By Diana Rupp
A wave rolled over the nose of the rubber raft, briefly drenching the two of us sitting in front before draining harmlessly back into the roiling river. Our river guide, Mike, leaned on one of his oars and said, “Cast into that seam on your left!”
Without hesitating, I sent the red-and-silver Mepps No. 2 spinner in an arcing cast to splash down on the far side of the current seam, let it sink for a moment, and then began reeling rapidly. The trout hit hard, bending my spinning rod almost double as it raced for the safety of deeper water. I fought it for a couple of minutes as it made several hard runs before I was able to bring it to hand—a gorgeous 18-inch rainbow. I released it back into the chilly water and grinned at my fishing partner, Nate, who had just hooked a nice smallmouth on a tube jig in the slack water close to shore and was holding it up admire.
“Cast again!” Mike urged. “There are lots of fish in this river!”
Two casts later, I was hooked up with another rainbow, this one even bigger than the first. When I brought it in the boat, Mike suggested we keep it. As I carefully placed it in the cooler, he said, “That one will make great sturgeon bait.” Sturgeon bait? I thought. Casting into another current seam, I hooked yet another big rainbow trout, and then another, and I was having so much fun I forgot to ask Mike what he was talking about.
It was only the first morning of our four-day float trip through Hells Canyon, on the border of Oregon and Idaho, the deepest canyon in North America—even deeper than the far more famous Grand Canyon. Well over a mile below the canyon rim winds the mighty Snake River, which carved this magnificent gorge on its way to convergence with the Columbia River in Washington state. The canyon itself, part of the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, contains some 214,000 acres of wilderness, almost all of it inaccessible by road. This makes Hells Canyon a top destination for outdoor adventure—especially fishing, hunting, whitewater rafting, and hiking.
The difficulty in access, combined with excellent habitat, makes this section of the Snake a world-class fishery. Smallmouth bass and rainbow trout are available all year, with hundred-fish days a distinct possibility. The river also hosts runs of steelhead and chinook salmon in the spring and fall. With four hydroelectric dams blocking the lower part of the Snake, the spawning runs are not what they used to be, but anglers still find both species with regularity. When our flotilla of five rafts stopped for a shore lunch a few hours later, I learned that my friend Matt, who was in another raft, had landed a nice chinook that morning while I was distracted by the frenetic trout fishing. Thanks to him, we’d enjoy fresh salmon filets for dinner in camp that evening.
This cast-and-blast float trip, outfitted by America’s Rafting Company based in Cambridge, Idaho, would take us from our launch point just below Hells Canyon Dam some thirty-four river miles down to our take-out point at Pittsburg Landing, Idaho. Along the way, we would run a few Class IV rapids; camp along the river at night; fish for the river’s many species; and hike up the steep walls of the canyon, Benelli shotguns in hand, to hunt chukar partridge. We were treated to magnificent scenery as we drifted past unconcerned black bears, bighorn sheep, and bald eagles, and, perhaps best of all, we enjoyed four days in a true roadless wilderness without the distractions of cell or internet service.
Although I never tire of catching big trout, I decided on day two to sample the smallmouth fishing, so I tied on a tube jig and made my casts into deeper holes along the shoreline as the raft drifted downriver. Time and again, a feisty smallmouth bass hit the jig, leaping and twisting in classic smallmouth fashion. I lost count of the bass we hooked and landed. Just before lunch, Nate hooked what he assumed was another bass on his jig—and then his eyes widened as he realized it was a much larger fish. Reeling in my own line, I focused on his fight as he grappled with the fish, finessing it on the overmatched bass rod. We caught a glimpse of the fish—an impressive chinook salmon—just as it rolled near the boat, broke the light line, and swam free. Nate was dismayed, but we all agreed it was an epic fight.
“You never know what you might catch in these waters,” Mike reminded us.
True to his words, that very evening, we were treated to a glimpse of one of the Snake River’s most ancient residents. While the rest of us relaxed with beers around a campfire, Mike had rigged up a sturgeon set along the shoreline using a heavy saltwater rod with a casting reel, a sinker, and my big rainbow trout as bait. It turns out that the Snake is one of the finest sturgeon fishing grounds in the northwestern US. The largest freshwater fish in North America, the white sturgeon can grow up to twelve feet in length and live to be hundreds of years old. Sturgeon fishing is strictly catch-and-release in Hells Canyon, and you can’t remove any fish from the water, so the river holds an abundance of these huge, prehistoric-looking fish.
Long after dark, the bell he had rigged up on the rod tip dinged, and we all rushed down to the river to watch the action. After fifteen-minute fight, the fish was reeled in alongside one of the rafts and the guides gently turned it belly-up underwater as our headlamps illuminated it. We marveled at its tube-like mouth and nearly six-foot length. The fish was gently unhooked, and when the guides turned it carefully over, it swam ponderously away, giving us a good look at its barbels and the bony, dinosaur-like plates on its back. We would catch dozens more bass and trout on our way down the canyon, but this rare glimpse of a prehistoric-looking fish that had been swimming in this mighty river longer than any of us had been alive would stay with us long after our epic Hells Canyon adventure had ended.