Fall on the Deschutes River - Oregon

Deschutes Steelhead

By Stu Farnham

The Butte
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 permit.

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.

Al Jones and Long Rod 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 halfway down.

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.

Grouse & Purple

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.

Author with Steelhead

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 resident rainbow.

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.

Ranch Gat

Trout Creek 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.

Afternoon mayfly hatch 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 to Washington.

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.

Gateway City Hall

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

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