Northwest Fly Fishing

Myths and Legends
By John Shewey

Oregon’s rugged, rumbling, muscular 100-mile-long Lower Deschutes River has no rival in that it uniquely combines a world-class trout fishery with a superb summer-steelhead fishery. The fish, which arrive between midsummer and late autumn, and readily rise to flies swung on floating lines, are perhaps the only force of nature that can make ardent fly anglers forget about all those wild trout.
   The Lower Deschutes emanates from Pelton Dam, near the tiny community of Warm Springs, and then flows northward, its massive canyon ever deepening, until the river finally meets the Columbia River east of The Dalles. Typical steelhead here run from 4 to 8 pounds, though you’ll rarely hear one of the seemingly countless fly-fishing guides admit that the spunky little steelhead you just beached weighs in at only 4—or, gasp, 3—pounds. For the guides, and many Deschutes regulars, even those streamlined little 20-inch steelhead are 5 pounders.
   On the other end of the scale, the Deschutes routinely yields double-digit-weight fish, many of the largest being steelhead of Clearwater River (Idaho) origin that stray into the “Lower D.” Being hundreds of miles closer to the Pacific, they are better fish in the Deschutes, on average, than they are in the Clearwater—brighter, bigger, badder. My Idaho steelheading brethren may disagree with that assessment, but a big Clearwater fish in the Deschutes has navigated just two of the eight massive dams that ultimately stand between them and their natal river in central Idaho; they have plenty of gas left in the tank. Most of the truly giant steelhead hooked by fly anglers on the Deschutes in autumn are not landed—they are simply too powerful, with too much broad, fast, rocky river to use to their advantage. 
   How big do these fish get? The Deschutes once held the world record for steelhead—a 28-pound behemoth landed in 1946 by Nevada politician Morley Griswold (1890–1951), who had served a brief stint as governor of that state. Ten- to 14-pound fish are not uncommon, and I’ve personally beached several weighing more than 14 pounds and gotten soundly and savagely beaten by several more of such size.
   Just last October I landed my largest Deschutes steelhead, an 18-pound buck that came to hand only by pure luck: I had gained a terrific casting position that allowed me to drop a fly beyond midriver in a hundreds-of-yards-long run with prime water nearly from bank to bank. But a slick seam at midstream, formed by whatever manner of boulders or ledges lurked unseen below the surface, looked fishy to me, and I obsessed over getting a fly to swing properly through it. My first attempt reached the spot, but taught me I needed to lengthen a bit more to control the fly at the top of its swing. The second cast placed the size 1.5 Max Canyon (the river’s most famous fly) in a better position and, just seconds into the swing, my line tightened suddenly and ominously—I knew instantly I’d hooked a heavy fish.
   The next few seconds convinced me I’d never land this fish and never even see it—a classic Deschutes run-like-a-freight-train leviathan that would very soon come unpinned somewhere far downriver. The only course of action open to the angler in this situation is hold on to the rod, keep hands off the reel, and hope.
   My cousin, Al Shewey, was fishing 200 yards below me where the river began rounding a bend. The fish I’d hooked finally stopped running well more than a full cast downstream from Al and literally around the bend from me. Luckily, it had thus far remained at midriver, for had it run in toward the bank down there around the bend, the game would have ended.
   Happy to see at least a little backing still on my spool, I began to harbor some hope, and scanned the banks for a potential landing spot. It would not do to give ground, to chase this fish downstream, except as a last resort—the Deschutes tends to physically punish fish-chasing anglers—but meeting him halfway seemed a logical tactic, so I started trying to gain line.
   Over and over, the fish took what I gained and then some; alternately, I regained some of what he took, and then after a while, most of what he took; little by little, the footage-gained equation tilted in my favor and I began carefully wading down and toward the bank while slowly working the fish back upstream. By then, my friend and veteran guide, Brad Staples, had piloted his jet boat to my side of the river, and Al had reeled in and walked up to meet him.
   Eventually, we guided the fish into shallow water where Brad was able to capture him in a huge salmon net. The fly hung by the barest thread of sinew; the fight would not have lasted another run. We admired the fish, quickly measured him underwater, then immediately released him—he needed no reviving and sped off into the depths as if the encounter had been but a
minor inconvenience.
   Speaking of guides, this river has engendered careers spanning decades. Brad Staples, for example, dean of jet-boat guides, started working the river under the tutelage of Rick Wren in the early 1980s. A few years prior, John Hazel had begun guiding anglers on the Deschutes; along with his wife, Amy, he now owns Deschutes Angler fly shop in Maupin. They, and others, followed on the shoulders of such luminaries as Don and Lola McClain, who put Deschutes steelhead on the national fly-fishing map in the 1960s, creating opportunities for fly-angling guides to join the pioneering all-tackle guides, such as Homer Baker, Sam Holmes, Gary Teeney, Chet Oliver, and others. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, a number of guides began specializing in fly fishing for Deschutes steelhead and trout, among them Norm Wood, Skip Zaffee, Gene Clark, Jerry Todd, and Mike Sallee.
   These days, so many guides work the Deschutes that the old joke comes to mind. Question: What do you call an 18-year-old kid with a drift boat? Answer: A fly-fishing guide. 
   Most Deschutes guides have a healthy respect for the resource; many likewise appreciate their roots. Those who don’t might be interested to learn that fly fishing for steelhead on this river dates at least as far back as the dawn of the 20th century, when a few pioneering fly anglers were discovering the autumn fishing for what, at the time, were considered a “steelhead salmon” or “salmon-trout.” In early September 1903, reported the Morning Oregonian (September 10, 1903), Edward R. Hickson (circa 1853–1935), “an enthusiastic disciple of the ‘immortal Izaak’…repaired to the Deschutes on Sunday for some sport with the steelhead salmon, or trout, as some wiseacres choose to call these salmon.”
   Hickson reported the carnage of his tackle at the hands of these so-called salmon to the Portland-based newspaper a few hours after he left the water, by which time his fishing tale had reached proportions only an angler could evince. He battled several huge fish before running out of flies and light by which to cast. A year earlier, Hickson, in the company of Maurice Fitzmaurice (1854–1936; editor of the Condon Times), landed several 6- to 12-pound steelhead on the Deschutes and in doing so, “exploded the idea that the steelhead at least will not rise to a fly.”
   The two men, both Irish immigrants, pioneered Deschutes steelhead fly angling, and a few years later, the seeds were planted for the river and its fish to take center stage for many area fly anglers when railways were constructed in the canyon amid fierce and oft-violent competition between James J. Hill’s Great Northern Railroad and Edward H. Harriman’s Union Pacific Railroad. The story is captivatingly told by Leon Speroff in The Deschutes River Railroad War (2006). When the dust had finally settled, anglers could ride the train from Portland to the Deschutes. By 1916, Union Pacific inaugurated late-night departures from Portland’s Union Station that reached South Junction at river mile 84 around dawn the next day. As advertised by the railroad in the Morning Oregonian that year, anglers could opt to be dropped anywhere along the line within the Deschutes River canyon by previous arrangement with the conductor.
   Such ready access to this otherwise intimidating and largely inaccessible river canyon ushered in newfound popularity for the Deschutes and its fertile fishery.
   The river soon ranked among the best fly-rod steelhead waters in the Northwest because of its abundant and eager fish, though these days the fishery is substantially supported by hatchery-origin fish. Deschutes steelhead enjoy ideal water temperatures for several months and the river is perfectly suited to dry-line tactics. It has spawned a plethora of river-specific flies, the most famous of which is the Max Canyon, devised in 1970 by Doug Stewart, one-time fly shop owner in Portland.
   Don’t worry over specific fly patterns, however, because the fish are not at all particular. Many hundreds of different wet flies have tempted Deschutes steelhead over the decades; these fish will attack skated dry flies as well. And a year doesn’t pass during which some wide-eyed trout angler, hands still trembling from the encounter, reports to one of the fly shops that a steelhead exploded on a dead-drifted dry fly or inhaled a tiny nymph pattern.
   Anglers unaccustomed to the vagaries of steelhead might have difficulty accepting the premise that fly pattern is inconsequential. Personally, I embrace this fact; if steelhead were so capricious as to demand a certain hue or certain feather or certain combination of characteristics in a fly, I suspect we’d by now have severely narrowed our collective selection of steelhead flies. Yet the opposite has happened. The number of steelhead patterns is legion and ever increasing. They all work and they all fail.
   One day on the Lower Deschutes when three fish rewarded my efforts, each came to a different fly. The first pounced on a Spawning Purple, the second devoured a Silver Demon (those two flies could hardly be less alike), and the third inhaled a fly I had tied up the night before as something of a joke: my cousin Al—a particularly adroit steelhead fisherman—is a graduate of Oregon State University, whereas my degree comes from the University of Oregon. The two schools are rivals in athletics, and the so-called Civil War football game earns bragging rights for a year. I decided a bit of good-natured fun was in order, and I dressed a fly in the colors of the Oregon Ducks—green and yellow, two colors that are completely out of fashion for steelhead flies these days.
   After pontificating fictitiously about how steelhead perceive and react to different colors, I presented the fly to Al with great fanfare, suggesting he use the green-and-yellow pattern, as it would—according to my research—be the best choice for the current light and water conditions. With mounting suspicion, Al listened to my vociferous discourse and finally, as I knew he would, spurned the green-and-yellow fly. With the stage thus set, the second half of my scheme, hatched purely for entertainment among steelheading comrades, was to take a fish on the new fly, and that evening a fine little native accommodated my efforts. As we beached the fish, I turned to Al and told him, “I might be a little hard to live with for a while.”
   The Duck Fly, the Spawning Purple, and the Silver Demon—three disparate patterns, all fished the same day, all successful. What can you learn from such events? Only that steelhead don’t concern themselves with pattern specifics; it is enough that when a swinging fly and a willing steelhead happen to converge in time and space, the game is on.
   Locating and then properly and relentlessly fishing the best water is the key. That’s always the key in steelhead fishing. 
   Renowned for its treacherous wading, the Deschutes demands wading staffs and boots with cleats; emergency pull-tab inflatable life vests are a good idea, too. The current, frequently just slightly off color and running over dark rocks, is difficult to see into, even more so when the sun is off the water, hidden by the canyon walls—prime times for steelhead fishing. Many steelhead runs are formed by water-carved bedrock, whose reefs and ledges create uneven wading. For a few steps you fish from atop a ledge, the water barely reaching your knees, only to step off into cold neck-deep flows at the downstream end of the rock if you’re not careful. The steelhead, however, find ample holding water amidst the ledges, boulders, and seams that abound in this broad river.
   On the Lower Deschutes, river access is tedious in many stretches, especially the 25-mile roadless portion from Macks Canyon to the mouth. This reach is the domain of jet boats running up from the mouth and drift boats departing from the launch at Macks Canyon. Hiking or mountain biking anglers can head upriver from the mouth (the best trail is on the east side) or downriver from Macks Canyon. Above Macks Canyon, 17 miles of rough gravel road parallels the east bank. Above the gravel road, 8 miles of paved road follow the river to the little town of Maupin and 6 more miles of gravel reach upstream to the “Locked Gate.” The upper reaches of the river can be accessed at Warm Springs, Trout Creek, and South Junction. Drift boats reign in this upper half of the river, but throughout its run, the Lower Deschutes—home to many Class II through IV rapids—requires strong skills at the oars. Learn to drift it with a veteran before taking your turn at the helm.
   Road-accessible fishing in the Maupin and Macks Canyon area notwithstanding, first-time (or even veteran) Deschutes anglers can’t go wrong with the services of a good guide. Not only does guided fishing get you on the river (various guides work by floating, jet-boating, and walk-and-wade fishing), it provides opportunity to learn about the fishing, and perhaps benefit from some tips on effectively casting in the winds that routinely blow up or down the Deschutes canyon.
   By August, summer-run steelhead enter the Lower Deschutes River in numbers sufficient to motivate the many fishing guides to get started on a long and busy season. The late-summer fishing is always best from Macks Canyon to the mouth, so the river tends to be a bit crowded with jet boats, along with drift boats launching at Macks Canyon, but there’s plenty of water on which to disperse. Fishing on the lower end gets better and better as the season progresses.
   As late August yields to September, ample numbers of steelhead pass upstream of Sherars Falls; by mid-September, the fish are well distributed throughout. September and October are the prime months and the fishing continues until the end of the year. By mid-November, many of the fish have regained their trout-like colors and, by December, many of them are too dark and too tired to be considered fair sport. But by then, anglers have enjoyed a full three months of typically excellent prospects, hooking hard-fighting steelhead on one of the most dramatically scenic of
Northwest rivers.
   Hickson and Fitzmaurice, the two Irishmen who had reached Oregon in the early 1880s and homesteaded sheep ranches south of Fossil, could hardly have known what they started when they “exploded the idea that the steelhead at least will not rise to a fly.”
   They quietly pioneered what would become, by the 1970s, Oregon’s most popular summer-run steelhead fishery. But in those early days, even after the railroads provided ready access to the canyon, writer John Gill, in the Oregon Sportsman (1914), realized, “We have much to learn about the fishing on Deschutes, but no river in the state looks more promising.”
   I’d like to think the same holds true today.

 

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