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River of Big Rewards

by Rich Landers - Outdoors editor
Spokesman Review, November 12, 2000

Snake is sportsman's bonanza by boat

The Snake River is no secret among sportsmen.

Vessels of all types and sizes swarm like maggots on prime steelhead holes near Lewiston, Idaho, this time of year. Fishing guides are working overtime.

But look a little closer, and you'll find vast stretches of the river virtually deserted.

Most of the steelheaders are fishing the same methods in the usual places.

Most fly fishers haven't figured out how to get to the roadless side of the river so they can avoid standing in line for a good drift.

Only a trickle of hunters use the river to reach otherwise inaccessible spots.

Rivers are highways for the common man in Third World countries. Here in the Inland Northwest, most of the mighty Snake is the domain of barges and cruise ships.

"It's understandable that so few people have a boat," said Rich Eggleston of Clarkston. "They're involved in so many activities, they can't afford to have an expensive toy for each one."

Eggleston started a jet-boat rental service this summer to open the river to the masses.

An angler who takes off in a boat can get lonesome trolling for steelhead downstream from Lewiston. Catfish and smallmouth bass have never seen lures in stretches downstream from Lower Granite Dam. Ducks snooze in some of the sloughs. Pheasants die of old age.

"A rental boat is perfect for somebody who only has time to get out on the river a few times a season," Eggleston said.

One of Eggleston's customers is a utility worker who must spend some nights in Lewiston-Clarkston motels.

"He thinks this is the best thing since peanut butter," Eggleston said. "Instead of sitting in his motel room at night, he rents a boat and a trolling motor and spends the early evening night-fishing for steelhead."

Aardvark's Adventure Co. has a rental fleet of nine 19-foot aluminum jet boats. Cost is $150 for five hours, plus gas.

The boats are equipped with 175-horse engines. Electric trolling motors are optional.

The size is ideal for two to four people willing to dress for the weather in an open boat.

The boats can be used day or night in the 18 miles of the Snake River upstream from Lewiston-Clarkston area, or in any of the Snake River downstream. Package deals are offered.

Aluminum hulls allow careful boaters to beach the craft in many spots along the river's shoreline. The boats are the perfect tool for sportsmen who have boating savvy and don't need a guide to bait their hooks or put out the decoys.

"Some sportsmen know more about fishing than the guides," Eggleston said. "All they lack is a boat."

Last week, Eggleston and his friend, Matt Stein, left the Aardvark office and dock at Rooster's Landing in Clarkston. The sun was yet to rise as they headed downstream in one of the boats. The options seemed overwhelming.

They had steelheading tackle rigged as well as lighter tackle for smallmouth bass and catfish. Shotguns were aboard, and the bird dogs were quivering with anticipation of a chance to hunt.

"Somebody who takes a boat out and camps overnight can go down through the locks at Lower Granite and Lower Monumental dams and have a ball," Eggleston said.

Boaters still need to get permission to hunt on private land regardless of which side of the river they explore. This duty must be done from a vehicle before the trip, since virtually no farmers and ranchers live along the river's shores.

But boaters can freely access shoreline haunts of smallmouth bass, some off-river sloughs where ducks and geese take refuge, lesser-used drifts where steelhead hold up, and the dozen or so Corps of Engineers upland bird habitat areas along the river.

To help compensate for wildlife and habitat losses caused by dams on the lower Snake River, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has funded the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department to purchase lands for habitat development. These habitat management units are open to the public.

Most of these areas are on bars that are planted with cover and food crops for wildlife, although that doesn't necessarily make them a slam-dunk for hunters.

Eggleston and Stein hiked with their dogs for more than an hour on one of the corps habitat areas without seeing a bird.

Then, in a frantic few minutes, a cacophonous eruption of pheasants, quail, coyotes and hawks boiled out of one thick tangle of blackberries.

When the smoke cleared, Eggleston had two roosters and a huge grin. Some of the pheasants headed to private land up the slope; the others followed their standard escape flight plan across the river.

Later that day, the two sportsmen anchored next to a hole just downstream from one of the main side canyons.

"This is probably the least known of the great opportunities on the Snake River," said Eggleston as he baited a hook with a slab of ripe fish flesh.

"Catfish," said Stein. "This river is crawling with catfish, and there's nothing more delicious. You can have my pheasant if I can have your catfish."

Depending on cruising speed, the boats use six to eight gallons of fuel an hour. They hold plenty of fuel for boaters staying in the prime steelheading areas near Lewiston. Boaters heading to distant reaches downstream might have to plan on refueling at Boyer Park near Almota or at Lyons Ferry.

Natural hazards on the Snake include occasional big winds or early morning fog. Navigation is not difficult in most cases, because the river is signed and buoyed for barging traffic.

"Stay in the middle of the river and you won't hit rocks," Eggleston said. "When you head to shore, you want to go very slowly. You don't want to hit big rocks, and you don't want to suck little rocks into the intake."

Eggleston, a former Spokanite, ran jet boats as a guide for Hells Canyon Expeditions while he was a student at the University of Washington.

"I know a lot about this river and can pretty much point people to spots where they can enjoy whatever it is they want to do in a boat," he said.

"Some people rent these boats just for sightseeing. Families get a big kick out of going through the locks at Lower Granite and having a picnic downstream."

Unless a boater is experienced in running rivers, Eggleston asks his clients to go no more than 18 miles upstream from Lewiston to keep them from getting into dangerous rapids.

"We're not a training center for jet boaters," he said. "People would have to pay for damages to a boat. Especially in a low water year like we had this summer, there was a lot of aluminum left in that river."

Rich Landers, Outdoors Editor
River of Big Rewards
Spokesman Review, November 12, 2000

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