Few river systems in the Pacific Northwest can boast the consistency of the Snake River’s hatchery steelhead run. In addition to the Snake itself, the Grande Ronde, Imnaha, and Salmon Rivers, all tributaries to the Snake, see healthy plants of hatchery steelhead each and every year.
The Heller Bar area south of Clarkston, WA is the epicenter of much of the steelhead angling that occurs on the Snake. From the latter part of September to as late as February as many as 150,000 steelhead, sometimes even more, will make their up the mighty Snake, migrating thru the Heller Bar area as they do so. You read that right, 150,000 steelhead!
Both the numbers and consistency are what drew legendary steelhead guide, Mike Kelly, and his wife Linda to the Snake over a decade ago. As runs on the Southwest Washington rivers began to plummet in the mid-90’s the Snake was only getting better. Mike and Linda moved to the banks of the Grande Ronde River, just upstream from it’s confluence with the Snake, in the late 90’s and they’ve been running steelhead trips there ever since. With just a quarter mile drive from home to the boat launch at Heller Bar you’ll find their flame-sided jet sled on the river every day from early October on thru the winter months.
With over 35 years of full time guiding under his belt Mike’s accomplishments are just too darned long to list, but one thing that bears mentioning here is that he and some other fellows were the first to introduce side drifting as we do it today in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Side drifting hasn’t changed much in the last 30 years, with light spinning rods, short lengths of lead, and small baits still accounting for most of the steelhead caught.
Rob and Linda with a Limit of Snake River Steelhead Caught in early October of 2005
This definitely isn’t Mike’s first rodeo, so if you really want to learn this deadly technique a trip with Mike is in order. In addition, you’ll also get to witness Linda’s mastery of “Zen” fishing. I have no idea what it is or how it works, all I know is that every time I fish with them she catches so many fish I leave the river questioning my manhood. Darned women, anyways!
Fishing the Heller Bar Area
Rogersburg is the row of houses just upstream from the mouth of the Grande Ronde. Backtroll plugs in the deep slot on the Washington side or side drift the long bar across from the houses on the Idaho side.
Self sufficient campers will find plenty of room in the public access above Heller Bar off the Snake River Rd. There are no hookups, however, so it takes a trip back to Clarkston to fill up on water and dump the hold. Bank anglers will line the length of Heller Bar and will score fish on drift fished row, prawns, and orange or red corkys. Swinging spoons across the broad run also account for plenty of hookups. Space permitting, fly fisherman also do very well just below the mouth of the Grande Ronde intercepting fish holding in the main river before they make their way up the tributary.
Side drifters in sleds will generally start at the seam between the Snake and Grande Ronde and drift all the way downstream to the fast water in the tail out. The bar across the river on the Idaho side also holds fish. Pluggers do best back trolling the seam formed by the Grande Ronde and Snake.
This is the small bar right across from the Heller Bar Boat Launch. Don’t let the fast water fool you, as fish will hold from the edge of the bar all the way to the center of the river. Strap on extra lead to side drift this one and crank up the throttle on the kicker motor a notch or two.
Beamers stretches from just off the end of the Snake River Resort dock to well below Beamers Resort on the Washington side. Plug fisherman do excellent here backtrolling deep diving plugs like the Luhr Jensen Hot Lips in pink, cerise, flame orange, and red. Side drifters will start at the big rock on the Idaho side and drift the bar all the way down around the corner. Side drifters also bang plenty of fish on the Washington side above and below Beamers Resort.
You’ll see the gauge on the Washington side right next to the Snake River Rd. The rock points above and below the gauge hold plenty of fish, as do the boulders in the center of the river. Pluggers and float fisherman do well fishing the deep water below the rock points on the Washington side. Side drifting is also great here, but plan on losing some leaders in the grabby boulders.
Captain Lewis Rapid
Get into a good bite at the Gauge and you’ll likely have at least one fish blast down into Capt. Lewis Rapid. Drift the bar on the Idaho side to keep out of the 6 ft. plus standing waves in the center of the river. A ride thru the center of Capt. Lewis Rapid in just about any sled would be a big mistake! Fly anglers do very well just above the rapid on the Washington side, as fish will pull into the soft water near shore to rest after running the rapids. Wading is somewhat tricky here and most flyfisherman working this stretch will wear float coats or belts with CO2 inflating life vests.
This is the first deep corner just below the rapids. Fish will hold here in numbers, especially in the cold winter months. Drift this one from the upper part of the seam all the way down into the Willows, which is just below it. Plug fisherman also do well from here down into the Willows with deep diving Hot Lips.
It seems strange, but fish really will hold in this super deep hole. In the 30 plus foot deep water you’re baits will go every-which-way-but-loose. Ride the drift out and you may be pleasantly surprised, however. This one really produces well during the lethargic, cold winter months when fish get kegged up in the deep, slow water.
Watch the Dam Counts
Lower Granite Dam is the last concrete barrier these fish pass over before entering the Snake, thus it’s the one you want to watch on the internet. The Snake’s steelhead will begin to trickle over this dam in late July/early August and will usually began the full upstream assault sometime in the middle of September. When dam counts broach 4,000 fish per day it’s time to start seriously thinking about a trip to the Snake.
Things really get rolling on the Snake the first week of October, which also happens to coincide with some darned nice weather in the Clarkston/Lewiston area, so it’s no wonder that the river can get a little crowded at times. This is a big river system, however, and there always seems to be plenty of water for everyone. As winter approaches it isn’t uncommon to see just a handful of boats working the Heller Bar area and I can’t tell you how many “get your butt over here” calls I’ve received from Mike in December and January.
Holding water on the Snake isn’t as obvious as one would think. It’s big water with more flow than any other northwest steelhead river, making reading water difficult at times. A trip with a guide like Mike Kelly is money well spent on a system like the Snake, as Mike’s knowledge of the river is second to none. I’ve fished with Mike and around him for years and he’s a gem of a guy who’s river knowledge is surpassed by few other guides. In addition to the Snake River, Mike also fishes Alaska’s Kenai River, the Columbia River and Grays Harbor in Washington, and the Rogue River in Oregon.
Tricks for fishing the Snake
-Timing is everything. Keep an eye on the dam counts at Lower Granite and head for the Snake after counts pass the 4,000 fish per day mark.
-Double your bait size on the Snake. That’s right, larger baits seem to out fish the dinky, dime-sized stuff we use on the west side.
-Keep your bait fresh, especially on hot fall days when the afternoon sun has a tendency to bake baits in the bait box.
-Plug fisherman do well by adding scents to their plugs like anise, crawdad, and shrimp. This covers any scents fish don’t like and leaves a scent trail that can draw fish in.
-It takes roughly 45 minutes to an hour to reach Heller Bar from Clarkston, Washington, so plan on fueling up before you head up river and plan your day accordingly.
-The Snake is big water with more flow than you’ll find on most northwest rivers. Trouble can happen quickly here and it’s important to pay attention and be safe.
-Bring your camera, as mule deer and big horn sheep make a living flaunting their head gear around Heller Bar during the winter months.