Chasing steel in the heart of Oregon’s redband country
The Deschutes is an iconic steelhead river. It drains the massive Cascade Range, compiling snowmelt and several significant spring creeks into a torrent that has spent millions of years carving a canyon through Oregon’s basalt plateau—a desert area known for its steep ridges and towering cliffs of black, columnar rock. The river’s whitewater compares to the Rogue—at a few famous rapids, its entire force converges, forming deafening whirlpools capable of swallowing boats whole. The geography is enough to keep you awed for life. But steelheaders rarely go places just for the scenery.
The legendary steelhead of the Deschutes have solidified its place in angling culture. The fish, like those in the Clearwater, Snake, and other upper Columbia tributaries, are Oncorhynchus mykiss gairdneri, or Columbia River redband rainbows. Unlike the irideus subspecies of rainbows that inhabit coastal streams from California to Alaska, redbands are known for three traits: tolerance to higher water temperatures, comfort in shallow-water lies, and a proclivity for striking surface flies. These traits make them ideal fly-rod quarry.
But unlike the upriver steelhead of the Clearwater and Snake, Deschutes fish arrive mint from the sea, supercharged with pelagic rocket fuel. Hook a few and you’ll see why fly shops in Maupin recommend at least 200 yards of backing.
Native Deschutes steelhead tend to be one-salt fish (one year at sea), typically between 22 and 26 inches long. The river also attracts “stray” steelhead from other watersheds that nose their way into the cool flows of the Deschutes during the heat of the summer. Many of these strays are larger, two-salt fish, often between 28 and 30 inches long.
The total run size varies from year to year, with between 12,000 (including 3,000 wild) and 29,000 fish (including 4,000 wild). In some years strays total as much as a third of the run, according to the data collected at the Pelton fish trap.
Among these are a few B-strain fish, a breed of large steelhead destined for the North Fork of the Clearwater. These are among the largest summer steelhead in the U.S. and can weigh as much as 30 pounds.
By mid-August, the lower river holds plenty of fish, with more arriving through October. As the season progresses, the bulk of the run—and the angling pressure—migrates upstream.
Where and When
The first steelhead trickle into the Deschutes about the time the Salmonfly hatch starts—in late May or early June. However, most steelheaders wait until August before rigging their rods.During August and September, the majority of the fish are below Sherars Falls.
A gravel road extends from the falls down to Macks Canyon, providing wading anglers with easy access to dozens of popular runs. Seven campgrounds and four boat ramps line the road. Access the 33 river miles between Macks Canyon and the mouth by foot or bike via the east bank trail, or by boat. This lower section contains the river’s most cherished steelhead water: long runs with ledgerock, boulders, sweeping inside seams, and trough-strewn tailouts. Twelve established campgrounds provide enough flat space for a few tents.
By about mid-October, the majority of the steelhead are dispersed throughout the nearly 50 river miles between Maupin and Pelton Dam. Much of the best water can be accessed by car. From Maupin, follow the road up the east side of the river to the locked gate. Hike or bike from there to access miles of prime water.
Rafts and drift boats are the preferred watercraft on the river, though visiting anglers should be advised that the Deschutes kills people every year, some of them wearing life vests. This is not a river for inexperienced boaters.
Finding steelhead on any new river can be daunting. The Deschutes is no different. Start by searching the runs immediately above and below rapids. Look for seams on the inside of bends, places where the current moves at about walking speed, and target water that is less than 6 feet deep. Such places abound on the Deschutes, and most of them hold fish.
With great steelhead fishing in such a spectacular setting, it’s little wonder that the Deschutes has become a madhouse. Every year, steelheaders descend on the river making it seem like the Madison or Bighorn of steelheading.
Jet boats race upstream and down, depositing anglers near the good water. During the peak of the run, drift boats and rafts occupy most campsites. And near and above Sherars Falls, truck- and bike-bound anglers race to the hot spots. If you’re looking for good water, find the well-beaten trail and realize that you might have to wait in line. This is the downside of fishing a world-class steelhead river.
In addition to heavy traffic, the fishery has undergone other sweeping changes. Runs of steelhead and spring Chinook plummeted in 1958 when the completion of Pelton Dam 100 miles upriver severed the river’s anadromous fish from their core spawning grounds.
The year before, the Dalles Dam on the Columbia became the first hydroelectric dam separating the Deschutes from the ocean. The few steelhead remaining below Pelton were then forced to circumvent two killer Columbia River impoundments. It is hardly surprising that Deschutes wild steelhead are now listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
To mitigate the loss of wild steelhead, in 1972 the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) constructed the Round Butte Hatchery, which continues to support the Deschutes fishery. Like all hatchery steelhead programs, it is a double-edged sword: myriad studies demonstrate that introducing hatchery steelhead to a river with native stocks adversely affects the health of those remaining wild fish. Hence, by supplanting the diminished wild run with hatchery fish, ODFW continues to threaten the recovery of wild Deschutes steelhead.
Steelheaders tread an ethically precarious line. How do we effectively champion the recovery of wild steelhead while passively supporting (through tag sales) an abusive hatchery program? Are we all just a bunch of chrome-addicted hypocrites?
I recently debated this issue with my fishing buddy Perky as we set up camp at Macks Canyon, and we found no easy answers to this question.
The typical Deschutes run contains water ideally suited to all modern steelheading presentations. If you wake up and want to fish a wet fly, you can. If you want to fish a skating fly, you can do that, too. Indicator tactics sound tempting? Go for it.
The major limiting factor is light. As the sun crests the ridge in the morning, it’s usually upstream—blinding the fish to surface presentations. To remain successful when the sun is shining directly on the water from an upstream direction, you need to fish deeper. When the sun moves downstream—or better yet, sets behind the ridge—you can once again fish surface flies with confidence.
Skating tactics. Whenever possible, I prefer to skate dry flies. Skating
works best on a calm, smooth surface, where fish can see the fly and its wake. On a typical Deschutes run, you’ll find this water at tailouts on windless mornings and evenings. Since so many Deschutes tailouts include fish-holding ledges, skating flies is an effective prospecting technique.
Choose a fly based on the speed of the current. For slow currents, use high-floating foam patterns that stay on top without requiring excessive water resistance.
Medium to fast currents are best for riffle-hitched Muddlers and other patterns constructed from natural materials. I prefer my own Muddler variation, The Chuck Mud. When riffle-hitched from below, the pattern rides through the meniscus, creating a wide wake. Moreover, the fly’s concave neck “chucks” water forward as it swings, causing a fishy plug, plug, plug action.
While any long, 6-, 7-, or 8-weight single-handed rod can skate flies, on the Deschutes I prefer a two-hander loaded with an Airflo Scandinavian shooting head. The long rod allows easy steering of the swing, and the line shoots well with limited space for backcasting. As with all steelheading techniques, success lies in covering water, and this rod and line combination allows me to fish a wide tailout in short order.
Skating over flat water is a simple technique. Begin by wading above where you plan to fish. Move only as far from the bank as you absolutely must. Steelhead on the Deschutes—especially in the light of early morning—often hold tight to shore.
If the current near you is moving at the same speed as the current at midriver, aim your casts quartering downstream. However, if the current nearby is moving slower than the current toward the middle, cast directly across from your position. This lets you cover a wider swath of water and show your fly to more fish.
Ultimately, the direction of your cast should be guided by the swing produced by that placement. Ideally, you want your fly to land and immediately begin swinging toward the shore at a pace slightly slower than the speed of the current.
When a fish slaps or rises at the fly, do nothing—just let the fly keep swinging. Steelhead often miss the fly, and jerking the rod puts them off indefinitely.
If you feel the weight of the fish, drop the rod and give the fish slack. Once you feel the weight of the fish again, raise the rod toward the downstream bank, driving the hook in. Giving the fish slack at the take allows it to turn back to its lie, providing the perfect angle for a corner-of-the-mouth hook-up. Setting the hook too early, before the fish has turned, often yanks the fly directly out of the fish’s mouth. Trust me—I’ve blundered it enough times to know.
Sinking tips. Once the sun rises above the ridge, switch to sinking-tip tackle and tactics to get deeper and cover more water. By adjusting the sink rate and length of the sinking head, you can cover any section of the river where you’d normally fish a floating line.
But as the sun illuminates the water—and as more anglers and boats move past—steelhead move upstream into the heads of the runs. When this occurs, concentrate on the “armpit” lie where rifle water plunges from shallow to deeper water. Also focus on structure—like boulders and ledges—in water moving at, or slightly faster, than a comfortable walk.
Due to heavy flotsam in the Deschutes, and bright overhead light at the heads of runs at midday, I fish dark leech patterns for their strong silhouettes against the bright sky. Carry weighted and unweighted versions, and match your fly to the speed and depth of the water. On the Deschutes, you want to fish deep, but you don’t need to bottom-dredge as you would while winter steelheading. The trick isn’t to force-feed the fish; it’s to help them easily see your fly.
No rod and line combination delivers sinking tips and weighted flies as effortlessly as a two-hander matched with a Skagit-head line. I use a 13-foot rod and a 550-grain head, though I suspect a lighter, 450-grain line would work just as well. To the end of the Skagit, loop in a sinking tip matched to the water conditions. For slower runs, I use a 9-foot sinking tip rated at 3 to 4 inches per second (ips); for faster runs use a 9-foot section of 6- to 7-ips rated line. To improve your anchor during the casting stroke, try a 6-foot cheater of intermediate line between the floating Skagit head and the sinking tip.
Late in the season, in late October and November, the Deschutes becomes cold enough to warrant a winter approach. Cast and mend to sink the fly line and fly deeply, then steer the swing to keep the fly moving as slowly as possible. Usually this entails casting quartering downstream, feeding slack into the current, then following the swing with the rod tip. The winter steelheader’s mantra of “low and slow” should guide your late-season fishing.
Earlier in the season—August and September—think “broadside and even” instead of low and slow. Whenever the current allows, cast across and slightly upstream. Then, instead of mending or feeding line, simply follow the swing with the rod. Time your downstream steps to stall the fly in and around fishy structure. This way, the fly stays broadside to the current and under even tension, allowing you to cover water quickly.
The most common mistake I see is anglers covering the water too slowly. With swinging techniques, you’re hunting for that one aggressive fish—not trying to convince a dour fish to change its mind—so keep moving.
Greased line. Once the sunlight moves downstream, I switch back to surface presentations. However, since afternoons on the Deschutes tend to be windy, creating a chop on otherwise glassy tailouts, forgo the skating dry fly for the more pronounced greased-line presentation. The technique presents the fly broadside across the current, providing the fish with a clear view of the boldly backlit pattern. Grease-lining works best in the riffling midsection, or the structured tailout of a run.
Any conventional wet fly works, though I’ve found those with a striking silhouette most effective. Patterns like the General Practitioner or Grunge Prawn consistently move fish. While most guidebooks recommend size 4 or 6 flies on the Deschutes, I rarely grease-line patterns smaller than size 2.
To steer long-distance swings and execute single Spey casts (the fastest way to redeliver line)—a 14-foot two-hander and a mid-belly line is an effective combination. If the wind becomes too menacing, switch to a Scandi head.
The presentation is similar to the broadside-and-even method of fishing sinking tips. Use an across-stream cast to deliver the fly. Typically, the presentation doesn’t require any mending. Just use the long rod to follow the swing, keeping the fly broadside as it crosses the current. As the fly swims toward the bank, eventually point the rod at the near shore, maintaining the broadside position for as long as possible. Rather than taking steps between casts, step just as the fly enters the fishiest sections to slow the swing and allow the fly to stay in the strike zone for as long as possible.
Worth the Effort
On one of our recent nights on the river, I climbed the bank to watch Perky work an especially excellent section of water. He let me go through first, and I managed to move a couple of fish, leaving him to “pick my pockets,” as he calls it. In short order, a fish took in a mad swirl, then turned and bolted. Perky struck toward the downstream bank, but the fish didn’t seem to notice—it kept going, and going. After bringing the wild buck to hand and unpinning it, Perky looked my way. He didn’t have to say anything, I knew what he was thinking: The Deschutes is worth the trouble.
John Larison is author of the new novel Northwest of Normal (Barclay Creek Press, 2009). He lives in Corvallis, Oregon.