Of the Baker City Herald

Anglers can brag about Brownlee Reservoir again.

The Snake River reservoir, which was one of the Wests hottest fishing spots in the late 1980s and early 90s, seems to be regaining its esteemed status.

During a spring when water is conspicuous by its absence across most of the region, Brownlee is full to the brim.

And the crappie are biting.

Theyve been catching them as fast as they can put a line in the water, said Bud Brashler, who manages Baker Countys Hewitt Park, on the reservoirs Powder River arm about two miles east of Richland. When this reservoir is full, youre going to have people.

The word is starting to get out.

And for the first time in several years, the word about Brownlee is that its worth any anglers time to put in a boat there, or just cast from the bank.

After the reservoir gained a nationwide reputation more than a decade ago for the bucketsful of crappie it produced for any angler who could tie a jig to a line, a series of years with wildly fluctuating water levels cooled the fishing and drove anglers to more reliable reservoirs.

But this year Brownlee has been close to full throughout the spring.

And Idaho Power Company, which owns and operates the hydroelectric dam that forms the 53-mile-long reservoir, expects it to stay that way until the Fourth of July.

Consistently high water, Brashler said, is the key to everything.

Gaining that consistency, though, has been hard.

In the mid and late 1990s, Idaho Power often had Brownlee drawn down well below full pool during the most popular fishing and boating seasons.

The drawdowns, which sometimes were so severe that only one of the reservoirs several boat ramps remained submerged, resulted from two main factors.

First, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers usually requires Idaho Power to lower Brownlee during the spring to make room for melting snow and thus reduce the risk of flooding downstream. This spring was an anomaly. Snowpacks across the West were so low that Brownlees storage wasnt needed at all for flood control.

And second, the company releases millions of gallons of water from the reservoir each summer to help push juvenile salmon downstream to the Pacific Ocean.

These so-called fish flushes arent absolutely required, but Idaho Power officials say that were the company to fail to release the water, it could face lawsuits from groups citing the salmons protected status under the federal Endangered Species Act.

A complicated situation, certainly, but to business owners in towns such as Richland, Halfway and Huntington who depend on anglers and boaters dollars to stay afloat, the result was sadly simple.

No water? No customers.

Which is why this springs plentiful water is as pleasing to the merchants eyes as a blizzard is to a seller of tire chains.

Its been great, compared to last year this time, said Angie Wiley, owner of the Jiffy Market in Huntington. Its helped a lot.

Wiley said she talked to one customer from the Willamette Valley who drove most of the way across the state because the fishing holes near his home are too low.

Everyones commenting on how great the fishing is, Wiley said.

Most anglers are going after crappie now, but catfish are beginning to show up in some creels, too, she said just in time for the Huntington Lions Clubs annual Catfish Derby over the Memorial Day weekend.

Brashler said Hewitt Parks overnight camping area was nearly full last weekend. He counted 65 rigs at the adjacent Holcomb Park, which has often been deserted since it opened several years ago.

Longtime businesspeople near Brownlees shores are a bit more cautious with their optimism.

Theron Hampton, who owns the Hitching Post Motel in Richland, said his business has improved by about 20 percent compared with the past few years.

But hes not convinced the word is spreading about Brownlees bountiful water in this parched year.

Hampton has tried to remedy that by having Brownlee mentioned twice on a fishing program that airs on a Portland radio station.

With the water up people are more apt to stay here, he said.

Merchants are striving to take advantage of whats likely to be a temporary boon.

Idaho Power expects to lower Brownlee by 15 feet in July and by another 20 feet in August. The drawdowns will allow the company to meet its power needs this summer, a time when electricity will be scarce throughout the West.