Fly Fishing the Deschutes on Slow Days
Obsession, it would seem, can do as much for one's reputation as talent.
When a friend approached me to say that her cousin was flying in from Oklahoma the next weekend, loved to fly fish, and needed someone to show him the local scene, I wasn't all that surprised, nervous yes, but not surprised.
Fly Fishing in Oregon
Here in Oregon, we have an amazing variety and selection of water. With several blue-ribbon rivers flowing through the state, the Deschutes, McKenzie, and Metolius just to name three, and some incredibly prolific still waters like Crane Prairie and Chickahominy Reservoirs, it's hard work to find a place that even I can't land a trout or two.
Now the first problem that arises with taking a stranger fishing, especially one who is reputed as a lover of the sport, is that you never know exactly what his commitment is in comparison to your own. I, for example, keep about half of the pockets of my vest filled with flies, tippet, leaders, and the assorted miscellany of fly fishing.
The rest of the space is taken up with my camera, cigars, and usually a small paperback book. I'm used to having some occasional downtime along the river and like, as the old scout motto says, to be prepared.
These items, along with a fair assortment of unhealthy snacks, assure that I'll find something to keep me occupied when the sun is high and the fish aren't rising.
My new out-of-state friend, however, kept nothing on his person that wasn't strictly devoted to the sport. For Casey, downtime was the ride there and back, and even that was spent pouring over maps and talking about hatches. He was a hardcore angler, and aghast that I would waste precious fly box space with a battered Tolkien novel.
I had briefly considered taking him to a private catch-and-release-only pond of my acquaintance that held some nice Kamloops Rainbows. I knew the water and could almost guarantee a fine day of kicking a float tube and being towed about by the occasional lunker. Reluctantly I decided against the sure thing, figuring that if I had just toted a couple of fly rods halfway across the country, I would be looking for more of a challenge.
So, it was off to the Deschutes we went, myself, Kathy's husband Chris (a longtime friend), and Casey's friend Scott, who had tagged along with him from Oklahoma at the last minute.
The Deschutes River
The Deschutes flows like a ribbon of blue silk through the arid desert of Central Oregon. From the eastern slopes of the Cascade Mountains, it meets the Metolius River at Lake Billy Chinook before flowing north through the Warm Springs Indian Reservation and on into the Columbia River near The Dalles, completing a meandering 200 mile course.
This much-acclaimed fishery features a wide variety of angling experiences, from the slow meadow-like stretches above Bend to the fast-flowing canyon water of Maupin, where the river churns and boils through class IV rapids before plummeting over the impassable drop at Sherars Falls.
Fishing The Deschutes River
Beneath this crystal surface lives a host of piscatorial trophies. The mighty line-stripping steelhead, the humble native whitefish and, most prolific, the Deschutes River Redband Trout. Redsides, as they are known locally, a unique strain of native rainbow averaging 13-19 inches long, with a population exceeding 2,000 fish per-mile. These are hefty energetic fish, wily and well trained by year-round angling pressure.
The often-scorned whitefish, by the way, can grow to amazing proportions in the insect-rich environs of the river and will spend most of its daylight hours during the frigid months of winter slurping up your Prince Nymphs from the slow back eddies along the bank.
My first twinge of concern came when we met at a local parking lot to carpool to the river. All of Casey and Scott's gear was top-notch, and not with that brand-new "I just went and bought the most expensive stuff at the pro shop, now what's the funny line for?" look either, this stuff had been fished long and hard and was made to take the punishment. My own gear isn't exactly shabby, just much further back along the wall of the shop than theirs (I'm married and they're not, enough said).
My next clue should have come on long drive over Mt. Hood and across the desert to the river. The subject of conversation was fishing, period. Places we've fished (they'd fished a lot of places), fish we'd caught (they'd caught a lot of fish) and not in a bragging, one-upmanship retelling, just a matter-of-factness that left me concerned that my new friends had no doubts that today would be another fine story to add to their weighty arsenal.
I began to doubt enough for the four of us. I also learned that both Casey and Scott had spent the last several years running a fly shop in Oklahoma City, hence the quality of their gear.
The second difficulty in taking an out-of-towner fishing is the perverseness of nature. That is, just because the fishing was great yesterday, doesn't mean...
I groaned as I pulled into the parking area above Sandy Beach Hole, near the town of Maupin.
The water was high.
Not as high as I've seen it at times, overflowing its banks as it roared through Maupin like a torrent of chocolate milk (the photo above is one I took during the Spring floods in 2004), but just high enough to look good to the unfamiliar and still put the fish down.
I also noticed, stepping out of the van and catching my hat, that the breeze was up. It looked like the dry flies would stay in the vest and I suggested that we tie on a bead-head prince nymph under a small split shot.
This we tried, along with half a dozen other submersibles ranging from bright tiny brassies to great, meaty woolly buggers in brown and black.
We whipped that stretch of river to a fine froth for an hour; the total catch being one fat, lazy white fish, and Chris caught that.
I could see my tenuous position as the local pro starting to slip and suggested that perhaps a change of setting was in order. If I couldn't dazzle them with fish, maybe I could distract them with scenery. Back up the river we drove, past Maupin, to the end of the road at Locked Gate. Past that point lies a patchwork of public and private lands where only foot traffic is allowed.
The trail, however, is breathtaking. Cutting through the canyon, great red rock cliffs soar on either side, opening out into wide grassy meadows. The river narrows and flashing stair steps of white-water intersperse with long, smooth, shallow runs of crystal water over beds of fine, round river rock.
Hawks drifted above on high thermals, and crickets sang alongside the trail, in the warm summer sun. Casey and Scott agreed that this was all very beautiful, awe-inspiring really, now where did we want to fish?
We still didn't catch anything.
Actually, that's not true. Late afternoon found us lined up along a wide riffle, casting small hare's-ears in behind the rocks. I had a single split shot about sixteen inches up the light tippet, trying to compensate for the steady breeze blowing in my face. I was casting to a spot that was just a bit past my abilities, and I snapped the rod forward, just as a really serious gust of wind rocked me sideways.
Well, you know what happened next...
The little split shot, traveling at fourteen thousand miles an hour, thunked off the side of my head and buried that #14 hook right into the back of my ear.
Now, I'm sure I wasn't the first guy there to have ever set a hook into my own hide, and I'd like to think that I handled the situation with good humor and dignity. The guys, however, felt that we should move on, as I had probably disrupted any feeding that might have been taking place within a half mile.
They seemed concerned, also, that I had defoliated most of the far bank, where the charred remnants of juniper and sage huddled fearfully in a wispy blanket of smoke.
Before the day was through we had tried every sweet spot and honey-hole I had ever found along the river, and I was feeling a little guilty over my Technicolor stories of thick blue wing olive hatches, blizzards of Caddis, and the great smashing rises of fat red-sides, throwing caution to the wind to feast on the annual golden stone-fly hatch.
By dusk, Casey and Scott had added a couple of rainbows to their score, little ones, less than a foot long, carefully released into the current with instructions to go get bigger.
When the guys finally returned to the van, my cigar was a glowing nub in the twilight, Bilbo the Hobbit was leaving Mirkwood Forest on a barrel, and the pain in my assaulted ear was just beginning to subside. I slipped my bookmark back in and asked how they did, and they told me, politely, but without any great enthusiasm. I felt a little sorry for them, coming all this way to hit such a slow day on such a great river.
As our headlights cut across the Oregon desert and we slurped down the last of the greasy burgers from our lunch bags, I had a thought.
"Say," I mumbled around a mouthful of the cheeseburger, "If you guys are free tomorrow, I know this great little pond..."