Critters abound at Heller Bar and on the Grande Ronde River



Nora the Schnauzer (bottom left) explores the Grand Ronde shore for interesting scents.


A Rocky Mountain Sheeps picks its path down the cliff.


A Rocky Mountain Sheep picks its path down the red cliffs near the river.


A family of otters comes ashore from the water.


Don Davis' fly rod is rigged with a purple peril and an egg-sucking leach.


An angler take a cast on the Grand Ronde River.


Nora takes a break under a boulder on the Grand Ronde.

I stopped to snap a photo of an angler in a blue shirt. He sat on a large rock across the Grande Ronde River from me.

He made lackadaisical casts in the warm afternoon sunlight.

I left Nora the Schnauzer in the car, stepped to the roadside and I clicked off three frames.


Two river otters slipped past the man in the blue shirt. Wow! And he didn't even notice them.

Two otters appeared on my side of the river, and two more between the other four.

Then all six disappeared. I stepped closer to the road's edge, eight feet above the river.

Four otters surged onto a small sandy bar directly across from me. Gulp!

Two others, more wary, stood at water's edge. They cast glances up stream and down. I froze, with my mouth open. They didn't notice me.

Then all six otters lazed about on the sand, rolled on it and rubbed their faces in it.

I watched and clicked off photos. Two adults, I deduced, and four juveniles. One of the adults looked at me. I stopped clicking. It looked away.

When I looked at Nora the Schnauzer in the wagon's open window, the otters slipped from the sand.

"What about that?" I said to Nora. "Six river otters on the sand."

We had left Walla Walla in the dark, at 6 a.m. on a Monday. I drove 3 1/2 hours to Heller Bar at the mouth of the Grande Ronde River.

I drove three miles upstream, crossed the bridge and drove 2 1/2 miles downstream on the Rogersburg Road.

After rigging up the steelhead fly rod with two flies, a purple peril and an egg-sucking leach, I chucked them into the Grande Ronde.

Anglers clogged the river, so I anchored at one 300-yard riffle for three fishless hours.

I also located eight rock-colored Rocky Mountain sheep on the tall brown cliffs on the north side of the river.

Nora sniffed among the rocks for a rotten fish to rub on her chin whiskers.

Finally, with a hapless angler's sigh of resignation, I led Nora to the wagon for snacks.

As we shared jerky and an apple, two sheep stood on a ledge and pondered descending a sheer wall.

"No chance," I thought, but one tip-toed straight down. I grabbed the camera and took long-distance shots as the second one did the same. I expected it to fall, but it didn't.

Then I drove back across the bridge and stopped to photograph the man in the blue shirt (and the otters).

Not ready to quit fishing, I looked for an open spot downstream on the Snake from Heller Bar. I stopped at a rocky flat with haystack-sized boulders.

With the fishing rod in my left hand and a camera strap over my left shoulder, I followed Nora down a 10-foot, rocky bank.


My feet shot from under me. I crashed onto my butt with my right hand down to brace the fall. My left leg bent beneath me.

I bounced (ouch!) and slid for five feet. Pain exploded in my left knee and the heel of my right hand. I moaned (drat!) and Nora stared at me with her pink tongue hanging over her hairy lower lip.

I sat until the pain abated. Then I limped through false indigo bushes and slippery rocks to the river. I rubbed the red blood blister on the heel of my hand.

At least I had no broken skin or bones.

I worked out a cast, and Nora disappeared among the big boulders sniffing for something stinky.

After a dozen casts, I quit.

I whistled for Nora. I waited. And waited. I whistled again. No dog.

I mustered my shrill, get-the-heck-over-here whistle, and Nora stood up in plain sight on a Schnauzer-colored boulder 10 feet away.

Her expression said, "What?"

"Let's go home," I mumbled. "We've had another good day on the river."

She wagged her stubby tail and stuck out her tongue.

"Yet, I am glad I stopped to photograph the angler in the blue shirt," I added.

Contact Don at

If You Go

Take Highway 12 to Clarkston (100 miles). Turn right at the large sign pointing south to Asotin (eight miles). Follow the road along the Snake River to Heller Bar (22 miles, paved for 18 or so) and the mouth of the Grande Ronde River. Continue upstream for three miles, cross the bridge and take Rogersburg Road back toward the Snake River.

Google says river otters may weight 30.8 pounds and have one to six offspring in a brood.


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