By Jayson Jacoby
Of the Baker City Herald
Theron Hampton remembers when the mere mention of Brownlee Reservoir was sufficient to send crappie anglers scurrying for their tackle boxes.
That era ended a decade ago.
Water levels dropped as Idaho Power Company, which owns Brownlee Dam, made room in the reservoir to help prevent spring floods, and released water during summer to flush salmon to the Pacific Ocean. Boat ramps gathered dust. Crappie eggs dried up.
"If they just leave this water alone like they have, people start coming back," said Hampton, who owns the Hitching Post motel and store in Richland.
For the past couple of years, Idaho Power has maintained higher water levels in the reservoir for more of the spring and summer fishing season. And people have come back. In droves.
Brownlee's reputation, sullied by those several years in the 1990s when the water was too shallow and the fish too few, is being revived.
Hampton sees the signs of this revival every day. He discerns its patterns among the license plates on rigs rolling down the highway toward Hewitt Park, on the reservoir's Powder River arm a couple of miles east of Richland. They come from Nevada. Montana. Minnesota, even.
Just the other day Hampton met a stringer of anglers from Louisiana. They were visiting relatives in Portland, they told Hampton, and the relatives said their vacation from the Deep South just wouldn't be complete until they'd dropped a jig or two into Brownlee's crappie-rich shallows.
Hampton recognizes the trend because he watched it develop during the late 1980s.
First, the reservoir level remains relatively stable, with enough water to keep fish eggs and boat ramps submerged during the spring-through-summer peak of the fishing season.
Second, fish populations rise in response to the reservoir's reliable patterns. And third, word spreads among anglers with the speed of a smallmouth snatching a wiggling crankbait.
Fifteen years ago Brownlee's reputation traveled across the country on predictable paths Â— magazines and word-of-mouth, for the most part.
"Now so many people are on the Internet, and we're getting a lot of recognition that way," Hampton said. "Every little bit (of publicity) helps."
Hampton said he often asks customers how they heard about Brownlee. The Internet is a frequent response, he said. Yet magazines remain an important conduit of information for crappie fanatics, too.
Especially this year.
In the past few months In-Fisherman and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines have published stories boasting of Brownlee's rich crops of crappies.
"Brownlee Reservoir produces easily the most scenic and probably the best crappie fishing west of the Rockies right now," wrote Matt Straw in In-Fisherman's article touting five places in the United States to catch "slab crappies."
John Shewey, a freelance author from Salem who wrote the story on Brownlee for Northwest Fly Fishing, didn't limit his descriptions to crappie techniques.
Shewey also described fly-fishing for smallmouth bass, and even for catfish, a species rarely reeled in by fly anglers.
That pair of articles represents several thousand dollars' worth of free publicity, said Dave Noble, director of Baker County Unlimited, the organization that tries to entice tourists to visit the region. In-Fisherman's circulation is 271,000, Northwest Fly Fishing's about 25,000.
Noble said Baker County Unlimited could not afford to buy advertisements that would attract as much attention as the magazine stories did.
"The Northwest Fly Fishing story had full-page color photos and was like a five-page spread," Noble said. "How can you beat that?"
Fishing is big business for Baker County, Noble said.
Almost every angler who travels to Brownlee, even the relatively self-sufficient ones with a fully provisioned camp trailer in tow, buy at least a tank or two or gas or a few bags of ice, Noble said. And many spend a lot more money, on everything from motel rooms to restaurant meals to souvenir T-shirts and coffee mugs.
"(Anglers) tend to be upper middle class," Noble said. "It's another market that we certainly want to look at."
And Baker County Unlimited has been looking. Noble said the organization set up information booths earlier this year at sports shows in Portland, Boise and Redmond. He chatted with a bunch of anglers drawn to the booth, he suspects, by the huge, mounted crappie prominently displayed.
"I was really surprised at the number of people from the west side of Oregon who had been to Brownlee before," Noble said. "I talked to a lot of people who said, Â‘I'm going to be fishing Brownlee in June, or July.' "
Noble said Brownlee's
burgeoning reputation as one of the West's hottest warmwater fisheries can benefit economies beyond those of the trio of small towns nearest the shore: Richland, Huntington and Halfway. Baker City businesses collect a share of anglers' dollars, too.
In Richland, Hampton continues to keep tabs on the trend. He figures Brownlee is luring about 60 percent as many anglers as it did during the halcyon days of the late 1980s and early '90s.
But compared to the doldrums of the mid and late 1990s, that's a crowd.
"We're getting there," Hampton said.