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Where to meet wild fish runs on one of the lower 48's best rivers

THE DESCHUTES RIVER DRAINAGE is immense. It begins as water seeping from volcanic rock that forms the backbone of the Cascade Range in central Oregon. Heading northward to the Columbia River, the Deschutes flows through half the state. However the steel heading portion is the Lower Deschutes, about 100 miles of prime water from Pelton Dam to the Columbia, and it's some of the finest steelhead water in the lower 48.

It's a wide, brawling river, sporting broad riffles, flat runs, and rapids that range from mild to dangerous. Harsh desert winds etch the brows of bold, tannish-brown canyons that overlook the river. Here and there on the hillsides, patches of lush greenery attest to springs percolating up through ancient lava rock that is the framework for this wild country. Although the rough dryness of the desert is only a few yards away, shoreside trees, bushes, and other plants thrive by sucking moisture from the river. Under an endless blue sky, desert sand anchored by pale-olive juniper and sage gives way to vivid greenery and the flowing blue Deschutes.

Recent Steelhead Runs

AFTER SPENDING ONE YEAR feeding in the ocean, Deschutes steelhead return weighing from five to seven pounds, while those that feed for two years in the sea return in the 6- to 11-pound range. With the return of the high-water cycle in 1995, fish counts taken at Sherar's Bridge (about halfway up the Lower Deschutes) indicate a range of from 1,662 to 3,800 returning wild steelhead per year (see chart on page 53). From a yearly release of 160,000 hatchery smolts from Deschutes-parentage stock raised at the Round Butte facility, adult hatchery returns range from 2,708 to 5,932 fish.

Alarmingly, though, the number of adult hatchery strays from other river systems ranges from 11,110 to 23,618 fish annually, counted at Sherar's. In three of the last four years, the number of strays has been more than double the combined total number of wild and Deschutes-parentage hatchery stock. Though in essence, strays double your chances of hooking a steelhead, biologists worry about genetic pollution of Deschutes wild stock, since it's inevitable some strays will spawn in the system. Whirling disease is also a concern, and at least one steelhead has tested positive.

Biologists cannot pinpoint why hatchery strays migrate up the Deschutes. They cite two probable factors: downstream transport via truck or barge of smolts from other hatcheries, and greatly mixed hatchery product. Smolts with parentage of assimilated or unknown parentage are raised in a facility in a different watershed than where they are eventually released. They become confused fish. Since they don't swim downstream (they are transported by barge or truck), or they swim downstream in a totally different river than the one in which they were hatched, they have no chemical memory to plot a return course to their birthplace. They have virtually no homing instinct other than to go upstream. With no "home river" to seek, many are attracted to the cool, oxygen-rich waters of the Deschutes.

The last two years on the Deschutes provided some interesting fishing. The fishing was slow in 1998 because of what biologists call a "thermal block" in the Columbia. Although July fish counts at Bonneville Dam were high, the fish didn't swim up the Deschutes because water temperatures were too high. When water temperatures dropped in mid-September, the steelhead moved upriver quickly, giving anglers little opportunity to catch them.

Cooler water temperatures all summer in 1999 made for excellent fishing because the fish moved upriver steadily, beginning about mid-July in the lower reaches of the Deschutes. If the wet cycle prevails in 2000 and water temperatures stay down, angling will roughly follow this scenario: The lower 25 miles of the river will be good starting in mid-July, the lower 50 miles will be good in August, and by September and October the whole river will have steelhead. Die-hard steelheaders can chase steelhead until December 31, especially in the upper reaches.

Tackle and Tactics

A TYPICAL STEELHEADING DAY on the Deschutes might go something like this: In the dawn twilight, you slip into your waders, shrug into your vest, grab the rod you strung the night before, and head to the river. The desert air is crisp, cool, and calm. You're ready to battle steelhead with your 7- or 8-weight 9- to 10-foot rod and a floating line with a 9-foot leader tapered to 0X or 1X (8- to 10-pound tippet).

You cover the water close to you first. Because the brush is right behind you and you need a little room to make easy roll casts, you wade in ankle-deep. You pitch a #6 Green Butt Skunk across the riffle, then let it ease back across the current slowly, mending your line when necessary to control the fly's speed. Steelhead usually react best to slow-moving flies; they seem to need time to see and follow the fly before striking.

You wade farther and extend your casts, covering the water with a classic wet-fly swing, showing your saucy Skunk to every fish in the riffle, then the run, and finally the flats. Your fly glissades across the current until it sweeps the final bit of water in the tailout, just ahead of the next patch of rock that forms another riffle.

By now the sun is warming the topmost rock bastions of the canyon wall to the west and you are daydreaming about hot coffee and breakfast. You're into the rhythm now--rod flexing, fly swinging--and then your rod goes thunk as something rudely whaps your fly. Line zings from the reel as the steelhead charges downstream. Twenty-six inches of red-striped chromium blasts out of the water, and you yell with excitement. You lose more line, then regain it, then lose it again, but eventually the fish tires and you cradle it in your hands. You grin, the camera clicks, and you slide the steelie back into the water. The fish may be gone, but you won't forget.

Since mornings are usually calm, many steelheaders forget the stout rods, opting for a fast-action 4- to 7-weight. Though these rods magnify the fish's fight, they will shorten your casting range and are limited to casting flies not larger than #6 or #8. They are a delightful option if you're fishing water that doesn't demand boomer casts.

When the wind kicks up around noon--a normal occurrence--you'll need at least a 7-weight, but more often an 8- or 9-weight. The fish don't demand it, but the wind does. Trust me.

Two-handed rods are helpful on the Deschutes, because they provide incredible fly control and allow you to roll cast from anywhere. Also, instead of exhausting your wrist, forearm, and shoulder, two-handed rods allow you to use both arms, your back, and shoulders to make the cast. With more of your body sharing the casting load, you won't tire as easily, and all-day casting is easier. Twohanded rods also allow you to cast from either side of your body, spreading out fatigue and allowing you to cover the water more effectively. These rods are also ideal for greaselining, coaxing and steering the fly cross-current so it swims broadside to the fish.

Because steelhead sometimes won't respond to flies scooting just under the surface, you'll need a sinking-tip or full-sinking line. To cover broad runs and tailouts, many Deschutes steelheaders use shooting heads for maximum distance with minimal effort.

When these overgrown trout won't charge your Skunk swimming in the classic wet-fly swing, try dead-drifting a Woolly Bugger with weighted eyes or a stonefly nymph with rubber legs. It requires more concentration and often a strike indicator, but it can be a deadly technique for fish holding in slots under foam lines, along ledges, below sunken trees, and anywhere else you would drift a nymph for trout.

At the other end of the angling spectrum, try skating or waking a dry if you get bored with the wet-fly swing. Skaters work best. They form a wake in the surface film that draws the fish's attention. If you don't try it, you'll never take a steelhead on a dry; if you do nail one on a dry, you'll never forget it. Look for water of shallow to medium depth (three to five feet) with slow to medium current. Cast and mend the fly line as you would for the wet-fly swing, allowing the fly to cruise and wake across the top of the water about as fast as you would walk when relaxed.

The Deschutes is a popular place with many recreational rafters and anglers. To gain some water to yourself, try the rough water that others pass by. Side-arm cast into the deep, quick water canopied by overhanging tree branches.

You may have to negotiate patches of poison oak and the prickly thorns of wild roses to reach this water.

A collapsible wading staff, such as the Folstaf, is handy for safe wading, and boots with cleated felts or Korkers strapped to the soles can help you stay upright. And because you can get in trouble in the fast water of the Deschutes, you should wear SOSpenders or an inflatable vest. Be sure to wear a wading belt, especially with breathable waders. If you fall in, unbelted breathables will billow out like an underwater sail, collecting water and making it nearly impossible to swim to shore.


OVER THE YEARS, I'VE HEARD all the theories about when and why steelhead bite, but little in the way of conclusive evidence. After years of working on the Deschutes for the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife and examining much data, I concluded that steelhead have minds of their own. Sometimes they move at night, sometimes in the middle of the day, and sometimes not at all. I found no data correlating tides, moon phases, wind direction, storm fronts, or river levels.

Two common theories offer reasons why steelhead strike a fly: 1. Although some steelhead feed in fresh water, most do not; they bite flies because of a remembered feeding response. 2. Launched on a spawning quest, steelhead aggressively seek a mate and suitable spawning gravel and will attack intruders into their space.

Vary your tactics and your flies. I like fly styles that look different in the water--hairwing streamers, soft hackles, Spey flies, nymphs, and dry skaters. To cover a variety of lighting conditions on the river, I carry each style in bright colors and dark tones, #4#10.

When it comes to steelheading, presentation is more important than fly selection. You must control your fly's depth and swimming speed and vary your tactics to cover all the water.

Lower River Public Access

DESCHUTES STEELHEAD COUNTRY extends for 100 miles from Pelton Dam by the town of Warm Springs (about 10 miles west of the town of Madras) to its junction with the Columbia River east of the town of The Dalles. About half of that water is accessible on foot. The remainder is available only by boat. River sections and access points are listed below.

To fish the river, pick a section that you feel comfortable wading--for example, a stretch that includes a riffle that glides into a run that flattens into a tail-out. Steelheading etiquette demands that if someone is already in that seetion, you either pick another area to fish, or wade in above the other angler. Because of the wet-fly tradition in this steelheading, you should never wade in below the other angler. If that person is fishing upstream, ask if you can fish around him. In that case, you might fish below him, but give him plenty of room. The river is huge, and common courtesy and common sense can make it enjoyable for everyone.

Pelton Dam to Mecca Flats. The water just below Pelton Dam is bordered on the west by Warm Springs Indians tribal land, and on the east by private property. It has no public launch sites. There is a popular public launch above the Warm Springs bridge where Highway 26 crosses the Desehutes. The launch area has limited fishing access, and there is some public access at Highway 26. The launch area is popular because it's the put-in spot for many multi-day trips and for the popular run to Trout Creek. Because of the limited access and the roar of traffic on Highway 26, this is not prime water, but it is worth fishing if you're short on time.

You're better off going to Mecca Flats, downstream from the Warm Springs bridge, via a dirt road between a trailer park and a gas station, on the river's east side. You may bike or bike downstream from Mecca Flats campground about seven miles to Trout Creek campground. There is some access upstream from Mecca Flats. This is excellent trout and steelhead water.

Trout Creek. Access to Trout Creek is via paved road to the village of Gateway (no services), then a steep, twisting gravel road to Trout Creek campground. You can fish above Trout Creek, but not below it (it's private property). You can fish across the river on the tribal side upstream to Dry Creek, but not downstream of Trout Creek.

Trout Creek campground is one of the most popular areas on the Deschutes because of the walking access to prime water upstream. Also, the nearby launch is the prime put-in for multi-day trips to Maupin and the take-out for the Warm Springs-to-Trout Creek float.

Fishing Tribal land. You may fish tribal land only from Dry Creek campground downstream until you are across from Trout Creek campground. It's about six miles of water and it is marked with signs. You must obtain and carry a tribal fishing permit. You reach Dry Creek north of the town of Warm Springs via the paved road that goes toward Kahneeta Hot Springs Resort, then a dirt road that peels off from the highway. There is less fishing pressure on the tribal side. It is excellent trout and steelhead water.

South Junction. Halfway between Madras and Maupin, you can access South Junction campground by the gravel road that originates near the intersection of Highways 97 and 197. Parts of the gravel road are steep with sharp turns. There is about a mile of river access at South Junction. You can hike upstream or downstream on the railroad tracks until you reach a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sign. These hikes range from a mile to two miles--carry water or an efficient water purifier. Don't trespass on private land. This is excellent trout and steelhead water.

Maupin. At Maupin you can take a rough gravel road on the east side of the Desehutes upriver for seven miles to a locked gate that prohibits vehicular traffic beyond that point. There is plenty of public access, and several BLM campgrounds are found on this stretch. You can hike by the road upstream, but stay off private land.

Downstream from Maupin, a paved road runs along the river for eight miles, almost all of which is accessible. The float from Maupin to just above Sherar's Bridge is the most intensely rafted water in the state, but at dawn and in the fading light of evening, you'll be able to fish without distraction. There are several BLM campgrounds along this excellent trout and steelhead water.

Sherar's Bridge to Macks Canyon. At Sherar's Falls, just above Sherar's Bridge, you can watch Indians as they net salmon and steelhead in their traditional way from platforms stretched out over the river. Just downstream from Sherar's Bridge, a gravel road follows the river for 17 miles to Macks Canyon, where there are several boat launches, BLM campgrounds, and lots of public access. This is excellent trout and steelhead water. You can work your way downstream from Macks Canyon, but the going is rough.

The Mouth of the Deschutes. You can hike or bike up from the public land on either side of the Deschutes where it meets the Columbia, and there is a large campground on the east side (access is via a service road off I-84). The trout fishing is fair, but this stretch of the river is popular because all the Deschutes steelhead swim through it. Your chances for success with steelhead are better here.

Some of the jumbo Clearwater River steelhead that weigh into the teens sometimes ease their way up the Deschutes temporarily because it has cooler, oxygen-rich water. While vacationing away from the Columbia, these hunks of red-striped chrome may nail your fly and consume backing you haven't seen since you installed it on your reel.

Navigation and Regulations

THE DESCHUTES HAS NUMEROUS RAPIDS, some Class III to Class V. It's navigable except for Sherar's Falls (Class VI). Each boater must have a boating permit, and no angling is allowed from a floating craft, including inflatables such as float-tubes or pontoon boats. Because of user conflicts between jet-sleds and drift boats, they now split river days. Jet-sleds are allowed only on certain days and on certain stretches of river; unpowered craft are allowed on the rest. Contact Oregon State Marine Board, (503) 378-8587, for details.

Because the Desechutes has a boisterous nature, don't float it alone until you've floated it with an experienced boater and know the water well. For camping information, call the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, (503) 378-6305.

Local area and river maps include the Lower Deschutes River Map (Frank Amato Publications, 1998) and the Oregon Atlas & Gazetteer (DeLorme Mapping Company).

DEKE MEYER is a former Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife biologist. He has written nine books about fly fishing, including his latest, Fly Fishing Inflatables (self-published, 2000).


HOOK: Steelhead, #4-#10.

THREAD: Black 6/0.

TAIL: Red hackle fibers.

RIB: Round silver tinsel.

BUTT: Fluorescent chartreuse chenille.

BODY: Black chenille.

WING: White polar bear substitute.

HACKLE: Black.



HOOK: Steelhead, #4-#10.

THREAD: Orange 6/0.

TAIL: Hot orange hackle used for wing.

RIB: Round gold or silver tinsel.

BODY: Black chenille or dubbing.

WING: Hot orange hackle.

HACKLE: Hot orange.
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Publication:Fly Fisherman
Geographic Code:1U9OR
Date:Sep 1, 2000

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