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Home arrow Features arrow Outdoors arrow Cold Cats

Cold Cats

Ron Barnett of Council, Idaho, holds a six-pound catfish he reeled in last Thursday from Hells Canyon Reservoir. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).
Ron Barnett of Council, Idaho, holds a six-pound catfish he reeled in last Thursday from Hells Canyon Reservoir. (Baker City Herald/S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

OXBOW — Hell seems poised to finally freeze over, and Ron Barnett has forgotten his gloves and his hat.

This is not a problem.

But Barnett also forgot the whiskey.

This is a big problem.

At the mention of the missing garments Barnett merely grins like a boy who just got a new bike, although in this case the source of his smile is a six-pound catfish.

But when he admits his oversight as to refreshments, his smile twists into a sort of rueful wince, as if the matter pains him in a way which his hands and his head, though naked to the north wind that's slicing like a well-honed weapon between basalt canyon walls, do not.

Barnett stands at the abyss not of hell itself, but of Hells Canyon Reservoir.

The reservoir is at this moment, early afternoon of Jan. 11, still liquid.

But the temperature's a dozen degrees short of the freezing point, and those gusts, which slap unprotected cheeks with the brutality of a T-bone steak falling out of the freezer and onto a bare toe, suggest that solidification might be imminent.

Before that happens, however, Barnett plans on reeling in a few more catfish and tossing them into the slimy confines of a black bucket that already holds 10, the largest of which is that six-pounder Barnett landed.

"There's some nice catfish in here," he says as he gazes at the white-capped reservoir. "But they're smart."

Smarter, you might think, than are Barnett, 47, and a pair of his buddies, Gordon Gibleau, 57, and Merle DeHaas, 72, who drove here from their homes in Council, Idaho, about 70 miles away, on the coldest day so far this winter.

Like Barnett, Gibleau and DeHaas have forgone gloves.

The latter two have at least donned headgear in deference to the chill — DeHaas a black stocking hat and Gibleau a camouflage baseball cap.

The trio insists, though, that they have endured nastier weather than this, and will do so again if there might be catfish in the deal.

Or steelhead.

Or bass.

Or perch.

"You know the saying: The worst day fishing's better than the best day working," Gibleau said, smiling as he rolls a toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other.

Which isn't to say that winter fishing's always fun.

Barnett concedes that Hells Canyon's polar winds have, on occasion, convinced him and his fellow anglers to sacrifice the prospect of fresh fillets for a well-insulated shelter.

"The rest of the weather you can take, but that wind can drive you off," Barnett said.

"We've been frozen out down here before," Gibleau said. "We don't fish very far from the pickup this time of year."

Or very far from the fire.

They've kindled a healthy blaze here on the reservoir's Idaho shore, about midway between Oxbow and Hells Canyon dams.

A can of soup — Progresso, steak and roasted potato — simmers beside the knee-high flames.

A half case of Budweiser cans rests on the pickup truck's dropped tailgate, between a tackle box and a plastic bag of baby crappie which the anglers use as bait.

The crappie, which are about two inches long and look like they ought to be swimming with guppies and goldfish in a five-gallon aquarium in some kid's room, are spat out of Brownlee Dam's turbines, Barnett said. The anglers gather the minuscule fish from the shore below the dam — "if we don't get 'em the eagles get 'em," Barnett said with a chuckle.

As the anglers reminisce about past trips and big ones which didn't always get away, they frequently glance at their poles, watching for the telltale tremble at the tip.

The poles are propped up by home-made devices which cleverly combine a rod of steel rebar, a segment of white PVC pipe and, inevitably, duct tape.

These pole-holders are the sort of contraption you often see in rural places where many of the men work in mechanical pursuits — men who you wish were your neighbors when your lawnmower's carburetor quits or your toilet's leaking.

In any case you need something to hold your pole when you go catfishing, because catfishing usually involves a lot more pole-watching than casting or reeling.

And when you don't have gloves you don't want to stand around holding a fishing pole for eight hours.

The threesome from Council apparently is alone on the reservoir today.

"We must be the only idiots on the whole river," Barnett said.

On most winter days, though, at least a few anglers drive across Hells Canyon Dam to fish for Snake River steelhead in the fast-flowing river below that concrete behemoth.

Today the parking lots below the dam are empty but for a pair of rigs attached to boat trailers, plus a skim of snow which the gales scatter across the asphalt like sand on deserted beach.

Barnett figures the forecast — an arctic front that has arrived, on schedule, from Canada — deterred the steelheaders.

He doesn't blame them.

"It's way colder below the dam," Barnett said. "The wind blows right down Deep Creek (a stream on the Idaho side that empties into the Snake just downstream from the dam).

"You don't have a fire down there this time of year you don't last long."

Even here on the comparatively calm shore of the reservoir, the wind was blowing so hard when the trio arrived mid-morning that their poles were constantly twitching and they couldn't tell which twitch was a catfish.

Barnett laments that he and his friends didn't drive to the reservoir a day earlier, when temperatures were in the 40s and the winds gentle.

They were getting reading to fish, though — melting and pouring lead to make sinkers, a necessity for catfishing because you want the bait on the bottom, where the catfish slink.

Still, the three friends have hauled in the 10 cats in about three hours.

Well, actually two friends hauled in 10 cats.

DeHaas has thus far been skunked.

"We're tied at five each," Gibleau said, nodding toward Barnett.

Possibly not for long.

The tip of Barnett's pole dips toward the water, like the neck of a blue heron snatching a minnow.

Barnett carefully places his beer can on the narrow rail of the pickup's bed and then dashes to his pole holder. He spins the reel handle half a dozen times. He shakes his head.

No fish on.

But no matter.

The catfish, or maybe another catfish, will come back, more than likely.

And even if the fish turn finicky, well, the anglers have all they need to make an ideal winter's day.

"Good gear, big fire, whiskey," Barnett said.

Except the whiskey.

And even its absence is hardly a tragedy.

"Any time is a good time," Barnett said, "when you get to go fishing."

 
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