Bottle Fishing on the Banks of the Portenuf River

By Brent M. Jones

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As a young boy in the late 1950’s I walked barefoot on the muddy 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, bushes, and especially peachleaf willows, some overhanging the banks with growth stretching to the middle of the river, meeting others growing from the other side. 

Our home was right next to the river and at night, with the window open in my bedroom, I could hear the roaring, sloshing and flow of the water. In the winter there was ice on the banks to walk and slide on. In the summers with friends we built rafts, caught snakes, frogs, and fished. We always thought the river was too dirty to swim in so that didn’t happen too often.  It was easy to build a river bank fort deep into the overhanging bushes and willows and not easily found by others, since it could only be accessed from the raft. It was my own small Huckleberry Finn experience, but the fishing was not the same approach as his.

One difference was my own version of bottle fishing where no poles or hooks were needed. The first step was to get a pint or quart glass Mason jar, which was not a problem. My mom had plenty of extra jars because each year she bottled fresh raspberries, cherries, peaches and pears sealing them in the bottles and heating them in a boiling water bath. The raspberries were especially good and were my favorite.

An empty bottle, strong string, bottle lid, a knife and some bread, was all that was needed. The string was usually six feet long with one end tied and fasted around the lid.  Using the knife, a hole could be pressed in the middle of the flat 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. They needed to be big enough so when the bottle was filled with water that they wouldn’t float up through the opening, now in the lid.

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

This type of fishing amounted to just waiting at least ten minutes or maybe even an hour but when the bottle was pulled back in it almost always had some small minnows in it. Bigger fish could be caught with a pole, hook and bait, but it wasn’t always a sure thing like bottle fishing was.

The small fish could be used for bait on a hook with a fishing pole if a trip to the Snake River was coming up, or it could be sold for bait just like worms could. Mostly the small fish were an option for more riverbank activity.  Mud and rocks could be used for making a little pond to hold the small fish. With some work the pond could hold access the river flow and still trap these fish for days. Just letting the fish go was the best option

If 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. They just disappeared or sometimes we wound up killing them or letting them go?  I always hoped they wouldn’t find a way into the house if they got away.

Maybe if I had read the book “Huckleberry Finn,” when I was a young and learned about this farm boy in overalls out on his raft carrying a fishing pole and bait bucket I would have viewed my own experiences differently. Reading and real-life experiences are both good and both add to each other.