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
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
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
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
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.
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
-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.
Peak Season- October 1-February 28
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