Bottle Fishing on the Banks of the Portenuf River

By Brent M. Jones

As a young boy, in the 1950’s, I walked barefoot in the moss and mud on the banks of the Portneuf River, a tributary of the larger better-known Snake River, in Southeastern Idaho. The river was lined on both sides with trees and bushes overhanging the banks. Big Oaks, Maple trees, Goldenraintee, Hawthorne, Birch and Dogwood trees. The trees stood with willows and bushes thick at their sides. Occasional lilac bushes brought their deep blue to the natural cover.

Our families home sat right on the bank of the river and my upstairs bedroom, with the window open, brought the sound of the flowing water, birds and all the various river sounds. Large Oak trees rose from the bank below and the leaves from the upper branches would brush the house and window with the movement of the wind.

Winter by the River

With the leaves gone and water lowered everything changed. The ice layered up the banks and, in some places, only ice could be seen.  Often the branches of the willows and trees were covered with white crystal-like coverings.  Some would ice skate, but this was something I was fearful of doing.

Summers by the River

The water was higher than in the winter with all the runoff from the snow topped mountains that feed the river. My own Huckleberry Finn experience included rafts built from trees and fishing as we would float downstream. Our house was in the middle of a residential section near the town of Pocatello, but going downstream on a raft, with the tree and bush lined banks was like being in another world.

Fishing from the raft was done with a traditional fishing pole but fishing from the shore, mostly in my back yard, was different. No poles or hooks were used but instead a pint or quart glass bottle. The same Kerr brand bottles, referred to as Mason Jars, my mother used to bottle raspberries, peaches, cherries and other items in, by sealing them in a boiling kettle bath.  Raspberries were my favorite.

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An empty bottle, strong string, lid, knife and some bread was all that was needed. The string, usually six feet long, had one end tied and fasted around the lid.  Using the knife, a hole could be pressed in the middle of the flat metal lid creating a punctured X and then pressing the X to open so that 4 sharp sections of the lid depressed into the bottle.  At this point a few bread pieces would be put in the bottom of the bottle before the lid was added. The bread pieces needed to be big enough so when the bottle was filled with water that they wouldn’t float up through the opening in the lid.

With the bottle secured by the long string, doubled up strong enough to hold the bottle full of water with some pressure, the filled bottle was then just tossed off shore into the river under some overhanging branches or close to a large rock.  

This type of fishing was not complicated, and we would wait at least ten minutes, maybe even an hour, but when the bottle was pulled back to shore it almost always had some small minnows in it.

The small fish could be used for bait on a hook with a fishing pole, especially if a trip to the Snake River was coming up, or they could be sold for bait just like worms could. The small fish were also an option for more riverbank activity.  Mud and rocks could be used for making a little pond on the bank of the river to hold the small fish. Of course, just letting the fish go was the best option and that happened sometimes.

When a fish pool was created and loaded up with fish the next step was to move back away and hide or even leave and come back in an hour or so. Sooner or later a snake would find this little pool and go in and eat the fish. With good timing the snake could then be caught.

What to do with a live snake was a little more of a challenge. Several attempts to keep the snake in a cardboard box under the front porch failed when they just disappeared? I always hoped they wouldn’t find a way into the house if they got away.

Leaving the River behind

Our family eventually moved to a traditional neighborhood on the other side of town to live in a new house, but there was no river nearby.  A couple of years after we moved something terrible happened to the River.  Spring runoff was higher than it had been in years and all along the river, as it ran through the town, the neighborhoods were flooded.  The town brought the Army Core of Engineers in to evaluate the situation and they decided to make a cement ditch of the river its entire length as it twisted and turned through the town.

A river in a cement ditch is not a river! The bank had no trees or bushes. It was just a sterile ugly ditch. Any path to revisiting my Huckleberry Finn days and my youth were just eliminated by bureaucrats and a town happy to take some federal money.

I went back to where I had spent much of my youth after this happened. I waited a long time before I ever went back again.

John Steinbeck said: “You can’t go home again because home has ceased to exist in the mothballs of memory. Maybe he was right, but my memory is a lot better than the reality today of where home was. It just points to the fact that there is no sense looking back. We just get up and press forward.