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Best in the West? Catfish Quest on the Snake River

The Snake may be better known for trout, salmon and even sturgeon, but its catfishing is among the finest in the region.

Best in the West? Catfish Quest on the Snake River
Hells Canyon provides a stunning backdrop to one of the West’s most unheralded whiskerhead fisheries. (Shutterstock image)

The water was big and brown, the willows flooded past the shoreline. It was not likely to matter to the catfish. If anything, they probably like it better when they can scoot up into a cow pasture and retreat to the river again when the sun rises.

Cousin Neil turned the North River sled in a wide arc and triangulated: a point of rocks on this side, a gravel bar on the other, upstream of an overhanging tree, a skosh closer to the Oregon bank than the Idaho side, just out of the main current.

It was a matter of minutes before Cousin Matt caught a fish and then a few minutes more until he caught another, both 15-inchers. After that we didn’t catch another cat under 20 inches. Channel cats and flatheads can get a lot bigger in the Snake River where it marks the border between Oregon and Idaho.

THINK STINK

Word on the street was Mormon crickets were the hot ticket, but crickets were hard to find within a 40-mile radius of Farewell Bend State Park; our fellow anglers had Hoovered the available supply. The next best option was shrimp, but we didn’t buy our shrimp until the last minute and they looked good enough to eat. What you want to do, though, is let those shrimp sit in the sun and get a little ripe. Catfish baits are a highly developed artform.

Up front, Matt slipped the big anchor over the side and Neil powered back to set it in position. Friend Trevor Barclay called out the depth at 37 feet. A couple fish showed low in the water column on the sonar. Neil’s wife Amy kept a hand on the back of 5-year-old Tabor’s life jacket.

I thumbed the reel, flipped the lever into free-spool and fed line behind the boat. When the weight touched bottom, I walked it back. The line counter read 58. Our baits consisted of a chunk of shrimp and a chunk of nightcrawler. To further stinkify the offering, I applied a marinade of Pro-Cure’s Garlic Plus and Bloody Tuna Fish Oil to mine.

catfish caught at night
On the author’s trip to the Snake, the biggest catfish, including this plus-size channel cat, were boated well after dark. (Photo by Gary Lewis)

GET IN-LINE

Load your reel with 12- to 50-pound-test monofilament or braid—anything that casts well and can stand up to big fish. I like Dacron for the leader. On the terminal end, use single bait hooks of No. 4 and bigger. Some anglers prefer circle or egg hooks while others use trebles.

Using a Palomar knot, I tied a large snap swivel to my main line, then used another Palomar to tie on 24 inches of Dacron to which I added a 3-ounce lead ball. I knotted two hooks in the line about 12 inches apart. This is a simple in-line presentation for the flat bottom of the Snake when there is a lot of current.

Out of the main channel in lighter current, try rigging with a large three-way swivel. On one side, loop on the weight. On the other, tie 24 inches of Dacron or mono and add two hooks. Knot one at the end and use a loop knot to afix the other above it. In areas where there is a lot of silt, attaching a 2-inch peg float in front of the hook to get the bait up into the line of sight of roving fish is a smart idea.

HELLS (CANYON) BELLS

I had the stinkiest bait on the boat, and it wasn’t long before I was fighting the biggest catfish of my life. I haven’t caught a lot of cats, so when I hooked a 5-pounder, it was a new personal best. The 6-pounder I caught a short while later dethroned it.

Toward dusk we watched fishermen haul buckets of bait and chairs down the bank to set up on the river’s edge. A few jet boaters pulled into position. Although the numbers of fish didn’t increase as the sun descended, the size of them did, with most running 6 pounds and better. I wanted a bigger fish.

I was using a 9-foot Castaway rod built for salmon, with a reel loaded with PowerPro braid. I have caught a few big lake trout on this rod, and a salmon or two, but it is now my new favorite catfish tamer.

Recommended


After dark I clipped a Tackle Beacon Bell-and-Lightstick Combo 6 inches down from the tip. It wasn’t long before the bells rang and a fish almost ripped the rod out of the holder. I fought it for 6 minutes before Tabor got the net under it and lifted it into the boat.

“I’m strong,” the young boy proclaimed. It was a pretty good lift for him, and when we put the fish on the scale it weighed in at 8 pounds, 12 ounces—another new personal-best channel cat. I let it go into the dark river and watched it kick away.

Know Before You Go
catfish on snake river
Chunks of nightcrawler and shrimp, fished together on a bait hook, can produce good eating-size catfish all along the Snake River. (Photo by Gary Lewis)
  • Where to headquarter for a Snake River catfishing adventure.

Catfish can be found in all the Snake River impoundments. Beginning upriver, Brownlee Reservoir is a 57-mile stretch of water full of cats and crappies. Downstream from Brownlee is Oxbow Reservoir, another catfish-and-crappie powerhouse best accessed through Copperfield on the Oregon side via Baker City and Halfway. Camping is available at Copperfield. Below Oxbow is the 22-mile Hells Canyon Reservoir with a good road running down the Idaho side.

Farewell Bend State Park, near Huntington, Ore., is one of the top places for catching a 30-pound cat. It offers civilized camping with 91 sites with power and water, 23 tent sites with water and two pet-friendly log cabins that must be reserved in advance. Other amenities include flush toilets, showers, an off-leash dog park, an RV dump station and a fish-cleaning station.

The towns of Huntington, Richland and Halfway, Ore., are all within striking distance of Brownlee, Oxbow and Hells Canyon reservoirs. One of my favorite places to stay is Pine Valley Lodge (pvlodge.com) in Halfway, an old stagecoach stop with all the Old West flavor still intact.

Richland, Ore., is a great little city of 156 people where a fisherman can get a burger or a cup of coffee. Best of all, it’s just moments away from the Powder River arm of Brownlee Reservoir.

Huntington is an out-of-the-way stop where you can get a good meal if the restaurant is open. Check the hours before you make the drive, though. The traveling angler will need either an Idaho or an Oregon fishing license. For an outfitted catfish, bass and/or crappie trip on Brownlee, Oxbow or Hells Canyon reservoirs, contact Hells Canyon Adventures (hellscanyonadventures.com).




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