Grande Ronde: The Runs of Winter

Grande Ronde: The Runs of Winter

Steelhead fishing at a laid-back Oregon lodge

  • By: Seth Norman
We watch the bighorns pick their way across a rocky outcropping on the bluff. There are five ewes in the herd, grazing at their leisure through a brilliant February morning. Seated on the deck of the ranch house at the Grande Ronde Lodge, in Oregon just a few miles from the Washington border, I pause between bites of antelope steak and eggs. "I don't see bighorns often enough," I say after careful reflection. "I really don't." Greg Thomas, author, antelope provider and chef, probably nodded.I can't say for certain, since I was still watching the sheep, absorbed. "You're sure I can't get a decent photo of them? Even with a 300-millimeter lens?" "Not really," says Greg, who I'd enlisted as photographer on this trip. "A documentary shot, maybe. As in, 'I saw sheep. Lot's of.'" A few minutes later, David Flynn, ranch manager at Grande Ronde Lodge, pulls up with a raft in tow. He apologizes for being tardy: "Cow calved last night, sometime around three." Calving is also a late winter event; and among fly fishers, the Grande Ronde's reputation is built on the runs of late autumn. Steelhead returns in the Grande are more consistent than in other Columbia River tributaries, despite the perils of passage. In good years-and the past two have been excellent-more than 8,000 fish survived the trip from the Pacific, traveling 250 miles east through the Gorge to the Snake. They turn at this confluence to travel another 130 miles before they hang a right into the Ronde. As on other Columbia tributaries, the steelhead migration to the Grande Ronde prompts another-of anglers. Although it's the reliable quality of Grande Ronde runs that draw conventional tackle fishers, the fly folks brave the trip and crowds for another reason-in autumn, Grande Ronde steelhead come to dries. Readily. Reliably. With vigor. "A lot of fly fishers consider the Grande Ronde the best dryfly steelhead fishery in the West," says David modestly. Greg shares that opinion. So does our guide the first day, Warren Morris, who's been pulling a drift boat on the river for years. But when Morris guides for the late winter fish we're after, it's almost always with resignation: he thinks the combination of higher winter flows, off-color water and chilled fish makes throwing flies a dicey game. "I put my fly rod away about the end of November," he admits. Today's conditions don't encourage Morris. While the river is falling after a blowout 10 days earlier, it's still running over 2,000 cfs. Morris prefers to fish it closer to 1,200, and when the visibility is better than the two or three feet we're seeing. But not this day. On the drift from Boggan's Oasis to Shoemaker, Warren puts us on the wadeable side of runs that, in lower flows, are a whole lot closer to the best positions we can reach. "If we were standing here in October, we'd still be dry," he says several times, usually as a serious current presses against my knees. We offload at the last good run before the pullout. I make a couple dozen casts, then start prowling with my camera. Greg finds me sighting a long lens at some otters playing capture the twig in a logjam grotto. "Warren got a fish and got a photo. But those guides behind us, they've hit 25 so far. Landed about a dozen." "Twenty five?" "Yep. Fishing egg patterns out of the boat, mostly. Deep. Really deep." "Under indicators?" "I presume so." The phenoms have anchored next to the opposite bank where one now fishes out of the back of the boat as the other two take stations on the shore, there to lob short casts upstream. Very short casts. "That's high-sticking," I say to Greg. "What?" "High-sticking, short line stuff. Tapping along the bottom. But how are they keeping those flies down?" Later we find out that the guides fish a rig consisting of two egg patterns the size of quarters, hunks of Fly Foam big enough to gag mackerels. The egg patterns are tied eye-to-eye on 12-pound tippet with some big split-shot attached. "It's ugly, but it works," says Eric Shores, out of Dillon, Montana, when he and his pals treat us to dinner back at the Grand Ronde's main lodge, which just so happens to have once been the elk hunting base for John Fogerty of Credence Clearwater Revival fame. The next day we spend most of time in the boat, dredging runs from three to nine-feet deep. Using the guides' lead-and-egg rig, casting is, frankly, a fling-and-punch procedure. Six fish, I think was what we got all told, a mix of wild and stocked steelhead from 24 inches to 30-typical sizes for the Grande Ronde. It was Greg who did most of the catching: they yanked him about and ripped line from his reel in runs. Eric and I did stick steelhead eventually. I even managed a hookup from the bank, on a string leech substituted for one of the egg wads. I landed the fish in a moment the sun turned golden, reflecting off amber cliffs while turning the steelhead's flanks into an iridescent symphony of scarlet and silver and a hundred other colors with names I've never learned. That's steelheading, I remembered. Grande Ronde Outfitters and Lodge offers several self-serve accommodations (meals personally prepared by a cook are also available). The Fogerty House sits half a flip cast from the river on the Oregon side of the border, sports décor that comfortably preserves the feel of 1971. A lot of people could boogie down in front of the big stone fireplace, cook themselves burgers and brownies in the large kitchen, or serve themselves from the several long tables where we set up to tie flies. Guests can also step onto the deck for some breathtaking views of the surroundings. For non-chefs it's a short walk across a bridge over the Grande to a restaurant in Troy, Oregon-which isn't too far from a snooker table. The main lodge sleeps eight total: two anglers at $200 a night, only $25 extra for others in the party, up to $300 max. (Party!) Two other cabins are available, each sleeping four to six, with kitchens. The lodge has three big pontoon boats for rent, and can arrange fishing guides. The steelheading occurs on both sides of the state line… If your interested in staying at Grande Ronde Lodge, fishing with the Grande Ronde Outfitters guides, or both, Contact David Flynn at 541-828-7902, or email him at Granderonde@tds.net.