Oregon had been my home for ten years, and the Deschutes
River my home water. The one hundred miles of this desert
tail water are home to a strain of rainbow trout known
locally as redsides. In addition, in late summer, steelhead
begin moving into the river from the warmer waters of the
Columbia. By October, steelhead are usually spread throughout
the river. The east bank of the river is a mixture of private
and BLM land; the west bank borders the Confederated Tribes
of Warm Springs Reservation, but can be fished for much of
the 8 miles from Mecca Flats to Trout Creek with a tribal
With a change of job, a move to Washington State, and a
new home to get in order, there had not been much time
for fishing this summer. I made plans to slip out early
from work one Thursday in late October and meet my friend
Al Jones for a couple of days of floating and fishing on
the Deschutes. I left suburban Seattle at about 3:30 PM on
Thursday, fought traffic to just south of Olympia, and
picked Al up in Portland at 7:30. By 10:00 we were in
our motel room in Madras.
The alarm went off at 5:00 AM on Friday and, after a few
false starts ("Where's the spare key to the rig?" "Have you
seen my glasses?") we launched from the Warm Springs boat
ramp at a bit past 6:00. I had hoped to get on the water a
little earlier and stake out a good run I knew between the
boat ramp and the campground at Mecca Flats. My early-morning
stumbling around got us on the water behind another boat,
and they were in the run when we floated past. No problem.
The plan was to explore new water on Friday, and to get
serious on Saturday if we were still fishless.
The morning was cold and clear, 22 degrees by the bank
thermometer, with a moon just past full. Wet waders froze
to the hull of the boat as we climbed in after fishing our
first run without a strike. We were both casting spey rods:
I had my new 13-foot seven weight, and Al had my Sage 9140.
There were quite a few hike-in fishermen and a number of
boats as we made our way downstream. We stopped in places
where the water looked fishy, and found most of our favorite
spots occupied. We each had one fish bump our flies, but
had not hooked up as we came into the last mile of river
above our take out at Trout Creek. One of our favorite
runs is there, a stretch of water we call Poacher's Flats
because we mistakenly fished there one year after the
reservation waters closed. The west side of the river
remains open to steelheading after trout season ends at
the end of October. We did not realize that the east bank
closed to all fishing at that time. Fortunately, it was
a fellow fly fisher, not ODFW or the tribal police, who
alerted us to that fact.
There were two people in the flats as we approached. We
decided to beach the boat upstream, have lunch and coffee,
and wait for them to fish through. When they headed downstream,
Al stepped in at the head of the run, and I started about
A fly that is not in the water will not catch fish. With
steelhead, confidence in your fly is what keeps it in the
water. (Confidence affects trout fishing as well. The amount
of time spend changing flies is usually inversely
proportionate to the number of fish caught.) Purple flies
seem to work especially well on the Deschutes; my favorite
Deschutes fly is one I call the grouse & purple soft hackle.
The body is purple flash braid with a purple chenille thorax.
The thorax is palmered with a purple feather: schlappen,
marabou, hen hackle, or dyed pheasant rump. The fly is
finished with a couple of turns of grouse as a collar,
and a black head.
I was on my second pass through the run when I got my
first strike. Steelhead have hard mouths, and setting
the hook in the conventional manner by raising the rod
will often fail. Instead, you should keep a small loop
of line below your reel hand at all times. When a fish
strikes, your release the loop while sweeping your rod
tip parallel to the surface of the water and towards the
shore. This will pull the fly into the corner of the fish's
mouth and, as it turns away and down, the fish will set
the hook itself.
After 8 hours of cast, swing, step, lather, rinse, repeat. . .
the hard strike of the fish surprised me, and my trout fishing
instincts too over. Up went my rod tip, and, with a shake of
its head the steelhead was gone. Muttering under my breath,
I stepped downstream and cast again.
A few casts later I had the opportunity to redeem myself.
This time the strike was softer, and I was focused on a
proper hookset. A bit over 5 minutes later I had landed
and dispatched a 22" hatchery buck. As I was landing the
fish, another boat drifted past. "Smile, dammit!" the
oarsman yelled. The fish had obviously been in the river
a while, as it had regained the vivid coloration of a
The rest of the day was uneventful. By five PM the canyon
was in shadow and the chill was returning. We took the boat
out at the Trout Creek camp and started back to Madras.
Trout Creek is a tributary of the Deschutes that drops down
off the Madras plateau and runs through Trout Creek Ranch.
The access road parallels the creek for the first mile or
so as you leave the river. For years cattle were allowed
to graze down to the creek banks, and the damage to the
riparian habitat was considerable. Several years ago a
local utility purchased Trout Creek Ranch, and fenced off
access to the creek from grazing cattle. The results have
been remarkable. The creek side riparian zone is now lush
and green for much of the year.
Saturday saw us back on the river early. We launched a bit
further downstream. It was the last weekend of trout season,
and the last weekend for access to the reservation side of
the river. We expected the river to be crowded, and our plan
was to get on the oars and get downstream to fish the prime
water before the crowds came through. As it turned out, most
of our favorite spots were occupied, and we found ourselves
back at Poacher's Flat before 8:00 AM. After a cup of coffee
to warm us up, we began to fish.
After perhaps fifteen minutes I had another hookup. Once again,
the take was subtle and my hook set correct. The fish felt
considerably heavier than yesterdays. It neither ran nor
jumped, preferring to dog it in deep water. Al came over to
help me land the fish. When it finally surfaced, l said "It
looks brighter than yesterday's!" I told him that I though
it was foul hooked, which turned out to be the case. It also
turned out to be one of the larger suckers I have ever caught,
perhaps 25 inches long. Yes, it was bright - bright yellow
along the belly!
Disappointed, I released the sucker and resumed fishing.
Two casts later, bang! another strike. Unfortunately I was
once again unprepared and raised my rod tip to set the hook.
The fish ran on me a couple of times before throwing the hook
when it broke the water with a strong headshake.
Each afternoon featured a heavy hatch of mayflies at around
1PM. Close inspection revealed to different species of baetis
emerging at the same time, despite the warm and sunny weather
so unlike what I think of as typical baetis weather. The larger
bugs were about a number 18, and yellow-olive in color; the
others were considerably smaller, maybe a size 22, with
gray-green bodies. Redsides were rising all around us. However,
I find it hard to think about trout for weeks after an encounter
with a steelhead.
Al missed a couple of strikes that day, and I had a couple
of bumps, but we had no more hookups. By 2PM we were off
the water so that I could start the 6 plus hour drive back
The Trout Creek access road deposits you in the center of
the town of Gateway, OR. The rail tracks, remnants of one
of the great rail wars of the American West, come out of
the canyon here.
Other than the rail line, some cattle ranches, and some
hay and alfalfa fields, Gateway is best known for its
summertime speed traps to catch boaters in
a hurry to get to and from the river. Fortunately, someone
in Gateway has a sense of humor. There's a shed on the road
through town with the hand painted legend "Gateway City Hall
and Morgue" and a sign on the door declaring the occupants
to be "Out on Speed Patrol." A bucket next to the shed is
labeled "Gateway Fire Department."
In terms of fish caught, it was an unremarkable weekend.
But for someone feeling more than a little unsettled in
their life, it was a trip home, to good friends and the
river canyon that I love. ~ Stu