Fly Fishing in Oregon - Fall
Often friends and I express frustration in the fall because there are just too many things to do. River temperatures cool and trout fishing begins to improve. Elk go into rut. Ducks and geese migrate into our waterways. But perhaps the most exciting thing about the fall, and the focus for most fly anglers in Oregon, is the return of steelhead to Oregon’s coastal rivers.
Steelhead are a species found along the west coast, from California to Alaska. They are genetically identical to rainbow trout but grow significantly larger in size. Steelhead, like salmon, are anadromous, meaning they spend most of their life in the ocean and return to the river they were born to spawn. Sometimes this journey back to their birthplace is not easy. Some steelhead travel hundreds of miles up rivers, navigating numerous obstacles on their way. Anglers on the west coast form an obsession with chasing these fish because of their size, strength, and elusiveness. When steelhead enter rivers, they are on a mission to spawn, and eating is not their top priority. They can be tough to locate because they are constantly on the move. Thus, they are aptly named “the fish of 1,000 casts”.
In mid-October of this year, we chose the Deschutes River as our hunting grounds for steelhead. The Deschutes begins in Central Oregon in the Cascade mountains, and flows North 252 miles into the Columbia River, on the border of Oregon and Washington. Although it starts off as a small mountain stream, by the time it reaches the Columbia River it is a wide, swift river that flows at over 4,000 cubic feet per second.
Our journey took us far into rural Northern Oregon down a 30-mile gravel road that follows the river deep into a canyon. Our starting point was where the road ended. From here, there remains 25 miles of river that can only be accessed by boat or on foot. We loaded up the boat the first morning, taking careful steps to make sure we remembered everything we needed. For the next three days we were going to be tent camping on the river with no cell service, and no access to food or drinking water sources. I pushed the boat off and took my first few oar strokes, looking up around me in admiration of the river’s majestic canyon walls towering hundreds of feet above us. I then looked back at my truck for the last time and felt an overwhelming sense of wildness.
On the first day of our trip the weather was perfect…for fishing. Temperatures were in the 50’s, intermittent light rain but no wind. We had just come off one of the first rainstorms of the fall, which is always a good recipe for steelhead. Rainstorms, although they may temporarily change water color to chocolate milk, raise river levels and facilitate the upriver migration for Steelhead. Higher water also triggers fish in the ocean to enter the river. As water recedes, fish will concentrate and the water clarity improves enough for fish to see flies. On this day, the water was a perfect aqua-green color with some clarity, but not too much that the fish would be spooky.
My weapon of choice was my 6-weight, 12-foot spey rod. Spey rods are longer than normal fly rods, typically made in lengths of 12-15 feet. They are also equipped with special line that is much heavier in the front section than in the back. The combination of the length of rod and weight of line allows the angler to put out a significant amount of power in a short casting motion. The result is a far cast forward without ever having to make a back cast, which is ideal when the angler is close to the riverbank and has trees or bushes behind that do not allow for a back cast. I equipped my spey rod with a floating line, 10-foot sink tip, 6-foot leader, and one of my favorite wet flies, the Green Butt Skunk.
When searching for steelhead, the general rule of thumb is to look for water that is 3-7 feet deep and moves at a walking pace. This is because steelhead have a long journey to make through numerous rapids and are looking for places to rest before they continue their journey. After having searched numerous spots throughout the day that fit the criteria, we arrived at our first camp site along the river. While my friend set up his tent, I went out to make a few casts.
The method was simple, cast perpendicular to the current, mend upstream, hold the line tight, and let the fly swing across current. When the swing finishes, take two steps down and make another cast. Because steelhead don’t typically move very far out of their way to bite a fly, this is the most effective method of covering the water. After about 30 casts, I felt a bump. The trick here is not to do anything. If you lift the rod, you will pull the fly out of their mouth. I let the fly keep swinging. Then another bump, and another. Suddenly, my reel started spinning and the fish was on. I took off down the river while simultaneously yelling at my friend to grab the net. 20 minutes later and 100 yards down river, we had finally the fish in the net. It was a beautiful 34-inch wild steelhead.
A wise man once told me that fishing is 90% luck and 10% skill. The process of searching for steelhead can be grueling and unrewarding many times, but those who stick with it can be rewarded with the fish of a lifetime.