This past fall, Hans Walter and I decided this year to try to fish the lower Deschutes River, and after much back and forth correspondence we decided to launch the boat and do a five day trip from Pinetree to Heritage Landing. I had previously fished the Deschutes River twice before, once over Christmas and once over Thanksgiving. Both trips were devoid of steelhead but I knew that this river had a great reputation, as well as steelhead that could be had on a fully floating line.
Leading up to the trip I did quite a bit of research including reading the Trey Combs book Steelhead Fly Fishing, which if you have not read you need to, and the comprehensive book by Dave Hughes called Dechutes. Both just fueled the fire for this great fishery thought I will say upfront, it is still fishing for andromous fish and therefore always a gamble.
The preparations to the boat were my biggest and most challenging steps to pre-trip planning. I did not trust the oar locks provided by Dave Scadden and ended up getting some mini Cobra Oar Locks from Sawyer, and I must say they totally rocked. They were a bit of a hassle to get tuned but once tuned they were beefy and totally smooth. My next challenge was to find and install a dry box and I purchased one from Frontier Play as they were the most economical at the time and would provide plenty of protection for our gear. I also acquired a few ammo cans for additional dry storage for food stuffs and such. The other requirement when floating through the Deschutes Wilderness is a BLM approved toilet or groover, which I purchased one but fortunately we did not need to utilize it as there were plenty of outhouses for our needs. With the boat mostly prepped I was confident I did all I could to ready as far as the boat was concerned.
For the trip I built a new switch rod from a James Green fiberglass blank. The blank was 10' 6" in seven weight. I paired the rod with some demo lines from Steve Godshall of Southern Oregon Speyworks. Steve has made lines for all my spey rods and he is awesome at pairing the right lines for your rod and application. The rod turned out well and I finished it a few days prior to me taking off on this trip. I was very excited to have it bend to the butt. This switch rod is very light in hand, something I was not quite expecting, and it balanced perfectly with an original release Lamson Litespeed 3.5.
Flies were tied up in traditional hairwing styles with patterns like the Green Butt Skunk, Street Walker, Max Canyon, Fly Du Jour, Signal Light and others. The Deschutes is unique in the fact that the fish tend to want smaller flies so everything was tied in sizes 6 and 8. I of course brought to many flies and also brought an assortment Intruders, Hoh Bos and others as well.
The lower Deschutes River consists of a high desert climate with cold nights and warmer days. The launch point was Pinetree, which is at river mile 39.6, and our plan was to float to near the mouth and junction with the Columbia River. This float is followed by a road up until the point where Mack's Canyon starts, which is around river mile 23. After that there is no access except by boat, foot, bike or horseback. The upper half of the float was fairly easy water to row and had some minor class II rapids. The lower river towards the last six miles contains all of the boat swamping dangerous runs which of course were interesting in a cataraft geared towards fishing not running white water.
I can honestly say the hardest part of this trip had to be the drive, as it is a twenty-three hour drive from my house to Maupin, Oregon where I was to meet Hans. Over the two trips I drove over 2,800 miles and put more than 230 gallons of diesel fuel in the truck. Doing this all by yourself can be a lesson in concentration and proper music selection, trust me.
I arrived in Maupin fairly early on October 13th after a marathon fifteen hour drive the day prior. I was greeted by Hans at his motel and it was sure good to see my friend again for the first time in two years. I was equally thankful that he had a readily available shower as I needed one. Hans and I discussed gear, loaded the truck camper, hit the store for ice and essentials and made our way down to Heritage Landing to drop off Hans' rental car to provide a shuttle. After dropping the car it was a quick one hour drive over to the launch point area. We decided it was in our benefit to get a little fishing in prior to setting up camp for the night. After a fishless afternoon in the heat and with lots of other competition we settled in to get some sleep in the truck camper. It would be our last night in comfort for five days.
The next morning we readied the boat at the launch and strapped everything essential down. The boat was loaded with dry bags, water, food, a cooler with beer and such, rods, and various other fishing related items. We prepared ourselves to live in our waders for the next five days. About four minutes into the float I realized I had forgotten the map (I am an idiot) and had to pull the boat over to go walk back up and get it. Hans had additionally forgotten his wallet so it was not too lost of a cause.
We continued downstream after the unanticipated stop and found some water to fish. On the Deschutes, the river runs from the south to the north to meet the Columbia. Due to this the fishing when the sun is on the water is almost worthless as the sun blinds the fish and they basically sulk down and do not strike flies. We fished all day in between people and boats and went fishless. We decided to spend the night at Beavertail campground as there was a toilet and we had divided the float into appropriate lengths of river for each day. We set up camp, had a good dehydrated dinner and settled in for the night. The highlight of the night was Hans attempting to construct the cot which was a complete bitch.
Tuesday morning we awoke to cold temperatures and dew, which became frost, covering our sleeping bags. We had some oatmeal, packed up camp and were off. We fished all the shade we could until the sun was high over head and past the canyon walls. We put our sleeping bags out to dry and continued our quest for the first grab. Well, that grab would come, but only not by the target species. I was working a run in the high sun when I got grabbed on the strip. At first it felt like dead weight and I continued to strip. Hans asked what it was, my reply was a king, probably of the half dead variety. I was so wrong, it was a lively Pink Salmon that went a bit ballistic after seeing me. I would have never in a million years would have considered my first fish on the fiberglass switch to be a pink. The humpy came to hand, we took some photos, and my new nickname for the trip had been applied. So on we went in search of a grab for Hans. It had been a frustrating day of getting yelled at by people on shore we could not see and guides pissed because they had people on both sides of the river, truly Hans and I were taken back by the amount of frustrated and angry people. We believed this to be due to the tough fishing conditions.
After we entered Mack's Canyon, Hans starting on the short line, hooked a beautiful little hen. She was wild and scrappy with a slight blush and probably about two pounds. We had the first steelhead of the trip and we were jazzed to say the least. We fished the rest of the evening and set up camp on a nice flat spot called Dike. We set up the tarp shelter to attempt to keep the frost and dew at bay.
We awoke to much drier conditions on Wednesday morning, oh and did I mention the trains? There is a railroad track on the west side of the river the entire way and it is almost entirely utilized at night much to our chagrin. We fished the camp water in the morning as it looked like a decent run but not a touch. We moved downstream towards the first of the more major rapids in the Class II category. On the bend above Island Rapids I got the grab I had been looking for. I had switched to a skagit line the day before and had been fishing it this morning with a sunken purple Hoh Bo spey on which I hooked my first Deschutes Steelhead. She was strong and sleek and smart as she ran for the boat and anchor line. The switch handled it with ease and bent right through the cork. Soon she was in hand and was a beautiful hen of seven pounds. What a fish! Wild and fresh she was returned to the river to continue her upstream journey. Again we were invigorated by the thought of better fishing to come. We worked down stream through rapid and run fishing the good water with not another grab. We camped at a spot called Airstrip and again ate the all too familiar dehydrated meal. It was windy, cold, and sleep was hard to come by.
The next morning I awoke very early and got to work on getting breakfast made, coffee pressed, and camp torn down. By now we were a bit worn down by endless days of little to no steelhead. We had expected more, as all do when setting out on such journeys. We worked the shade water hard this day and were able to fish a solid four hours in shaded water. No grabs, lots of casts, and slippery wading.
The Deschutes River is the hardest river I have ever waded in my life. I fell three times which is no surprise. On this day the jet boat traffic started to pick up as we neared the mouth. We began to see more and more anglers and boats. It was so nice to have so much river to ourselves but all good things come to an end.
We fished hard on Thursday for no steelhead though we caught numerous Deschutes "Redside" rainbow trout which in their own right have a reputation for being very strong healthy fish. We decided to camp at Harris and forgo more river miles for that day and try to maximize the next day. Cold again for the night but anticipation got the better of me as the hardest rapids were approaching.
Friday morning we awoke and fished some of the nicest camp water we had found up until that point. Alas no fish came form it, but it was a beautiful run and perfect in every way. We had caught ourselves over and over saying "If this run were in B.C. there would be fish....". We realized after a while it is not fair to compare such fisheries as anyone who has been to B.C. knows there is no comparison.
We fished some good water downstream from Harris but as we approached the big rapids and went through a few the water was much more difficult with less and less holding water. On the Deschutes River, boats coming from downstream must stop fishing at the 2.6 miles mark to yield to hike and bike in anglers. We reached that milestone quicker than we would have liked but the lower river has much less fishable runs and big deep water. The Class III rapids began with Washout, which I believe was probably a II+. This rapid was a bit upstream and we were able to fish downstream of it a bit. The next four rapids were the real nail bitters. Gordon Ridge was long...and I mean long. Like a mile long and technical. Hard shelf rock with drop offs and a lot of pucker factor. Colorado Rapid proved to be the easiest as it was a straight shot with large waves. Think six foot rolling waves. Rattlesnake was technical and big, although a straight shot as well. All the while the jet boats make them look like bath tub wakes. Moody Rapids was the last, within view of everyone at the boat launch, and technical due to rocks but otherwise not too bad. Overall I think we fared well in the rapids and the boat did well. Hans had some "Oh Shit" moments but he was also on the front and right in the teeth of it.
We pulled into Heritage Landing with a great respect for such a great river. We were in awe of the beauty. Since there had been no cell service for the past several days, we turned on our cell phones to see what we had missed in the world. I received a text from my wife that she had been in a car accident and I became a wreck trying to contact family members and make sure all was okay. All the while I was floating down a river in the wilderness in total ignorance. We all fear that these things happen when we are out of touch but I was fortunate that Natalia was okay.
I shuttled Hans' rental to my truck and drove back down to the launch. We loaded the boat and secured everything for the drive back to Hans' car. We finally made it to Maupin at almost 9 p.m. for a much needed hot meal and a pitcher of Deschutes Brewery's finest. We had made it. As you can imagine the drive home was long and tiring. I left on Saturday morning and pulled into my driveway at dinnertime on Sunday evening. I couldn't wait to be home as it had been a long trip.
In conclusion, the fishing was tough, always is when fishing for steelhead. One must remember it is as much the journey as the end result. I was happy to have landed my first Deschutes fish. I am sure Hans was happy as well. There is a bit of a bittersweet feeling as Hans and I had high expectations, and always do, but the Deschutes can be an incredible fishery. I was told of years past when catching ten fish a day was "normal".
I will fish the Deschutes again and I will float it again. When? Who knows, the fish gods will dictate.