Steelhead Fishing The Lower Deschutes
April 17, 2013
The Deschutes River drainage is immense. It begins as water seeping from volcanic rock that forms the backbone of the Cascade Range in central Oregon. Heading northward to the Columbia River, the Deschutes flows through half the state. However, the steelheading portion is the Lower Deschutes, about 100 miles of prime water from Pelton Dam to the Columbia, and it's some of the finest steelhead water in the lower 48.
It's a wide, brawling river, sporting broad riffles, flat runs, and rapids that range from mild to dangerous. Harsh desert winds etch the brows of bold, tannish-brown canyons that overlook the river. Here and there on the hillsides, patches of lush greenery attest to springs percolating up through ancient lava rock that is the framework for this wild country. Although the rough dryness of the desert is only a few yards away, shoreside trees, bushes, and other plants thrive by sucking moisture from the river. Under an endless blue sky, desert sand anchored by pale-olive juniper and sage gives way to vivid greenery and the flowing blue Deschutes.
Recent Steelhead Runs
After spending one year feeding in the ocean, Deschutes steelhead return weighing from five to seven pounds, while those that feed for two years in the sea return in the 6- to 11-pound range. With the return of the high-water cycle in 1995, fish counts taken at Sherar's Bridge (about halfway up the Lower Deschutes) indicate a range of from 1,662 to 3,800 returning wild steelhead per year (see chart on page 53). From a yearly release of 160,000 hatchery smolts from Deschutes-parentage stock raised at the Round Butte facility, adult hatchery returns range from 2,708 to 5,932 fish.
Alarmingly, though, the number of adult hatchery strays from other river systems ranges from 11,110 to 23,618 fish annually, counted at Sherar's. In three of the last four years, the number of strays has been more than double the combined total number of wild and Deschutes-parentage hatchery stock. Though in essence, strays double your chances of hooking a steelhead, biologists worry about genetic pollution of Deschutes wild stock, since it's inevitable some strays will spawn in the system. Whirling disease is also a concern, and at least one steelhead has tested positive.
Biologists cannot pinpoint why hatchery strays migrate up the Deschutes. They cite two probable factors: downstream transport via truck or barge of smolts from other hatcheries, and greatly mixed hatchery product. Smolts with parentage of assimilated or unknown parentage are raised in a facility in a different watershed than where they are eventually released. They become confused fish. Since they don't swim downstream (they are transported by barge or truck), or they swim downstream in a totally different river than the one in which they were hatched, they have no chemical memory to plot a return course to their birthplace. They have virtually no homing instinct other than to go upstream. With no "home river" to seek, many are attracted to the cool, oxygen-rich waters of the Deschutes.
The last two years on the Deschutes provided some interesting steelhead fishing. The fishing was slow in 1998 because of what biologists call a "thermal block" in the Columbia. Although July fish counts at Bonneville Dam were high, the fish didn't swim up the Deschutes because water temperatures were too high. When water temperatures dropped in mid-September, the steelhead moved upriver quickly, giving anglers little opportunity to catch them.
Cooler water temperatures all summer in 1999 made for excellent fishing because the fish moved upriver steadily, beginning about mid-July in the lower reaches of the Deschutes. If the wet cycle prevails in 2000 and water temperatures stay down, angling will roughly follow this scenario: The lower 25 miles of the river will be good starting in mid-July, the lower 50 miles will be good in August, and by September and October the whole river will have steelhead. Die-hard steelheaders can chase steelhead until December 31, especially in the upper reaches.
Tackle and Tactics
A typical steelheading day on the Deschutes might go something like this: In the dawn twilight, you slip into your waders, shrug into your vest, grab the rod you strung the night before, and head to the river. The desert air is crisp, cool, and calm. You're ready to battle steelhead with your 7- or 8-weight 9- to 10-foot rod and a floating line with a 9-foot leader tapered to 0X or 1X (8- to 10-pound tippet).
You cover the water close to you first. Because the brush is right behind you and you need a little room to make easy roll casts, you wade in ankle-deep. You pitch a #6 Green Butt Skunk across the riffle, then let it ease back across the current slowly, mending your line when necessary to control the fly's speed. Steelhead usually react best to slow-moving flies; they seem to need time to see and follow the fly before striking.
You wade farther and extend your casts, covering the water with a classic wet-fly swing, showing your saucy Skunk to every fish in the riffle, then the run, and finally the flats. Your fly glissades across the current until it sweeps the final bit of water in the tailout, just ahead of the next patch of rock that forms another riffle.