Thursday, October 6, 2022

Fall is Prime Time in Hells Canyon! Trip report on our 4-day fishing trip!

Hanging out around the campfire is one of my favorite things to do on fall float trips. 
I pack in firewood in a dry bag so we have plenty. 

Hi all, 

A week ago, I had the privilege of visiting Hells Canyon once again on a fall fishing trip with a small group of good friends. Even though I've done tons of fall trips in Hells Canyon, I always am awe-struck by the steep, gnarled black cliffs rising from the canyon below Hells Canyon Dam. 

It's truly a magnificent sight to behold on a sunny day. On a rainy day, like we surprisingly had last Thursday, we had jet-black skies threatening overhead, combined with the austere black cliffs of Hells Canyon. My gut was churning big-time. 

Looks like rain! I hate rigging and packing my raft in the rain! But at the beginning of a trip, I've always got a ton of adrenaline pouring through me - a mix of excitement about being on the river again, apprehension about the big rapids in the biggest-scale whitewater experience in Idaho, overstressing about what I forgot or didn't forget in terms of group gear, and now, the weather. Whatever!   

We caught lots of nice small-mouth bass, all catch and release. Fun fighters! 

We got the boats loaded before the rain hit, and then we sat out the first burst of rain under a shelter at the put-in. And then it let up for a few hours. 

Time to start floating and fishing! My friends Jim Acee and Bruce Reichert were in the front of my raft, and Acee was ready to slay the bass and trout with two fishing poles in hand and all of the trusty spin-cast lures that work in Hells Canyon. Bruce was spin-fishing for the first time in decades since he normally fly fishes at high mountain lakes. But within minutes, both of them had fish on! 

Very slowly, I worked the eddies alongside the river, and the boys caught a number of small-mouth bass. Very few trout! 

In less than 4 miles, we made camp on this cool sand bar and natural cove in the cliffs on river right. Looking up at the sky, I could see a few patches of blue, but it looked mostly dark and more rain imminent. We put up my big-ass 16x20 foot tarp, set up our kitchen stuff under that, and we were ready to sip cocktails and enjoy the scenery, rain or no rain. 

My tarp is big enough to cover the kitchen area, plus lawn chairs!  

As many Idaho boaters know, fall river trips are a great way to enjoy cooler weather, fall colors, as well as fishing and bird hunting along the way, side-hikes, etc. Hells Canyon is one of my top picks because road access is relatively easy from Boise (5-hour drive), it's got more water flow (7,000-11,000 cfs) than other Idaho rivers this time of year, and the fishing is very consistent and pretty amazing, considering the variety of fish in the Snake River. 

People fish for rainbow trout, small-mouth bass, and sturgeon, plus steelhead are running now, and fall Chinook salmon also are running now. If you don't have your own raft, you can go with a Hells Canyon outfitter or book a jet boat ride with Hells Canyon Adventures, Hammer Down River Excursions, Kilgore Outfitters and more. See Riggins Chamber or IOGA for a full list of outfitters.

The logistics for Hells Canyon are as follows: Put in a Hells Canyon Dam and float to Pittsburg Landing, a distance of about 35 miles. This trip is easily doable in three or four days. My advice: Take as much time as possible. After Labor Day, only self-issue permits are required, available at the put-in. Shuttles can be arranged through Scotty's gas station in Pine, Oregon for $225 cash. They do a marvelous job!

Below Sheep Creek ... sturgeon road ahead! 

On Day 2, I had Bruce oar the raft and I fished with Jim in the bow. The fishing was hot! We hooked a ton of bass throughout the day. We cast against the black canyon cliffs into these nifty little coves and small pools, and bam! Fish on! We released all of the bass because we had Bruce's famous chicken piccata to look forward to for dinner! Plus pineapple upsidedown cake in the Dutch oven.

But first, we ran Wild Sheep Rapids, the first big Class 4 drop at about Mile 8. I went up on the mountainside to scout the big rapid, and at 7,000+ cfs, the best route looked like the typical run for this time of year. You enter on the left-center side of this massive rapids, and then row super hard to the right-center of the rapids, and hit a narrow slot as a giant left lateral wave merges with a giant right lateral wave.

We saw a group of kayakers and one raft approach, and the lead kayaker was barking orders to the other kayakers and they didn't scout. Well, the lead kayaker made the right move, and the rest of the kayakers got absolutely slammed by a wall of 12-foot left lateral waves on the left-center side of the rapids. That was interesting to watch! Long swims for those dudes. 

Bruce and Jim 

But I hit the slot, and Kristin Nelson nailed the run as well in our group, so we were homefree to make our next camp and enjoy Bruce's chicken piccata. This time around, Bruce moisturized his dried morels with white wine, and that really added a tasty zip to those luscious shrooms! 

Third night camp. Rosy clouds hint of the sunset to come.

The next day, we needed to make some tracks. We floated through all of the whitewater rapids without a problem, caught more bass, and lunched at Johnson Bar. We ended up at Caribou Creek camp that night and had chili from Kristin and her husband, John Blanchard. The sun came out with a vengeance that afternoon, to the point where I had to swim to cool off! Quite the contrast to the start of our trip. 

Anyway, I highly recommend a fall trip in Hells Canyon. 

Here are a few other options for fall trips:     

  • Lower Salmon Canyon - Float from Hammer Creek to Heller Bar or arrange for a jet boat shuttle to Pittsburg Landing from the mouth of the Salmon. It's almost 50 miles from Hammer Creek to the mouth of the Salmon, and the river is running very low, so allow for plenty of time to do your float. Fishing is limited to small-mouth bass and steelhead in this section. 
  • Salmon River near Riggins - If you don't have time to do a longer trip, you could put in at Carey Creek or Vinegar Creek and float down to Riggins while fishing for steelhead and hunting chukars. 
  • South Fork Snake River - Put in at Palisades Dam for the long version of the float or at Swan Valley and float to the takeout at Heise. The South Fork Lodge in Swan Valley does shuttles. Check with the experts on what kinds of flies the fish are taking. The cuts on the South Fork get fished very hard by a steady stream of outfitters every day. By this time of year, it's more locals than outfitters. Here's a blog post I did on the South Fork two years ago. 
Fall trips provide great opportunities to see wildlife.
We've seen multiple black bears in Hells Canyon. 

Steve talks about his latest outdoor adventures with Ken and Melissa on 94.9 FM The River every Friday morning at about 7:40 a.m. Please tune in! 

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