good measure and we had the makings of productive morning. Everyone got a fish, that is, except for me. I touched a couple but just didn’t the hook to set. Oh well. As I’ve gotten older I find more and more it’s about the experience and the actual fish are secondary. And what an experience the fishing this stretch of the Snake is! You feel like you’ve gone back in a time machine as the canyon walls close in on you like some scene out of Jurassic Park.
As the morning lengthened Gabe announced it was time to put the rods away for a few hours and begin the second part of our adventure, the “blast” part of Cast and Blast. Our quarry was Chukar, an upland bird that is a member of the partridge family. A little bigger than a quail, chukars are covey birds. Our first sighting of chukar was eight to ten birds lined up on a rock, watching us watch them. Gabe edged the boat to a sandy spot and three hunters stepped off and headed toward the birds. In a matter of a few seconds they flushed up and away. Bamm! Shoot guns rang out and we watched two birds drop to the ground. Allie, Gabe’s German Short Hair, jumped to action and climbed over rocks and through prickly brush, returning with our first birds of the trip. And it was my first chukar, by the way.
A word to the wise when hunting chukar along the Snake River – be prepared for a workout. Our first flush was pretty easy, but our second flush found us climbing up a thirty to forty five degree hillside of broken rocks, shale, granite and slick basalt. Throw into the mix cactus and a small shrub that managed to leave its needles in just about every part of my body and you have a real hunter’s challenge. I made the terrible error of not bringing a good pair of ankle high hiking boots. That’s not a mistake I will ever make again, I can promise you that. The chance of turning an ankle is very real so come prepared. I would also recommend long pants, despite the heat of Hells Canyon, to give you proper protection for your legs. Finally, a hat and sunglasses are essential. Water we had plenty of on our boat.
Gabe had our day planned out to fish, hunt, fish, and hunt again. Methodical in his planning, he has been hunting and fishing Hells Canyon for many years and knows the river and surrounding hills down to each riffle and rock. He knew the best time to fish would be first thing, as the chukars like coming down to water in the later morning and then will climb back up the slope during the day.
Our two days of Cast and Blast continued on as we got into a comfortable routine of catching fish and shooting chukars. The weekend went by much too quickly like all good trips do. In the end, new friendships formed, our group headed home with coolers packed with fresh chinook and chukar, and our minds packed with awesome memories of an adventure I can hardly wait to repeat. While the Cast and Blast adventures are only available at certain times of the year, there is fishing practically year round for steelhead, over-sized sturgeon, trout, catfish, and the ever present smallmouth bass.
To learn more and go on your own Hells Canyon adventure, contact Gabe Castle at Snake Dancer Excursions 1-800-234-1941.