The United States is home to a great number of large and beautiful rivers, one of which is the Snake River that stretches over 1000 miles and spans four states – Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. The Snake River is the largest tributary of the Columbia River, which empties into the Pacific Ocean at the northern Oregon Coast. Over the 1000+ miles that this river stretches, it covers some seriously beautiful terrain. The river rises in western Wyoming, where it is formed by the joining of three small headstreams in the beautiful Yellowstone National Park. From here, the Snake River starts out as a small stream, flowing southwest into Jackson Lake and through the valley of Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
The river then bends northwest through Snake River Canyon, which cuts through the Snake River Range and flows into eastern Idaho. From here, it traverses the Snake River Plain, a vast expanse of land covering southern Idaho and through the massif of the Rocky Mountains. At Snake River Canyon, still in Idaho, the river drops over Shoshone Falls, a beautiful waterfall that traditionally marks the limit of the upstream run of migrating salmon. Shortly after passing nearby Boise, the river crosses the border from Idaho to Oregon and travels north, forming the boundary between the two states and flowing into Hells Canyon.
This is one of the most scenically beautiful sections of the river, and also one of the most treacherous. The aptly named Hells Canyon area is wild and rugged, but absolutely breathtaking to see. Pioneers of the Oregon Trail and steamboat operators alike had great difficulty in navigating the river here, which was at the time made up of hundreds of different stretches of rapids. These have since been reduced by the Hells Canyon Hydroelectric Project, which has resulted in the construction of three dams throughout the canyon. After Hells Canyon, the Snake River flows into Washington State before eventually meeting the Columbia River, which flows another 300+ miles to reach the Pacific Ocean.
When it comes to fish, the Snake River was once home to an abundance, and played a very important ecological role in the survival of a large number of species of fish that are hatched in headwaters, live their lives in the ocean and then return to the river for spawning. The river supported a number of species of salmon including Chinook, coho and sockeye, as well as steelhead, white sturgeon and Pacific lamprey. Prior to the construction of dams on the Snake River, the number of fish which migrated each year was staggering. Three major Chinook salmon runs (one each in the spring, summer and fall) totaled over 120,000 fish, and the sockeye salmon run was estimated to include roughly 150,000 fish. Typically, the fish would migrate as far up the river as Shoshone Falls.
However, the construction of over fifteen dams and reservoirs along major runs of the river has occurred since the early 20th century, and this has had a dramatic impact on the ability of the salmon and other species to perform their upstream migration. While fish passage facilities have been incorporated into dam construction in an effort to ensure the effect on migration is minimal, the currents of these pools are often not strong enough for the fish to sense, and temperature differences can be dramatic, which causes them to become confused and lose their migration routes. Additionally, the increase in agricultural land along the plains that the Snake River runs through, and the runoff into the river that is inevitable from such industry, has also had a negative impact on the number and health of fish returning upstream for spawning.
With the detrimental effects of the dams on migrating salmon appearing clear, there has been a push in the last few decades to remove dams from the lower portion of the Snake River. However, the cost involved in this, and the opposition from industry, has meant that no dam removal has actually occurred. With a majority of the electricity in the Pacific Northwest generated from hydroelectric sources, removing these dams would create a hole in the energy grid that would not be able to be replaced rapidly. Ongoing debate and research into dam removal and regeneration of the Snake River continues to occur at both a state and federal level.
Despite the challenges and changes endured by the Snake River, it still has some fantastic fly fishing to offer. Whether you fish the river at Jackson Hole, Wyoming in search of big browns, rainbows and the ever prized native cutthroat trout, or explore the rugged wilderness of Hells Canyon on the Oregon-Idaho border looking for steelhead with some serious attitude, the Snake River is one that is bound to provide hours of entertainment and a lifetime of memories.