In the late 1800s, engineers sought a passage to build a railroad in the Snake River gorge. A decade after they threw up their hands and left, it was called Hells Canyon. Today, we call it a piece of heaven between Idaho and Oregon.
There were 15 of us on a boat during 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 Hells 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 down, 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.
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 and 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. 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, 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 shoal of bass. On every cast for about 20 minutes, I hooked one fish after another, the biggest about 15 inches.
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 dropped them in hot peanut oil. Cholula 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 rimrock. 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 Hells Canyon is the whistle of a train.