Hells Canyon Cast & Blast by Dave Kilhefner
Winning the steelhead lottery then chasing Chukars
On the last Powerball Lottery drawing I went down to my local convenience store and purchased a couple tickets. When I returned home my wife informed me that I had better odds of being struck by lightning—while drowning—than winning the Powerball lottery.
Well, on our trip to Hells Canyon with guide Adam Hocking of Steel Dreams guide service, Pam Vedder pulled off a steelhead powerball win by catching a steelhead on her very first cast. Not her first cast of the day, but on her first cast ever for steelhead!
I don’t know anyone else who can make that claim.
Caption: Pam Vedder fights her first steelhead.
Our adventure began with a 5 ½ hour drive from Portland, Oregon to Clarkston, Washington. We checked into the Quality Inn in Clarkston then went across the street to Walmart for fishing licenses.
A quick check of the fish counts showed good numbers of steelhead had ascended lower Granite Dam.
We rose early and made the 28 mile drive from Clarkston to Heller Bar. This is a pleasant drive along a paved road with gravel the last 4 miles. You can watch the Snake River make the transformation from a reservoir into a steelhead river.
Where the Grande Ronde meets the Snake River is Heller Bar. Today was a typical fall morning; clear skies and pleasantly crisp morning air. Big jet boats were loading up with anglers and above the boat ramp the bank was lined with hopeful anglers.
Looking across the river you can see what is probably the world’s most productive steelhead run; one half mile of perfect side drifting water that often kicks out several hundred steelhead each day with boats continually drifting down then running back up.
The average catch is five to twenty steelhead per boat per day.
Since the Snake is such a big river it can absorb a lot of angling pressure plus it’s inconveniently located, so the pressure never gets to combat level even when the fishing reports say fishing is white-hot.
Even though Pam got us off to a running start after a while the action slowed down. It happens, even at Heller Bar. This gave us time to talk about the finer points of steelhead fishing in Hells Canyon.
Steelhead season runs from mid-September until February with the peak from October to January. If you want to hook a lot of fish, side drifting is the way to go.
The section of river by Heller Bar is the most popular & productive side drifting area. Some outfitters will run upstream as far as the mouth of the Imnaha but you need to know what you are doing; this is very big water!
Side drifting tackle consists of medium-light rated spin rods rigged with 10- to 12-pound hi-vis mainline and corresponding fluorocarbon leaders about 4 feet long. At the business end are one or two snelled #4 hooks baited with eggs. Sometimes a small drift bobber or puff ball is employed to add color and keep your bait just up off the bottom in the strike zone.
For those anglers wanting a more relaxed approach pulling plugs works great too.
Since you get to sit and wait for a bite this technique is perfect for the angler that wants the whole experience of taking in the ample scenery while sipping coffee and enjoying some good fishing talk. Since steelhead migrate in waves the plug bite happens in waves too.
The Snake is bigger and deeper than any western river except the Columbia, so deep diving plugs are the rule, and half-ounce Luhr Jensen Hot Lips plugs are a local favorite. You’ll want to fish these with a casting rod rigged with 15-pound line in case a Chinook takes hold—while this time of year they are past their prime they are still very strong like to eat plugs too!
Bank anglers will find ample opportunities too.
The stretch at Heller Bar just below the mouth of the Grand Ronde is popular with lure tossers.
The lower Grande Ronde River is famous for steelhead fly fishing, but it can get very crowded. A lesser known and less crowded area is along the Snake River downstream of the boat ramp/resort area for about 10 miles. There is a series of bank fishing areas popular with Spey anglers. If you can get past the intimidation of the sheer size of the Snake River you’ll discover many steelhead migrate close to the shoreline and are receptive to flies and lures.
We chased the steelhead until about 11 a.m. then decided to break for lunch and then head upstream to find some chukars.
Heading upstream is an exciting jet boat ride through America’s deepest river gorge. The further upstream you go the steeper and rockier the Canyon gets.
About 10 miles upriver we powered down then quietly floated with the current, listening for calling chukars to pinpoint a good place to begin our hunt.
It didn’t take long to find the perfect spot.
There was a nice sandy beach for the boat. Then walkable grassy hillsides climbed up to steep slopes covered with broken rock. It was perfect chukar country and we could both see and hear the birds. Our dogs could sense the hunt was about to begin and trembled with excitement; they could not wait to get started!
We slowly hiked up along a dry creek bed until the brush got to thick and then found a game trail that side hilled towards some rocky scree slopes.
The birds were there but managed to stay just a little too far ahead of us. With the help of our hard-working dogs we managed to corner a few birds in a brushy area, then the dogs flushed them within shotgun range and we were able to seal the deal.
Chucker hunting is hard work but the views are second to none and Chukars make excellent table fare, satisfying your taste buds while bringing back sweet memories of the hunt.
If you see this kind of adventure in your future make contact with Adam at Steel Dreams Guide Service or contact Visit Lewis Clark Valley.
They’ll give you all the info you’ll need to plan a great trip!
- Written by Dave Kilhefner