Brownlee Reservoir Fishing: How to Catch Bass, Crappie, Catfish

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Simply put, Brownlee Reservoir is one of the best warmwater fishing spots in the entire Pacific Northwest.

The giant Snake River impoundment is a must-fish destination for anyone who likes to catch lots of smallmouth bass, crappie and channel catfish, and it has pretty fair fishing for a roster of other species as well.

We’ll tell you the basics of when, where and how to catch the major Brownlee Reservoir gamefish in this article, but first just a little scene-setting.

Brownlee is the uppermost and richest of three major reservoirs that sit along the Oregon-Idaho border.

Oxbow and Hells Canyon reservoirs downriver (to the north) are smaller and narrower and offer quite good fishing for bass and panfish, but they aren’t quite the powerhouse that Brownlee is.

Make no mistake, this is big water, covering thousands of acres and stretching at least 50 miles from Farewell Bend State Park south of Huntington, Oregon, down to Brownlee Dam.

In our opinion, the only excuse some anglers might skip Brownlee is its location. (That and the searing summers.)

While Boise-area residents can reach good fishing on the upper reservoir in well under two hours, Brownlee’s major access points are almost a day’s drive from Portland or Seattle.

We’ll talk more about the details you’ll need to plan your trip below, but first we’re guessing you’ll want to know more about the fishing.

Crappie

Brownlee Reservoir crappie fishing with a nice catch on a jig
Photo courtesy of Rob Dolton

Brownlee can be a crappie factory, punching out gazillions of crappie. There are both black and white crappie here.

Naturally, crappie are popular because they are one of the best-tasting freshwater fish around, particularly if you like flaky white fish in tidy fillets.

But of the fish species that bring the most anglers to Brownlee, crappie also can be the most frustrating.

Like crappie everywhere, Brownlee’s crappie populations are strongly cyclical. Some of that is just the way crappie populations go.

Idaho Power studies also found that significant water fluctuations in the reservoir some years (due to precipitation levels and management requirements) can result in lower spawning successes for a season or more, setting up the cycles.

It’s unlikely fishing pressure here has much impact on crappie numbers, because this reservoir is really too big and remote to over-fish.

Here’s the result: Fishing for good-sized to slab crappies will be awesome for a few years, then a smaller class of fish will come through for a year or more and suddenly crappie fishing will be sort of average here.

You can still catch crappie if you work at it during the down cycle, but it won’t be the non-stop party that happens during boom years.

Watch the states’ recreation reports and tap into other sources.

If you’re hearing about anglers catching tons of slabs right now, go for it. But if reports instead indicate the reservoir is thick with smallish 5- or 6-inch crappie, it’s time to think about putting Brownlee on your calendar for the following year.

When to fish for crappie

Crappie are the easiest to catch in the late spring and early summer, when they move into shallow water to spawn.

Idaho Power biologists said they have seen crappie begin spawning as early as late April and definitely in May, but the peak spawning is probably going to happen sometime the second week of June and early July.

If you’re flexible, figure most crappie will begin to spawn when the water temperature reaches about 59 degrees, although some may begin a little before that and crappie also can spawn more than once in a season, so this time frame can stretch out a bit more than with bass.

Idaho Power has a temperature gauge downriver at Oxbow Dam that will at least give you an idea of Brownlee’s temperatures.

When they are preparing to spawn and actually spawning and guarding nests, crappie are much more likely to be found in shallower water in bigger numbers.

Earlier in the spring before the crappie stage for spawning, and then again from mid-summer and into fall, you can still catch crappie. You’ll just likely have to look deeper.

It’s common for schools of Brownlee crappie to stage at 30 feet, but it can vary a fair bit. It may take a little bit of looking and experimenting to find them, and a fish finder is helpful at least to test or target depths.

Overall, fishing tends to be best in the early mornings and evenings, although when the fish are deep that won’t matter quite as much.

Some anglers hang a lantern over the water at night and do well bringing the crappie in to them.

Where to fish for crappie

Crappie are dispersed throughout Brownlee, but many anglers focus their attention on the coves and arms where at times these fish will concentrate in better numbers.

The coves also offer a bit more shelter for anglers.

For crappie I have fished the long Powder River Arm near Richland, Oregon, which is a popular spot, especially if you already have an Oregon fishing license (more on that later), but the other tributary areas are also good, according to anglers and state fisheries folks.

There also are some fairly large arms where Brownlee Creek enters in Idaho and where Burnt River enters in Oregon, and a number of smaller coves where additional tributaries join the reservoir. Poke around the ones closest to where you are and you’ll likely find crappie and other gamefish.

The upper reservoir in the vicinity of where the Snake comes in can also hold good numbers of crappie.

Generally speaking, whether in the main reservoir or in a cove, look for fish holding out from rocky outcroppings but not shear cliffs.

How to catch crappie

When crappie are close to the bank in shallower water, fishing a crappie jig with a long leader beneath a float is a pretty classic setup to bring in lots of fish.

Experiment with how deep you are fishing, because you might need to run that jig 8 feet or so below the bobber to get into the best zone.

When crappie move into the deeper water, you can jig deeper for them without the float, which will be far easier from a boat. You might use a couple jigs rigged up or a little added weight if necessary.

Bring a selection of crappie jigs in different styles, colors and weights.

Definitely have some in white and light colors, and probably some white with other colors, as lighter colors are often effective at Brownlee. But also be sure to carry some black or other dark colors as well, because as soon as you don’t have them, that will be the hot end of the color spectrum.

ODFW biologists who spend time on Brownlee recommend using lighter color jigs when the water is clear and darker jigs if visibility is low, but it may take some experimenting to find the best colors for a particular trip or even time of day.

If you rig up with two jigs, it allows you to experiment with colors to find what works the best.

Common jig head weights are 1/32 and 1/16 ounce.

Baiting the hook with a Berkley Crappie Nibble or piece of natural bait like a worm, mealworm, maggot or grub can increase your catch rate for crappie. We’ve also found we tend to catch other species of panfish and sometimes catfish with a little more frequency when we bait the hook.

Other types of lures that, like crappie jigs, mimic minnow-sized fish will also catch crappie and can be fun to use.

Casting small-sized (around an inch in length) swimbaits, twisty-tailed grubs, crankbaits, and spinners will sometimes work well, especially while seeking out a good school.

We’ve also trolled around with a small crankbait until finding slab-sized crappie, and then switched to jigs to work on a school with more catching efficiency.

You are also likely to catch bass tossing around those types of lures, although you may want to use bigger versions if you’re really focusing on bass.

For crappie, use a light to ultralight rod and reel and light line, 2- or 4-pound test is ideal, 6-pound tops. I spool with 4-pound or sometimes 6 if it’s a rod I’ll switch out for bass.

Smallmouth Bass

Smallmouth bass are very abundant in the Snake River system in this broader region, and there are certainly plenty of them in Brownlee.

Smallmouth populations don’t fluctuate as wildly as crappie numbers do, but that doesn’t mean it’s the same every year.

Some years seem to have better numbers of larger bass, while on your next visit you might catch more smaller fish. Nevertheless, you always have a reasonable shot at catching big bass here.

When to catch smallmouth bass

As with crappie, smallmouth bass move into shallower water during the early season to spawn, and that’s when they are easiest to find and most aggressive.

Smallmouth spawn in similar water temperatures as crappie but tend to peak slightly earlier.

The peak smallmouth spawning usually occurs in the latter part of May or early part of June, although some spawning can begin as early as the end of April, according to Idaho Power biologists who survey such things.

As long as you adjust your fishing areas according to where the bass are holding at that time, you can do well on bass here into the summer as well, and early fall can be good.

Where to catch smallmouth bass

The same cove areas mentioned above for crappie should also be good for smallmouth bass, but areas of the main reservoir also are good.

ODFW has recommended either shoreline roughly between Morgan and Conner creeks, where the Snake River Road follows the Oregon shoreline.

Smallmouth bass love rocky cover, so look for rock-covered points, rock piles and drop-off areas, but usually not straight cliffs. (I’ve fished those areas but only caught small bass.)

While there’s lots of bank access that will get you to bass, some of the better fishing and bigger bass will be in less-accessible areas reached by boat, because bass there haven’t been fished nearly as much as roadside locations.

For depths, spawning bass will be fairly close to shore. Nests are often observed in 2 to 6 feet of water.

For much of the rest of the year you’ll find them in 10 to 20 feet of water, although search around and try different depths. Sometimes the fish will hold even deeper, especially the bigger ones.

Also, bass tend to be on the deeper side of this range when the sun is bright, but they often move into shallower water to hunt during low-light conditions. Try the shady areas when the sun is lower.

How to catch smallmouth bass

Smallmouths at Brownlee will feed on whatever they can catch, like bass anywhere, but certainly will respond to lures that look like frequent forage including crayfish and smaller fish.

Soft plastic swimbaits, grubs and worms will almost always do the job, as will a variety of crankbaits, spinners and other lures.

For colors, the light lures in clear water and dark lures in darker water can hold up, but again, you’re traveling this far so come with a variety of weapons in your lure arsenal.

ODFW suggests that when bass are spawning and at their most aggressive, toss curly-tailed bass grubs or crappie jigs, spoons or other lures toward the bank.

Work the lure down along the shallow bottom in the vicinity of spawning bass, which will strike out as anything they perceive as a threat to their nests.

Bass will also readily bite nightcrawlers, but fish tend to swallow natural baits more deeply than artificial lures, which can more often result in fatal injuries, so we recommend caution for anglers that plan to release bass.

Most bass anglers do release their catches, especially of larger fish. Big bass are long-lived fish and the larger ones are the main spawners, so practicing catch and release with these bigger fish helps maintain the fishery.

Additionally, larger bass simply aren’t as tasty as other fish at Brownlee, and they tend to have higher concentrations of naturally occurring mercury that accumulates more over time. Mercury is considered a toxin if eaten in amounts that exceed recommendations.

Channel Catfish

Photo of a big channel catfish caught at Brownlee Reservoir
Photo courtesy of Rob Dolton

Channel catfish are a worthy gamefish that fly under the radar in the Pacific Northwest.

They are great-eating. These are the catfish usually farmed and served in restaurants.

They grow far larger than bass and crappie, they are decent fighters, and they even sometimes strike bass lures.

Speaking of size, channel catfish get really big at Brownlee. While the state record of over 36 pounds comes from elsewhere (McKay Reservoir), channel catfish over 20 pounds are not that uncommon at Brownlee.

But before you think about filling your freezer with one big fish, there’s this caveat: These big, old catfish aren’t nearly as tasty as smaller fish.

A lot of catfish anglers will tell you that the best-eating fish are no more than about 5 pounds (roughly 24 inches), although some anglers think fish to 10 pounds are good.

Remember that, like bass, the older catfish have more tendency to accumulate mercury, especially in the skin that you’ll want to remove.

When we fished Brownlee, the majority of channel cats we and others caught were in the same age class, around 17-18 inches and roughly 2 pounds, which to me was perfect for eating.

In-Fisherman published a Channel Catfish Weight Conversion Chart that starts at 20 inches.

When to catch channel catfish

These catfish will commonly be caught from spring through fall, and far less often in the cold of winter.

The very best season gets started in earnest in May. If it tells you anything (and it should), the Huntington Lions Club plans its annual catfish derby during Memorial Day Weekend.

That’s about the time of year the reservoir is freshly filled, and waters have largely flooded the flats that are especially prevalent in the upper reservoir where the Snake River comes in, in the wider Farewell Bend area.

The catfish push into the newly flooded waters where they can find all kinds of food, and they’re easy pickings for anglers.

I’ve been there in early June and there were anglers literally filling garbage cans with catfish fillets and ice. While that’s not my habit, we did take a fair number of meals.

But honestly, summertime is even more reliable for catfish fishing in a larger area, and you won’t have much trouble getting plenty for your fish fries.

In terms of time of day, catfish are much more actively feeding in low-light conditions, including at night. That said, I’ve caught them all day when the fishing is going good.

Where to fish for channel catfish

That upper part of the reservoir around Farewell Bend and Steck parks is good for catfish all season long.

In fact, ODFW recommends just about anywhere in the upper (southern) third of the reservoir.

Also, the previously mentioned coves and arms where tributary creeks and rivers come in area have good catfish fishing good throughout Brownlee Reservoir.

The Powder River Arm widens and shallows in the upper end near Richland, and there are plenty of catfish up in the shallows and weeds. The same will be true for other locations.

A lot of anglers just fish practically right off the bank where they find a pull-out and relatively shallow water, especially in the lower reservoir.

How to catch channel catfish

Channel catfish are like other catfish species: They love bait.

You have a lot of options for bait. Of course, the usual worms and nightcrawlers will catch catfish here like they will anywhere. 

When I fished Brownlee off Farewell Bend, I noticed several of the anglers who caught the most channel cats were using raw prawns or shrimp.

Pieces of cut fresh fish (a.k.a. “cut bait”), including crappie or panfish you catch at Brownlee, work very well.

I might bring an oilier fish with you, if you can get it.

For example, freeze and save the fresh whole herring or sardine fillets you had left over from salmon fishing and use pieces of that. Mackerel, albacore, shad and other bits of oily fish left over after cleaning (or bought from the grocery store) also are fantastic.

I like to use cut bait with skin on it, which helps hold the bait on the hook a little better.

Other catfish options include raw chicken livers and prepared dough or “stink” baits. Heck, I know people who have run out of bait and caught a few on pieces of uncooked hot dogs or bacon from their camp cooler.

Catfish are primarily bottom dwellers, although channel cats will come up for a meal at times and even occasional snatch an artificial lure.

I often fish them with a slip sinker above the swivel (use a bead between the two if you have trouble with the sinker hanging on the swivel). I attach the leader below tied with a good-sized hook.

Bait-holder or circle hooks are good for many of the bait types I’ve mentioned, while treble hooks work well for prepared doughs.

A very popular way to catch catfish in Brownlee’s shallow water is fishing the bait beneath a float, which can be rigged to slip the bait to the bottom or set to a specific depth of just 2 to 4 feet.

Again, at Brownlee, some of the best catfish fishing is in quite shallow water, sometimes barely off of the bank or in shallow weeds at the upper end of coves.

You’re safer using a bit heavier tackle than you would for bass or panfish. I’ve switched over to my steelhead rod at times, although I’ve usually just rigged up my heaviest bass rod for a little catfishing.

Line in the 10- or 12-pound test range is about right for these catfish, but you could go heavier if you’re aiming for a monster or fishing in weeds because catfish aren’t line shy.

Other Fish at Brownlee Reservoir

Largemouth Bass

These aren’t nearly as prevalent as their smallmouth cousins, but there’s enough that it’s possible the biggest bass you’ll catch at Brownlee will be a largemouth instead of a smallmouth, because the bucket mouths are a somewhat larger species on average.

If you are specifically targeting largemouth, look for softer bottom areas, weeds and other softer cover types, which you’ll most likely find at the upper end of creek arms.

Use similar lures as you do for smallmouth, although possibly in larger sizes.

Yellow Perch

Crappie might be what you think of when you consider tasty schooling fish at Brownlee, but they’re not the only such fish on the menu here.

Yellow perch have also made themselves at home at Brownlee.

If you can find a school with good-sized perch, you can fairly quickly get a good pile of fillet-worthy fish.

Use smaller hooks or jigs baited with pieces of worm, mealworm, crickets or similar baits, usually fished fairly close to the bottom.

Bluegill and Pumpkinseed

These sunfish don’t always get the respect I think they deserve.

Bluegill are aggressive biters and hard fighters. They’re easy to catch and a blast fished with a worm, mealworm or cricket, especially under a bobber.

For a little more challenge, use a fly rod (or convention rod with a casting bubble) and catch them on a sinking fly or with surface popper.

When it’s warm, I most often find bluegill close to shore, especially around weeds or other holding structures.

Pumpinseeds aren’t as big but are prettier and have similar habits.

More catfish

Channel catfish aren’t the only whisker fish at Brownlee. You’ll find a couple of different bullhead species and the occasional flathead, although the even bigger flatheads are more likely to be upriver in the Snake itself.

We caught several of the ubiquitous brown bullheads at Farewell Bend while going after channel cats (and the little buggers will steal bait off your hooks), and I caught a pretty big yellow bullhead on a plastic grub while going after bass in the Powder River Arm.

Rainbow Trout

There are better places to go trout fishing, but the reservoir has at times been stocked with trout and you might be able to pick some up.

Concentrate your efforts near the mouths of cooler tributaries or in deeper areas during the warmer months.

Planning Your Fishing and Camping Trip

Unless you already live roughly between Boise, Idaho, and Baker City, Oregon (or maybe a little farther out!) and are close enough for a day trip, plan to spend at least a couple of days to get the most out of fishing at Brownlee Reservoir.

It’s about 350 miles and five and a half hours of straight driving from Portland out Interstate 84. It’s another hour farther if you’re coming down from the Seattle area, coming through Yakima and Tri-Cities to pick up I-84 for the rest of the trip.

When to go

If your schedule allows, June is an all-round safe bet, especially if you wanted to have good fishing conditions for all three of the big-time gamefish at Brownlee.

Going near the end of spring not only gets you into shallower and easier-to-catch bass and panfish, you may be able to avoid some of the hottest weather, even though you’ll find excellent catfish fishing at the peak of summer.

The average temperature in the Brownlee Reservoir area (using Huntington as a reference point) is in the low 70s for May and the low 80s for June.

However, the typical day rises into the 90s (with some 100s) during July and August, and you won’t find many shade trees in this part of the world.

September usually starts hot but cools off nicely into October.

While fishing early and late is always helpful during the prime season, it’s especially beneficial during the full heat of summer at this sun-scorched reservoir.

Where to go

First off, while there is a lot of bank fishing access around parks and roadsides, a boat is a big advantage on this big water.

If you’re bringing a trailered boat, plan your trip with a launch site in mind. The locations we mention by name here have ramps.

When the reservoir is drawn down, some boat ramps might be inaccessible, so check ahead if you’re unsure. Idaho Power has a useful online tool to check current water level and ramp usability.

If you’re camping at Brownlee, you have several options. On the Oregon side, two of the biggest draws are Farewell Bend State Recreation Area at the top of the reservoir south of Huntington and Hewitt Park near Richland on the Powder River Arm.

We split our trip between those two locations, concentrating mostly on crappie and bass in the Powder River Arm because we planned to hit the catfish hard at Farewell Bend.

Another spot we’d check out, with room for a smaller number of fellow anglers, is the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Spring Recreation Site on the Oregon side east of Huntington.

This BLM park is located along the Snake River Road just east of Huntington and not far from the excellent Burnt River Arm.

Also in Oregon, Swedes Landing has a boat launch and is among quite a few less-developed places people can camp along the shore of Brownlee, including a bunch of pullouts along the maintained gravel Snake River Road.

Swedes Landing is located on that road near where it meets the reservoir coming south over the hills from Richland.

On the Idaho side, Steck Park and Woodhead Park are favorite go-to destinations for overnight visitors.

BLM’s Steck Park is located off Olds Ferry Road and just across the reservoir from the popular Burnt River Arm in the excellent upper part of the reservoir, which is closer to Boise.

Idaho Power’s Woodhead Park is farther north in the lower part of the reservoir with good access to the Brownlee Creek Arm, one of the better fishing spots on this part of the reservoir. Woodhead is along Idaho State Highway 71.

Some of the communities around Brownlee Reservoir also have modest motels and other overnight accommodations, in addition to basic supplies. Plan to bring your specialized equipment, whether for fishing or otherwise.

Fishing regulations

First off, you can fish with either an Idaho or an Oregon fishing license throughout the reservoir with one major exception: You need an Oregon license to fish anywhere in the Powder River Arm.

At Brownlee Reservoir, the two states co-manage the fishery and use the same set of angling rules, including harvest limits.

There is a daily limit of six bass of either species. None of your keepers may be under 12 inches and only three can be over 15 inches.

There are no harvest limits for crappie, catfish or other warmwater species you’ll catch in any kind of numbers at Brownlee, and these are the best table fare. We do suggest you only keep what you’ll definitely eat in a reasonable amount of time.

Check either state’s regulations for rule updates, limits on native fish, or other regulations before fishing at Brownlee Reservoir, but for the most part it’s fairly simple here.

Oregon Resources

ODFW trout stocking schedule
ODFW weekly recreation report and regulation updates
ODFW annual fishing regulations
National Weather Service forecasts