Poke, Bite, Grab,Pluck, Sting
- By: Greg Thomas
All in a day’s work on Oregon’s Deschutes.
by Greg Thomas
photographs by the author
I don’t know if Chris Santella has more to prove than I do or vice versa, but we both ended up on the Deschutes River last summer with agendas centered only mildly around fish.
We met at the Double Mountain Brewery in Hood River the third week of August, joined by fellow fish freak David Moskowitz. The plan was to drink beers and eat pizza before our designated driver, Moskowitz, steered us to Mack’s Canyon, the launch point for floats through the Deschutes River Canyon, a 23-mile-long roadless section that’s pretty much off-limits to those who don’t know how to row Class III rapids or run a jetboat through those deathtraps, or aren’t willing to don a backpack and hike or bike along active railroad grades.
Though the Deschutes flows 300 miles from its headwaters in the central Cascade Mountains near Bend, to its eventuality east of The Dalles, it was only a float through the roadless canyon that appealed to me. These days I’m prone to skip the “events” and fish overlooked waters, often at odd times of the year and off the path, choosing to figure it out by myself, through trial and error, while hoping to discover something in the water or in myself that I wasn’t previously aware of. On the Deschutes it’s all about re-learning the Spey cast and catching steelhead, which are rarely kind to me. When they aren’t kind I feel that crummy sensation digging in, a feeling that something isn’t right or fair and that I deserve to catch steelhead by the simple equation that I’m on steelhead water and I’ve put my time in. If you’ve fished metalheads you know that good fortune and failure don’t seem related to how well you can cast or where that cast lands; steelhead are where they are, they eat when they eat, and they don’t really mind breaking the hearts of those anglers wading in above them, being just as likely to crush a bushy Stimulator cast from a kid’s bright-pink Barbie rod as they are to inhale a meticulously tied Hilton all dressed in paraffin, and thrown 150 feet with a custom-built Burkheimer.
You can catch steelhead on the Deschutes as early as June, but the bulk of the run, including the larger fish, show up later, really pouring in by the end of August, peaking in late September or early October. Which is exactly why I met the Oregon boys in late August. In an average year 8,000 fish might return; during the best times 10,000 or more fin up the river, their numbers supplemented by big steelhead that duck out of the Columbia River and into the lower Deschutes, where they enjoy the cool flows for a few days to a month before returning to the big river and heading upstream to spawning grounds in Idaho, far eastern Oregon and southern Washington.
As we pushed off at Mack’s Canyon I learned why Santella was there. Instead of having Moskowitz, a veteran oarsman who’s tackled the canyon dozens of times, on the sticks, Santella would guide the metal driftboat down the river, through numerous rapids—Harris Canyon, Wash Out, Gordon Ridge, Colorado, Rattlesnake, Moody—for the first time.
We drifted away from the put-in and Santella turned the boat broadside in the flow—the cardinal sin, I believe, when floating a river, especially a fast one with exposed rocks all over the place. And now I knew what my added challenge would be: Could I keep my mouth shut and let Santella just row, even if we approached a chomper rapids sideways? From that point on, for three days, I squirmed a little in my seat, knowing that the worst rapids lay ahead.
A mile into the float I said, “Chris,” as nonchalantly as possible for a single father of two young girls who was now thinking he should have upped his life insurance before leaving Montana, “how much rowing have you done on other rivers?”
“Oh, not much,” he replied in a somewhat rushed and squeaky voice that does not inspire confidence in those of us desperately needing it. “But these rapids aren’t bad. Even kids go down these things in beat-up rafts with taped-up oars.”
I quickly revisited a line from a discussion forum I’d read prior to the trip. It said, “NO, NO, NO. Do not try to row the lower Deschutes Canyon if you are not experienced. People die there and boats are lost all the time. You could die there!”
The Deschutes River landscape is a far cry from the soggy coastal scene that most anglers picture when dreaming of Northwest steelhead.
Here, summer and fall air temperatures often exceed 80 degrees, with hot days pushing past the 100 mark. Precipitation? Not even an afterthought, unless it occurs on one or more of the Deschutes’ tributaries, which can cause the big river to blow out with mud. Unlike the coast, where black bears thrive and secretive Roosevelt elk and blacktail deer wander through towering cedar and Douglas fir trees, the Deschutes offers a landscape littered with sagebrush and pine trees, mule deer, mountain lions, mountain sheep, golden eagles and about a zillion things that bite, sting or prick: cactus, thorn bushes, rattlesnakes, scorpions, black widows, alligator lizards, fire ants and wasps. (I have to give a shoutout to the perfectly terrifying European paper wasp, a segmented brute that hangs from your skin by its ass end after stinging the living shit out of you. Can you tell I hold a bias against that beast and that I once saw it swinging from its derriere on the inside of my bicep? I may or may not have screamed like a little girl.)
So, I’m not into stinging or biting creatures, but I’ll take my chances to throw a Spey rod on the Deschutes. That’s because, overall, it offers one of the most consistent steelhead runs in the Northwest and a very extended season to pursue them—as mentioned, fresh steelhead push into the river in late June and continue through November. Absolute prime time runs from mid-September through October, with slight variances each year, depending on fish abundance, water conditions and weather. During October and November cold fronts move in, which keeps the bities at bay, a bonus for those of us susceptible to anaphylaxis.
Deschutes steelhead are known as “grabby” fish, meaning they are eager to take surface flies, perhaps more so than on any other river in the West (although Grande Ronde, Wenatchee and Clearwater devotees may argue that assertion). Still, on summer and early fall days anglers stand a fair chance of raising a fish to a variety of waking flies, including the Muddler, the After Dinner Mint, Hazel’s Foam Skater and the Gurgler. The latter is my favorite skater, although I admit to fishing just under the surface with a floating line and wet fly, or deeper with a sink tip, most of the time.
Ah, the sink tip. Demon to dryfly aficionados. Sure to incur the wrath of the purist masses. Attempted to have been outlawed on some Oregon waters. Elsewhere, too. Too deadly, the detractors say, and not at all classy, just a small step up from the bobber and nymph. The fish deserve better, they insist.
Have your opinion. You’re entitled to it. Myself? I’d rather fish even when the fish aren’t looking up than retreat to camp for an afternoon siesta. In addition, surface action on the Deschutes is dependent on water temperature, along with light conditions. Anything between 50 and 60 degrees, especially on cloudy days or after the sun sets behind a ridge—or even a wall of willows—and it’s game on for the skater. To get them to eat in anything below 50 degrees, you’d have to chuck a Dupont Special into a run, collect the floaters and impale their jaws with your dry fly. OK, maybe that’s too extreme; occasionally steelhead rise to dries when the water is cool, but your chances of that happening diminish greatly once fall weather arrives in mid- to late September or early October. After that, you’re either swinging with a tip or you’re probably not swinging at all.
That’s caused by the number of people who love the river and are on it at any given time, in comparison to how few prime campsites are located next to quality steelhead runs, which those in the know call “Camp Water.”
As you drift and watch the sun drop you have to decide whether to stop and wade-fish appealing runs (there’s no fishing from a boat or any other craft), or race for camp water that offers morning and evening shadow before someone else grabs it. If it were just people floating the river you could keep a head count and that would tell you when to race for camp, but there are certain times each week when jetsleds are allowed on the river. During those days it’s anyone’s guess who might be at a particular campsite and when and from which direction they might arrive.
The Deschutes offers a mix of hatchery and wild steelhead, and on our first day Moskowitz caught a nice wild fish that he quickly released. In the afternoon heat, with bright sun on the water, I caught and released a wild buck, then landed and killed a hatchery hen on a sink tip and a black Muddler.
When I returned to camp, Moskowitz and Santella were chillin’ on their cots in the hot summer breeze. I noticed a spider the size of a 50-cent piece swinging over Santella’s face and said, “Who’s your friend?” Moskowitz said, “Anything?” and when I said, “Two,” he sat up and said, “Awesome. Did you get any other nips or pulls?”
Pull. Tap. Tug. Nip. Yank. All the same to me. But the Oregon boys, who both live in Portland and get to fish steelhead more than I like to know? They knew better. “What did you do when you felt a tug?” Moskowitz asked. He seemed disappointed when I said, “Oh, I cast again and then moved on.”
“Did you change flies?”
The answer from this Rocky Mountain trout hound was, “Uh, no.”
“If you get a sharp pluck, or a couple sharp plucks, it’s a trout,” Moskowitz explained. “If you get a pull or a nip, it’s a steelhead. When you get a pull or a nip it makes sense to really work that fish because now you know where he is. And it may be the only fish you cover all day. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. So, if I get a grab I look to shore and mark where I’m standing. I try to stay calm and make the same cast. If nothing happens I’ll take a small step downstream and make another cast. If nothing happens I might move back upstream a step or even two steps and shorten the line three feet and make another cast. If the fish doesn’t take I strip out more line and make a longer cast.
“If nothing happens,” Moskowitz added, “I’ll consider changing flies. It’s really about working out a system so that when you find a steelhead you give yourself the best chance for success.”
I hung my steelhead in a tree, slinked over to the cooler, then rolled onto my cot with a Chainbreaker, wondering what might have been.
Santella made sandwiches with smiley faces on top, fashioned from plump wild blackberries picked from those snaky vines. Later, Santella and I hiked upstream along a railroad grade and rescued a praying mantis from the tracks. In the last light, Santella hooked up and a few minutes later he had a small, wild steelhead controlled against his hip, his first of the trip. Later, I fell asleep under the stars with Santella strumming his travel guitar, crying out into the night, “The tug is the drug/yeah, the tug is the drug/roll out of bed, it’s the middle of the night/jump in the car, drive at the speed of light/ramble up the river with the blackberries and snakes/mainline so much coffee man you got the shakes/stop below the rapids and you make a thousand casts/futility seems certain but the thrill won’t ever pass/because the tug is the drug . . . .”
Next morning, with camp packed, it was all about those rapids. But before we reached the first, Moskowitz said, “Pull over river left, Chris. This always looks soooo good. I never find any fish here, but we might as well try.”
Minutes later, Moskowitz was at the head of the run hucking big, while Santella was stringing his rod at the boat. I waded in and stripped line off the reel. I started where I felt comfortable, having left Moskowitz enough room to work his casts and be able to step down as needed. He shouted, “Take 10 steps upstream. You want to be right there in that prime water.”
I did, made a cast, and was trying to free line that had wrapped around my stripping guide when I got absolutely slammed. Next moment I was trying to extract the line from my index finger and a steelhead was airborne, and then racing across the river as the boys shouted, “That’s a great one!”
I worked the steelhead back from the far bank, endured a few more solid runs and then grasped it by the tail. A hen, 30-some inches long, at least 10 pounds, maybe more. I couldn’t have been happier, and couldn’t have felt luckier, having been spoon-fed this fish by Moskowitz. She was wild, sporting a beautiful adipose fin, silvery sides, flush cheeks and a nice red stripe along her lateral line. Then she was off, unscathed, a moment later. I came. I caught. I was one with the river.
Miles downriver I was still in bliss when Moskowitz said, “OK, Chris, now this one’s Gordon Ridge. It can be tricky. All you have to do . . . .”
I heard the rumble before I could see the river disappearing downstream in a white mess. I interrupted, “Is there time to make river right so I can take photos?” It seemed like a life-or-death decision to me. I wanted to say goodbye to the fellows, tell them that they’d been very generous and that I’d tell their families they loved them. I could picture an impending conversation with the authorities: “Something’s fishy,” they might say. “Why’d you get out of the boat and they stayed? Do you hold a grudge because they catch more steelhead than you?”
“No,” I would shout, “I just chose life!”
Safely deposited on shore, I scaled a sagebrush hill, reached a road and jogged to a vantage for the best shot. And I got those images as Santella deftly shot the gap, right along the proper line, as calmly as if rowing across a pond and not between boat-crushing layers of basalt.
After celebratory beers and high-fives we were off again, this time facing one of the last rapids before our take-out at the confluence of the Deschutes and the Columbia.
“This one’s not too bad,” Moskowitz said, mostly for my sake. “But Chris,” he added with authority, “you just have to stay out of that hole and watch out for that rock. This can be a boat-wrecker and there are major hydraulics at play.”
Moments later Moskowitz was shouting, “Right, right Chris, pull right!” But then we were in the hole, water breaking over the bow, slamming into my chest, with more rolling over the gunnels. An instant later we were banging into that rock, then, finally, spinning circles downstream, bouncing in the white froth. Santella was chipper, even laughing. Moskowitz looked like he’d been locked in a freezer for three hours. I had my hands in the cooler searching for something stronger than beer.
Moskowitz turned to me, wiped the river off his face and said, “That’s the first time anyone’s ever gone into the hole and not lost their boat.”
At the takeout, while Moskowitz dealt with our accumulated toilet trash, the victim of rock, paper, scissor, I handed Santella his rod and asked, “Why do you do that self-guided float down that remote Alaskan river, in terrible weather, every year, when you could get comped at any posh lodge in the world? Wouldn’t you rather let someone else do the cooking and stand guard at night for grizzlies?”
Santella rubbed his beard, looked upstream at Rattlesnake and said, “Nah. I like it wild. I like to see what I can take, what I can do. I like the challenge.”
Greg Thomas is Fly Rod & Reel’s editor.