Hoping to get a nice bear rug for the outdoors room, I was overjoyed when I drew a tag to hunt spring bear in Eastern Oregon. Little did I know that I was headed to one amazing vacation!
?Just off of Highway 84, a few miles short of the Idaho border, you can take a north turn in Baker, run 50 miles north, and bump into one of the prettiest and most exciting outdoor venues I’ve ever seen!
Established in the 1850s, Halfway is a little town that began with the mining of gold deposits and the farming of rangeland. Throw in orchards and today’s flow of tourists enjoying hunting, fishing, hiking and snowmobiling, and you have enough activity to support an absolutely quaint and unique destination.
Halfway boasts a population south of 300, but has most everything I could ask for. Not only does Wild Bill’s Tavern offer a great meal and a cold beer (thanks Brenda Gage!), but one can easily find a park for your RV or a great bed and breakfast. They even have a bank and a museum!The first things you notice when you go over the sage hills, and turn into Halfway are the amazing mountains that frame the little green town. The Eagle Caps are lovely. Snowcapped and heavily wooded, they set up a vision that is nothing less than spectacular. Driving through the grazing lands, lined with wild apricot, apple and plum trees, you soon find yourself in a national forest lush with blueberries, huckleberries (both red and blue), elderberries of those colors, wild current and wild gooseberry. During the spring, the population of wild turkeys, bears and deer has to make do with mats of wild onion.
When we hiked along the cat roads, purple with lupine and dotted with Indian paintbrush, we picked a quick bucket of morels. These choicest of mushrooms were available in blonde, smoky and black varieties. They were almost everywhere and tasted great. We also discovered some white coral-type cauliflower mushrooms that both the bears and we found ideal for dinner.
We were guided in our outdoor adventures by Larry Cantrell, an agile elf of nearly 70 who has an intimate knowledge of most everything local. Larry led us on hikes that left us gasping for air, out of breath from the speed of his ascent and from the thin air at about a mile high! In addition to his hunting skills, Larry knew a lot about the geology of the countryside, showing us places to pan for gold and pick up a few rocks with flecks of various minerals to take home as souvenirs. He identified the flowers, mushrooms, birds and reptiles. Not only did we enjoy a half-dozen hunts, but got some great insights and history lessons in the process.
Our hunting outings in the morning were followed by trips to various spots on the dammed up Snake River. Idaho Power has dams at Oxbow, Brownlee and Hells Canyon. The dams provide power and irrigation control and have turned the rowdy Snake into a series of reservoirs that have unbelievable populations of warm water fish. The biomass is incredible. Find a place to cast from the riprap on miles and miles of shoreline, toss in a little jig of most any color, float it under a bobber, bounce it off the bottom or just reel it in slowly and likely as not, you’ll end up with something pulling on the other end.
During our first trips to a couple of parks in nearby Richland on the Powder Arm of the Brownlee Reservoir, we got to watch a number of people fishing for crappie and other pan fish. A couple were using their fly rods and a little bobber-like indicator was above about three feet of leader. Others used conventional spin gear, some casting just jigs and others casting little lures suspended under bobbers. Casting was a bit awkward in the wind, but when the jig bobbed around under the float, the crappie gobbled it right down. Likewise when you did a slow retrieve or jigged the lures off the bottom. People used a lot of different color patterns and most seemed to work fine.
Fish seemed to be in schools and the bite would get wild for a few minutes and then slow down for a bit, never for long. If you kept at it, pretty soon you had a whole bucket full of the bright green and black fish. ?
There were two species of crappie, the most prevalent fish, the black and the white. Black crappie were a little stubbier and had “par lines” going across their bodies. Whites were a bit more elongated in the snout and more random in the coloration. Both were available in good numbers. Most of the fish we caught were between eight and nine inches. This seemed to be the prevalent age class. Larry figured that they’d be about 11 inches by next year’s summer season.?
Not Much to Eat?
After we caught a bunch, I took them over to the cleaning tables offered by Oregon Parks—a really good bargain for the $4 per car fee you pay to get in—and went to work. With no limit on the number of fish you could catch, you could spend a lot of time at these tables! Not only did they have running water, but also cleaning blocks, buckets and other gear to make your work a lot easier.??Over the years I’ve cleaned a lot of fish, and have learned to enjoy filleting a good mess of pan fish. But I still took the time to watch others working at the tables to see if there was some special technique. Every species of fish is a bit different, and I was sure these folks must have a lot of experience to share.
Most of the anglers I watched used the same technique, nothing fancy, but some used electric knives and others the standard fillet knife. But no matter how they did it, the nine-inch fish really didn’t produce that much meat. I worked on my catch for the better part of an hour, and only had a couple of sandwich bags of fillets to show for my effort.
Others were having the same result. I only saw one really big crappie over the entire trip. One guy had landed a 13 incher, but most were much smaller and gave only a bit of meat. After you did the basic fillet, removing the rib bones, I found I could salvage little meat between rib and skin. They were thin through the belly and didn’t provide much food for the effort. I decided that we’d probably be better off trying something else and wait for next year’s run of bigger fish so we’d have a better fish to bone and skin ratio!
No problem, there were other fish to catch (and fry!). A lot of smallmouth bass were in the river and would hit larger jigs and lures. We put on a bigger jig, something in the three-inch range, and soon my brother, Pat, was landing a few of the dark green fish. Some of those he landed were better than a foot long and gave a great fight, especially when compared to an eight-inch crappie!
Regulations were a bit tricky. While there were no limits on crappie (that just seems strange to say, “no limits?”), the bass were protected in certain waters. You needed to keep up on your regulations and your geography. ??Fishermen with either Idaho or Oregon licenses can fish most all of Brownlee with the exception of the Powder Arm that requires an Oregon license. That gives you an awful lot of water to chase around, some 80 miles worth.
In June and early July, most of the fish are in the shallower water spawning, so you can catch them right near shore. As things heat up in summer, they’ll move out to 20 or 30 feet—still “castable” from shore without much problem.
We were told that along the river you have to be pretty careful to watch out for rattlesnakes. I got really excited, having always wanted to fry one up, and needing a few snake headbands for my fedoras, so naturally we weren’t able to find any snakes, no matter how hard we looked! They were supposed to be all over the roads during early and late hours when the snakes want to hang out somewhere warm, but a whole bunch of looking and driving came up empty. I’m sure the next time I don’t want to get one, I’ll probably sit on a nest or two!
As the shadows lengthen, fishing action shifts to catfish. And Pat and I were excited to try some of Larry’s secret holes, but we’ll explore that story more in next month’s article!
Bob Ellsberg’s column, Fishin’, appears monthly in RV Life and at rvlife.com.