Summer Sturgeon with Hammer Down Excursions
By: Matt Messerly
Hiding, just North of Rigby, Idaho, just a stone’s throw from the shores of the mighty Salmon River, and a short drive from the incredible rapids and slow churning sturgeon-filled pools of the Snake River in Hell’s Canyon, is a town you’ve most likely never heard of. Settled in 1891, White Bird, Idaho is home to 91 full-time residents, was the point of Lewis and Clark’s crossing of the Salmon River, and was named after Chief White Bird, who led the Nez Perce to victory in the first battle of the Nez Perce War in 1877. White Bird, Idaho is also the home of Hammer Down River Excursions, a locally owned and operated expedition company that is Hell-bent on showing you everything these two mighty rivers have to offer.
Though it’s no surprise that most of our readers most likely have never heard of White Bird, it’s incredibly likely that Hell’s Canyon conjures up visions of wild rapids, legendary fishing, and what many niche-specific upland game hunters refer to as the holy grail of chukar hunting. For those of you that have not heard of this incredible place, Hell’s Canyon is a 10-mile-wide canyon located along the border of eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, and western Idaho in the United States. It is part of the Hell's Canyon National Recreation Area and is North America’s deepest river gorge at 7,993 feet. Contradictory to it’s name, within it’s sharp canyon walls lies what could be one of North America’s most surprising, underrated, and under-explored fishing and hunting experiences.
Homer Brown, is a local. He grew up on the banks of both the Snake and Salmon rivers and knows each twist and turn of these great bodies of water like the back of his hand. To say he’s a seasoned pro would do his experience and knowledge a great disservice. He holds the current standing Idaho White Sturgeon catch and release record at an eye popping 117 inches, just shy of 10 feet. Homer owns Hammer Down River Excursions and also happens to be the most recently elected mayor of White Bird. To top it all off, he’s a hell of a nice guy. Sportsman’s Pro Membership member Chad Gibson and I were fortunate enough to spend a couple days on the river with Homer and his lead guide, Johnathan Hinton, who locally goes by the handle “Johnny Fish-onny” and were absolutely blown away by the places, the people, the fishing, and the overall experience.
In the best way possible, arriving in White Bird, Idaho is like taking a step back in time. Tucked away nicely between towering Idaho mountain peaks, the gorgeous little town has a feel all its own. There are no stoplights, no gas stations, not a fast food or chain store to speak of, however the local watering holes (there are a couple neat places to choose from) accept credit cards. There is also little to no cellular service which in and of itself makes it the perfect destination for a true get away. As Chad and I arrived in town, we found ourselves a bit bewildered as we drove by the Hammer Down main office, located prominently on Main Street, across from the only general store in town, after hours. Before we could even get out of the truck to ask a local for Homer’s whereabouts, we were greeted by a local woman who smiled and walked us down the road to Homer’s home. We found him in his back yard making some last minute preparations to one of the four powerful jet boats in his fleet for our fishing trip the next morning. The moment we met Homer, we instantly felt at ease. Within ten minutes we were enjoying ice cold beverages on this back porch, sharing fish stories, and enjoying fresh hickory smoke rolling out of his Camp Chef Smoker where he had started a batch of his famous wings in preparation of our arrival hours prior. It was obvious that this trip would be more like fishing with a long time buddy, which is what I found to be refreshingly different about our entire experience with Homer, Johnny, and the Hammer Down crew.
Day 1 started bright and early, with fresh morning coffee at HD headquarters at 7 a.m. We went over the game plan for the day and were introduced to our guide for the day, the aforementioned Mr. John Hinton. We came to learn that Johnny himself was a local legend, winning his nickname “Johnny Fishonny” by winning a number of local fishing contests. His folklore had recently grown in an incident involving his scalp, a very sharp treble hook, a craw-pattern Bomber Model A crank bait, and a kind Vietnam veteran medic whom was nice enough to remove the hook at the local watering hole while Johnny was enjoying a cold beverage after a long day on the river. We were already laughing like long lost friends on our way to launch the boat, at the Hammer Creek launch ramp, just 2 short miles from town on the Salmon River. After just an hour on the river, our first fish of the trip was a 96.5-inch white sturgeon, and was reeled in by both Chad and I, whose arms and backs were both aching in disbelief after a thrilling one-hour fight. Johnny landed the fish and took approximately 10,000 photos by request of a fish that I, to that point, had only dreamed about.
Cloud Nine fishing status had been achieved and was maintained throughout the duration of our time with Hammer Down. After a short break to meet Homer at the launch ramp for an excellent meal consisting of his home cooked smoked ribs, a freshly tossed garden salad, and dessert, hand made from scratch by his mother (who prepares all of the desserts for client lunches and dinners), we were back to the action, landing another 92-inch sturgeon and over 100 small mouth bass caught with the simple flick of a 1/4 ounce jig head and a Yamamoto 3-inch single tail grub. We left the river that evening at 6 and made our way back to town for dinner on Homer’s back porch. We ate family-style with tomahawk steaks, smoked cabbage, and ice cold beers as the sun set behind the mountains that surround White Bird. That night, Chad and I walked the 600 yards back to our hotel; right down the middle of main street, grinning ear to ear and excited to see what the next day had in store.
Day 2 began with a quick run up the hills south of town and a hot cup of coffee from a friendly neighbor that was out on her front porch watching the world go by. She saw me stumbling back into town and shouted “If you’re going to spend all day with Homer again you had better get some coffee in you young man!”. I was happy to accept her coffee and my perma-grin remained.
We covered over 150 miles of river on day 2, each mile more interesting than the last. The shores of the Snake were littered with whitetail, mule deer, chukar, desert big horn sheep, and my new addiction; wild blackberry bushes. We of course packed our fishing rods and on our return trip stopped to fish one of Homer’s favorite spots where we quickly lost count of the number of small mouth we reeled in. That night we had dinner at Red’s, one of White Bird’s family owned diners where the pizza and patty melt were absolutely top notch. We ended day 3 with a night cap at the local watering hole, where my bar tab was kept on a napkin with my name on it because they do not accept cards, but were more than willing to trust that I’d be back with cash to settle up. On our walk back to the hotel that night we talked about life in White Bird compared to the big city, and for the first time that day I realized that I had yet to even look at my cell phone.
Day 3 found us joining both Johnny and Homer on a tour trip, upriver on the Snake, to see the dam. We boarded the Boogie Boat, which is powered by twin Chevy 451’ engines and boasts 1,000 HP. We’d be running Class 6 rapids upriver with 16 people onboard. From mild to wild, this trip up the river was incredible. The youngest passenger was 6, and the oldest 76. Not a soul left the boat dry, hungry, or without a huge grin on their face as we ran insane rapids, ate yet another incredibly delicious 4-course meal at the dam, swam on a white sandy beach, and learned about the history of the river and those that pioneered its banks long before we had the opportunity to explore it. Though the rest of the tour group ventured back to their homes, no doubt forever changed by their incredible experience, Chad and I had one more evening of fishing left and it was Mr. Johnny Fishonny that would be guiding us one more time. Determined to break our 96.5” trip record, we paired my phone to the Bluetooth speakers in the boat, and took off upriver jamming like teenagers to some music that would no doubt wake up a sleeping giant on the bottom of the Snake. We stopped for 20 minutes, caught roughly 30 small mouth bass (some for bait, the rest for fish tacos), and headed upriver to find our sleeping giant. Though the smallmouth fishing was incredible upriver, after 3 hours we had yet to hook a sturgeon over 4 feet, despite reeling in 3 at and below 48 inches. We truly had been spoiled in just 2 short days. After discovering another blackberry bush and gorging ourselves, as well as filling 3 one gallon zip-loc bags to the very top, waiting for a sturgeon to hit our bait, the sun was quickly setting on what had already been an incredible day and it was time to reel up and head back to the ramp.
Homer was going to make his famous fish tacos for dinner and we had the main ingredient in our live well. As we all sat scrubbing the red dye off our hands and faces from our blackberries we all heard a huge “splash” and looked up to see the tail of a giant sturgeon slap the water as one of the rods doubled over. The reel instantly started singing as Johnny sprinted to the back of the boat to heave the rod for a good hook set and the fight was on. Hooking a huge sturgeon was every bit as exciting as calling in a gobbling tom, having a screaming bull elk come out of the trees toward your challenge bugle, or even watching a big muley slowly and cautiously step out of the thick cedars and make his way toward your waterhole blind; the difference is, it lasted for two and a half hours. Chad was on the rod and reel for the majority of the time so that I could do some cameraman work, and he battled as hard or harder than any grown man should for a fish. As the sun set, it was clear that we would not be making it back to White Bird in time to sit on Homer’s back porch and enjoy the fish tacos we had heard so much about throughout the day but there was no way we were leaving without getting our hands on that fish. At 2 hours and 15 minutes, Chad, whose hat was then completely soaked with sweat, passed the rod to me. We assumed a fresh back and a couple new arms might help to drag the sturgeon out of his hiding place. Forty-five minutes later, we finally landed that fish. It wasn’t the record breaker that we had hoped for, the tale of the tape reading just under 90”, but based on its mouth and lack of hook marks we had handled a sturgeon that had lived in the Snake River for approximately 85 years and never before been caught.
We took our celebratory pictures, paid our respects to the incredible fish, and slowly returned him back to the wild river to be caught again by some other lucky fisherman. We missed dinner that night. We did however, add to our napkin bar tab to celebrate an incredible day. Later that night, Chad and I walked to Homer’s house to find all of his lights out, quite obviously asleep from a long day on the river. I quietly opened the door on this back porch, greeted his dogs in the kitchen and worked my way to the fridge where I found the remnants of his famous fish tacos. Chad and I ate cold fish tacos on Homer’s porch that night and laughed about how funny the picture of me peeking into Homer’s fridge would be the next day.
This is not a move I would recommend for just anyone, nor am I promoting the theft of food from anyone’s residence, don’t be confused: but this part of the story reiterates what makes the experience with Hammer Down River Expeditions different than any other you’re likely to find. The time spent with Homer, Johnny, and the entire crew transcends the idea of what a regular fishing/river trip sounds, looks, and feels like. To be clear, do not roll into White Bird, Idaho expecting to find a Starbucks, high speed Wi-Fi, with the expectations of being treated like another tour guest with a credit card and hopefully a good Google review. The beauty of this place lies within its simplicity and its overwhelming sense of Americana. Whether you choose to embark on a dinner trip on the river, and enjoy home-style cooked meals, take a thrilling tour on a high powered and nimble jet boat, fish for bass, sturgeon, rainbow trout, or trophy steel head, or even hunt chukar as part of a cast and blast trip coming this fall; you’ll be treated like one of the gang, like an old friend, where jokes are told, fun is had, and stories are shared. You’ll eat fresh smoked ribs with your hands, bait your own hooks if you like, reel in your own fish, and have a knowledgeable, friendly, local, expert guide there to help you in any way possible.
Our final morning in White Bird, Idaho was spent having breakfast at Red’s, once again; but this time we brought our hand-picked blackberries to be spread onto our giant $1.50 pancakes. After saying our goodbyes to Homer, Johnny, and the office staff we made our rounds around town paying off our napkin tabs with cash retrieved from the only ATM within 20 miles, and started our drive home. Chad and I talked for 8 hours about how we couldn’t wait to start planning our next trip to White Bird to run the rivers with our new friends at Hammer Down River Excursions.
In closing, though it goes against my better judgement to share such a special place with complete strangers; it is indeed my duty as a member of the Sportsman’s News team to do so. I can only ask that as you experience this place, meet these people, make these memories, and return again for years to come, that you leave White Bird, Idaho and the rivers exactly as you found them as I can’t wait to get back to them again myself. Call them today, book your trip, and tell them Matt sent you.
To book your trip with Homer, Johnny, or any of the other fine folks at Hammer Down River Excursions, please call their home office at 208-839-9993, shoot them an email at HDRiverexcursions@gmail.com, or visit their website at hdriverexcursions.com. You can also see recent pictures from trips, as well as find them on Instagram @hammerdownriverexcursions and Facebook @ Hammer Down River Excursions.