Fishing

Go big at Massacre Rocks State Park

Fishing is about quality over quantity at Massacre Rocks, but big fish and dramatic scenery make it worth the trip.
Fishing is about quality over quantity at Massacre Rocks, but big fish and dramatic scenery make it worth the trip. Special to the Idaho Statesman

Massacre Rocks State Park has a big, ominous name, and rightfully so.

The Oregon Trail site — named for the pioneers who died in skirmishes with Native Americans along the narrow pass — is defined by its huge, igneous rock formations and the mighty stretch of the Snake River that carves a deep path through them.

But the geography isn’t the only thing looming large at Massacre Rocks. The park is also home to some monster fish, which use the expansive habitat and plentiful food supply to grow to epic proportions.

Add in a cozy campground, a boat launch and a plethora of outdoor activities to enjoy, and Massacre Rocks is a ready-made spot for a weekend fishing adventure.

BIG WATER, BIG FISH

As the Snake River churns through Massacre Rocks, the water often drops to more than 20 feet deep within feet of the sheer, rocky shoreline. The main channel can reach depths of up to 100 feet.

With all that room to roam and plenty of forage, fish of all shapes can reach massive sizes.

“Massacre Rocks is a great stretch of river environment,” said Dave Teuscher, fisheries manager for the Idaho Fish and Game Southeast Region. “The fish there have enough to eat to achieve their maximum growth rate, regardless of species, make or model.”

Smallmouth bass are the primary target species for most anglers, and there are some giants. Thanks to Massacre Rocks’ thriving hordes of crayfish, the bass achieve uncommon girths. One recent trip produced a 14-inch fish that weighed two pounds — more than 50 percent heavier than a typical 14-inch Idaho smallmouth.

“I’ve never caught smallmouth like this,” said Caleb Nichols, a Boise angler who has spent years catching smallies on C.J. Strike, Brownlee and other western Idaho stretches of the Snake. “They are footballs. You can tell by their bellies that they are munching crayfish all day long.”

Thus, the best lures mimic the smallmouth’s favorite food, and anglers use everything from soft plastic crayfish to tube jigs, grubs and crankbaits in dark green, orange, brown or red. Perch and Utah chub minnows are also on the menu, so Rapalas, flukes and swimbaits are additional options. For fly anglers, a leech, sculpin, crayfish or woolly buggar pattern might do the trick.

“I’ve caught fish on all kinds of lures down there,” said Zach Taylor, president of the Magic Valley Bass Masters club. “The trick is finding the fish. You kind of have to work the shoreline and find where the fish are holding.”

In addition to bass, Massacre Rocks is home to rainbow trout, perch, carp, Utah chubs and white sturgeon. Every species in the river grows fast — anglers sometimes bump into beefy Kamloops rainbow trout, chubs in excess of 16 inches and carp that can weigh over 20 pounds.

Teuscher says Fish and Game is working to establish a better fishery for sturgeon, which should thrive in the rocky depths.

MANAGING FOR SUCCESS

While Massacre Rocks’ natural habitat lends itself to quality fishing, both Fish and Game and sportsmen play a role in maintaining the fishery.

In 2008, Fish and Game instituted a two-fish limit on bass, and signs at the boat launch encourage anglers to release big fish, which are vital to the naturally sustaining population. The combination of increased awareness and reduced harvest has allowed Massacre Rocks to blossom.

“It has really taken off over the last 15 years,” Teuscher said. “I think we held our first tournament at Massacre Rocks in 2001, but now we are receiving four to six tournament applications every year.”

Another factor helping the bass population is the nearby Minidoka National Wildlife Refuge. The shallower stretch of river is closed to boating, making it ideal habitat for bass to spawn in the spring. As the seasons progress, many of those fish head back upstream into Massacre Rocks.

“It’s a little tougher to do tournaments there because of the four-fish limit (two for each angler),” Taylor said. “But it’s worth it. The winning weight for our club tournament this year was 14.77 pounds, with a big fish of 5.34. And I’ve seen winning weights of up to 18 pounds — that’s outstanding quality.”

In contrast, the winning weight on this spring’s Lake Lowell Open tournament was also in the 14-pound range — and that was on five largemouth bass, which usually outweigh their cousins.

LOTS TO DO

Fishing is just one of the many activities to enjoy at Massacre Rocks. The park has a comfy tent and RV campground with more than 30 sites, plus four small cabins that sleep up to five guests. The Visitor’s Center is packed with information about the area’s rich history and wildlife, and it also provides rental canoes, kayaks and disc golf sets for a unique 18-hole course set amongst desert boulders and junipers.

For non-anglers, the Massacre Rocks stretch of river is slow and deep enough for boaters to safely enjoy water sports, and the trails that wind through the park are perfect for hiking or recreational biking. The area also is rich in wildlife. Deer, coyotes, river otters, beavers, mink, rabbits, lizards, raptors and waterfowl are some of the species you might spot along the river. The park seems to be popular with raccoons, in particular — on one recent trip, a gang of six ring-tailed bandits hung out within yards of the fishing boat, playing and hunting crayfish in the shallows.

“It’s a really cool area,” Teuscher said. “The scenery is great, and there’s lots of neat stuff to do.”

Jordan Rodriguez has been fishing Idaho waters since he was a teen. Share your fish stories, adventures, tips and tricks at outdoors @idahostatesman.com.

If you go

  • Directions: From Boise, take I-84 and I-86 east toward Pocatello. Take Exit 28 and the park will be on your left side along the Snake River. The drive takes just under three hours.
  • Fees: Campsites cost $22-$30 per night and will accommodate either tents or RVs. All but one of the sites include power and running water. There also are four cabins available for $58 per night. Canoes, kayaks and golf discs available for rent through the Visitor’s Center.
  • Activities: Massacre Rocks accommodates a wide variety of outdoor activities, including fishing, boating, canoeing, hiking, wildlife viewing and 27 holes of disc golf.
  • Access: The lower campground loop closes Oct. 1. The upper loop remains open year-round, but the water is shut off in mid-October. The lower-loop campsites and upper-loop water are re-opened in the spring as weather permits.
  • Contact: For more info, call (208) 548-2672 or visit parksandrecreation.idaho.gov/ parks/massacre-rocks.
  • Burn ban: Because of the wildfire risk, campfires are currently banned at Massacre Rocks. Fuel-powered campstoves are allowed.
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