Of Redsides and Salmonflies

Of Redsides and Salmonflies

Oregon's Deschutes River comes alive with the giant stoneflies of late spring

  • By: Rob Lyon

It appeared that not all of the customers in the parking lot of the Mexican restaurant were there to eat tacos. After rolling down I-5 through Seattle and making Portland by late afternoon, we'd pulled into a fast food joint to rendezvous with the final member to our party. While Brook Lyon, my son, was waiting for us to show, he'd been watching a string of young ladies cycling (not bicycling) in and out of a nearby hotel with guys from the cars parked all around us. We left the motor running while Brook tossed his bags into the trailer, eager to trade urban seamy for river seams, then we pointed our grill toward the arid eastern lands and a week of giants and gold and floating a river of liquid jade.We motored up and over the flanks of Mount Hood, five eager fishermen closing rapidly on the West Coast's best big-bug event, the Deschutes River Salmonfly and Golden Stonefly hatches.

Once over Barlow Pass, we slowed and turned off at a pull-out on the forest edge a few miles south of the I-197 cutoff. An unsigned freshwater spring was located here and we dug out jugs from the trailer and filled them for the days ahead. Running late and hitting 80 on the long, open straightaway east of Hood, I kept a sharp eye out on the fringes of the headlights for deer.

Outside the air was surprisingly warm; it had the smell of desert with a hint of sagebrush and a dollop of asphalt. We slowed again as we rolled across the old Deschutes River Bridge, vintage 1929. It was dark. The night air was inviting, warm and riverine smelling in the canyon proper but all I could see of the water was the glint of starlight off the riffle just upstream of the bridge. Looking way, way to the south though, in my mind's eye, I could see our launch at the huge back eddy at Trout Creek, and I zoomed back through 40 miles of roadless whitewater river canyon to the starlit riffle in front of me.

The Town of Maupin is well placed. Canyons to the north and south of Maupin are prime destinations. The little town is a hub for rafters, whitewater kayakers, upland bird hunters and fly fishermen alike. At the end of the bridge we took a sudden, hard left and rolled into the front yard of the Imperial River Lodge. When we talked to Toby Euting, head guide at the lodge, he predicted increasingly warming weather and told us the big stones were most active now in the upper canyon where we'd be floating. Giants and Goldens would be the leitmotif of the trip. Being the kind of fisherman who fished what he liked, not necessarily what the fish were eating, I enjoyed nothing better than fishing Hoppers and big, dry stones. Armed with a couple of trout rods with little Galvans screwed to the butts, I had a 4-weight for windy days and bushy flies, but I figured to fish my little 2-weight Scott 90 percent of the time.

The Imperial makes a welcome stepping stone to floating the river. We settled into digs fit for a king in the spacious River Suite, while Joe Vranizan, a veteran Montana brown trout fisherman, opted to crash on the lawn "for the fresh air." Joe got fresh water along with his air when the sprinklers came on in the middle of the night. We were finally on the river by late morning the following day. It didn't take that long to get our fleet afloat, and the feisty rapids at lower Trout Creek gave us our river legs. As expected, there were boats readying at the put in and plenty more taking out from the stretch upriver between there and Warm Springs. We were pushing the second week in July and nearing the end of the hatch, but word was the action was good in the launch area. The weather was warm, but not hot and the sun dodged a smattering of clouds. The air was fresh and still smacked of spring; I couldn't imagine a finer place to be.

Another five or ten degrees of rise in the mercury and the bugs would be airborne; we'd found more on the bushes than in the air so far. It was as green as it gets on the east side, the rolling hills mantled in hues of Kelly and slate green against lichened gray rimrock. The banks were abuzz with birds, bugs and spiders.

Gusts of wind shivered the foliage and wet alder branches flounced in the flush spring currents. A freight train appeared suddenly, the crash of waves masking its approach; it was the graffiti tagged, green-and-yellow rail cars of the Burlington Northern. Along the east bank a pair of ospreys left their sprawling stick nest atop a telephone pole as the train rumbled past. I watched them circling nearby, wondering how many times each day they must repeat this evacuation. The river was a blank slate. Nary a surface take did I see, nor any of us for that matter by the radio reports from the other boats.

By the time we reached camp half a dozen miles below our launch we still had the skunk in the box. We tied up the boats in a little bay tucked neatly behind a point and were standing in a grassy circle on shore arguing about where to put the kitchen, when Steve's son, Will, found a big Pteronarcys in the grass and tossed it in the river. It floated for about five seconds and was just about to disappear under an overhanging branch when a big trout came up and nailed it. The kitchen could damn well wait, we decided, and we got our rods and vests and headed out. Although the Deschutes salmonfly hatch doesn't quite match up to the best of the hallowed Montana streams, it's a great show in its own right. Beginning in late spring on the lower river, it works its way south (upriver).

The bugs are typically in full swing in Maupin around the end of May, and the third week of May through the third week of June is your best bet to find the hatch under way somewhere in the river corridor. Memorial Day is like an Opening Day of sorts for many fishermen and the river is packed. We were there the second week in June last year, and found the primary hatch centered generally in the White Horse Rapids area, well south of Maupin. Golden Stoneflies will appear a couple of weeks after the Salmonflies. A little smaller and yellowish-gold in color, you'll want to have a matching pattern in your box.

Tactics are the same. There are phases to the Salmonfly hatch, and it pays to know which stage you're fishing. The migration to shore from their hiding spots among the stream-bottom detritus is triggered by rising water temperatures. Vulnerable to currents as they crawl toward shore, the traveling nymphs are fallen upon by marauding trout that are like bandits attacking pilgrims. But it is when the big bugs begin to appear on the surface of the river that fish and fishermen alike experience an increase in hormonal activity. The sight and sound of big fish splooshing big bugs in plain sight provides sufficient stimulation to quicken a corpse. I had previously visited the Deschutes when egg-laying was in full swing, and I swear it was like something out of a fantasy novel. At one point it seemed that every fish worth his dorsal fin was waiting just inches beneath the surface. I have only seen it like this once in my life, and in the early 1980's I spent nearly half of each year working the river, but I will never forget it. The scene itself transcended the act of fishing and just to be able to stare spellbound at the sight was nearly enough--never mind fishing.

The surface phase of the Salmonfly hatch is when the bugs crawl ashore and into the trees and grasses. While they molt and mate and prepare for their egg-laying flights over the water, the wind blows many of them back into the river and the hungry maws of trout. Fishing can be extraordinary for the intrepid angler willing to sneak up under branches and along grassy banks to work these fish. When the cycle of the hatch progresses to egg-laying, fish range more widely and feed more opportunistically as gravid female insects flutter awkwardly to the water to deliver. At this stage trout will chase after them and leap out of the water to tackle bugs that linger too long on the surface, or can't quite make it to lift off as they flap across the water, drawing the attention of every trout in the vicinity.

Typically picking up speed in late afternoon and evening, the Salmonfly hatch can culminate in an orgy of feeding activity. Then, as the spinner fall is taking place, funnel lanes become important to cast to as the larger and smarter fish set themselves up in the most advantageous parking spots for surfing their caloric curve. There was textbook nymph water immediately above camp, and Steve and Will decided to try it first instead of fishing dries. The two of them were out there nailing fish with big, dark stonefly nymphs tumbled along the bottom.

Meanwhile upriver at a tight back eddy where the river slammed into the rip-rap bank and careened off at a steep angle, I found the odd fish feeding opportunistically in the back currents like they often do on this river. I knew the eddy I was fishing, having camped just below it many times before. I started out in reverse, fishing counter to the main current along the rim of the oval swirl and tight up against the bank, skittering and dabbing my big dries in the swift, shallow water. The river was intense here, boiling up from the harsh turnover against the bank. I had greased my fly heavily to keep it on top. A flash of mottled mossy green rose up in the swift flow and nailed the fly. I struck sharply, and the fish was on. The trout drove instantly out into deeper water, my line zipping along behind it across the surface. After I'd landed that fish, three more energetic trout--"redsides" they call this Deschutes River strain--struck my flies.

In camp that night I discovered that everyone had been successful, Steve and Will with their nymphs, and Joe downriver working up tight along the bank with his dries. We went to sleep that night under the stars with our engines idling for the next day. "Otter on!" Joe yelled, late the next morning. Well downriver from the previous night's camp, fishing 30 yards upstream from Joe, I could hear his shout, although it took a nanosecond or two to process the import. Joe Vranizan was known for a remarkably dry sense of humor; curious, I reeled in and climbed the bank to see what he was about. Looking down at Joe from the high grassy bank I could see he was all smiles. "Otter on," he said. "How's that?" "It was the damnedest thing, Rob.

I was fishing here and hooked this nice trout, you know. Then I noticed out of the corner of my eye these three otters, mom and two pups, walking toward me along the bank. They got about as far as you and then stopped. Then Mom dove in after my fish. Snatched it right off my line! No joke." Blowing on his fly to dry it out, Joe turned and pointed toward the froggy corner of the pool where the reeds were 10 feet tall. "They ducked in there," he said. "Having dinner, no doubt." After the otter incident, we worked the high bank riffle between an island and the point and had steady success. The tall grass and reeds were spotty with bugs and I found fish several rod lengths from shore. When I talked with Toby Euting again, after the trip, he said: "You know, if the bugs aren't falling in the water much, like if it's quiet, or if you spook them off their bank stations, they'll move back out to their regular stations.

They'll still remember a tasty meal when they see it coming, of course, and when one drifts overhead out in the riffle…bam!" That was the case all right, as we hooked a fish every 10 or 15 casts or so, most of them well out in the riffle. Joe had brought a couple of fly boxes stuffed with a variety of stoneflies, and a particularly flashy, segmented-body Giant Stone was our big producer. From Whiskey Dick on down, wherever there was either a back eddy or broken water along a brushy shore, we found fish. Winging through the great rapids at Whitehorse, dodging rocks with names like Oh Shit and House, we felt success tucked under our belts. Some guys might prefer crystal-clear waters and sight-fishing, but the Deschutes typically runs emerald green with a smidge of turbidity. Visibility is three or four feet max. Regulations prohibit fishing from the boat, so the drill was to float as far as you could without pulling ashore to fish; if you sampled every bit of tasty water you came across it would take forever to reach camp. The river between Whitehorse and our next night's camp was prime stuff.

We leapfrogged down the river with Steve and Joe in the other boats. I'd spy a likely spot and ferry quickly to shore, crashing in among the trees along a rocky bank as often as not covered with poison oak. Whoever was not rowing would jump out with the bow rope and tie us off. We found many risers through this stretch, and the action was non-stop. Typically, I'd find myself hunched beneath burly alders with a fish on and my reel screaming in protest because I couldn't get any rod pressure working. Usually I'd end up wading out or up to a clear spot between the trees to finish the fight. The purr of my little CFO reel rose to a shriek as a big rainbow took my fly from the surface and dove in a tight curl inches from the surface before jamming down and out from its station. It seemed that whenever a fish needed to move fast in the Deschutes River, it simply turned on a dime and took off with the current. It was our last camp in the canyon and the end to a marvelous fishing trip. I was standing in a shoulder of the river, the flow cool and steady, the water up to my waist and spinning me sideways sometimes. There is a moment on every great fishing trip when you get to the place you thought you wanted to be. I was in that place there in the shoulder below camp that afternoon. I decided to share my happiness with the guys sitting back in camp drinking Old Chub Ales. So I pressed the transmit button on my little two-way radio, held it beside my reel and treated them to the sound of the Deschutes River Salmonfly hatch at its finest: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…

Scoop Floating is the ultimate way to experience the Deschutes, but you have to wade the river to fish. River Trails, next to the lodge in town, has a good selection of boats. If you decide to go it alone, pick up a guidebook on the river; you might also want to pack your Bible. Scout all rapids you are unsure of. A guided trip the first time down is a good idea and a great way to meet the river and focus on the fish. There are two roadless canyons that provide the best float fishing, the Upper and the Lower. Both have Class 3 and 4 Rapids. If you don't want to float, the middle 30-something-mile-long stretch separating the two canyons is an option. Camp or shack up locally and spend the days on the water. Guided day floats are popular. You will have company. Fires are often restricted in the canyon until the middle of October, and the restriction can be extended in a fire season. Bring plenty of water: None is available without filtering. You will need some kind of scat device and a fire pan with briquettes if you want flames. You will need a boater's pass in addition to a fishing license with steelhead tag. An affordable out-of-state license can be had for single days up to a week. Again, inquire with the local fly shop or the Imperial Lodge for regs, current conditions and related services. Good luck.

Tackle Basic trout tackle here. Water is still cool in spring so waders are good. Wading boots with felt soles are sufficient; no further traction devices are required. A wading staff is handy for wading.

Contact Raft rentals: River Trails 888-324-8837 www.rivertrails.com Guide, shuttle, tackle and current info: The Riffle Fly Shop www.theriffleflyshop.com Bend: 800-411-3330 Madras:541-553-1384 Deschutes Angler Fly Shop 877-395-0995 www.deschutesangler.com Lodging, guide, information and great food: Imperial River Company: 800-395-3903