Flats Angler/Explorer meets the Big “D” (Deschutes River)

Flats Angler Explorer meets the Big D.
Bill Gibbs

[This is the text that appeared in the Traveling Angler publication several years ago- written by one of our clients]

“Awesome” best describes the experience fishing the Deschutes Riverfor Fall Steelhead with Rob Crandall’s Watertime Outfitters.  I and three other anglers took a four day trip float trip down the Deschutes River last fall.

We meet in Maupin, Oregon.  Then in early morning were taken to the Trout Creek boat launch 32 miles upsteam to start our adventure. Then for the next four days we had a blast – daylight to dawn swinging flies, excellent prepared food, comfortable stand-up heated tents, gorgeous scenery, abundant wildlife, shooting rapids with names like Buckskin Mary, Whitehorse and Three Chutes.  A scenic canyon, great fishing and guides with knowledge and good personalities.

Starting at the Trout Creek put-in  we set up our gear, put on our waders and rigged rods while the guides and camp staff loaded the boats and prepared for our four days on the water and away from civilization.  Our camp man “Superman Marty Smith” runs a 20’ Willie Drift boat with more gear than I’ve ever seen on a drift boat.  Our gear was placed in dry bags and portaged down to camp.   We headed out on the water with two anglers per guide boat with Superman rowing down the river ahead to the selected camp site.
Although I have fly fished worldwide for many species from brookies to marlin, I had never fished for steelhead swinging flies or used a Spey Rod.  For the last several years I’ve focused on bonefish and permit, so I was not sure I would like the methodical approach of steel head fishing (even though I am an engineer) versus the sight fishing of the flats.
Waist deep in a big river, the water flowing quickly like the thoughts running through my head; my analytical mind was working overtime trying to adjust to the current, the 13’-6” Spey rod and the possibility that a steelhead was only a cast away. The Deschutes is a big river, flowing through a wild and scenic designated canyon in the high desert country of Central Oregon.  Flowing north to the Columbia River, the Deschutes is home to wild steelhead, resident red-band trout and hatchery steelhead.  Some years up to 50% of the run consists of hatchery strays that originated somewhere farther up the Columbia River system but like the cool waters of the Deschutes enough to wander upriver sometimes 100 miles before heading back towards their home. I was truly lucky to be on this trip. I was able to fill a last minute cancellation in the year of the second best ever recorded steelhead returning numbers on the Columbia River (over 500,000 fish) with many making it up the Deschutes.

Being a flats fishing fanatic, the smooth sands and warm waters of the tropics were a polar opposite of where I now stood.  We fished floating lines in the mornings and evenings with a consistent charge through each run.  Cast, swing, step-down, repeat, was the mantra.  Never casting to the same spot twice we searched the water for aggressive steelhead.  During the day we fished a floating line with a 10’ type-6 sink tip.  The trick with the swung fly strategy hookup was elusive.  With a downstream swing, we kept a tight line to the fly. When a fish would take the fly it was an instant connection.  Waiting until the line pulled tight and the fish returned to its holding lie with fly in tow ensured a solid hookup; anything else proved to be a missed fish. 
Steelhead in the Deschutes River average around 6 pounds, and occasionally strays show up with much bigger shoulders and in the 20lb range.  In the four days, we caught about 64 steelhead in the 4 to 12 pound range or four per day per angler. These are hard fighting fish fully utilizing the river’s current which in most sections averages six miles per hour.  July is generally the beginning of the run, with fish arriving into the fall months.  Migrating through the countless rapids upriver towards their origin, wild steelhead return to the few major tributaries like Bake Oven Creek, Trout Creek, Warm Springs River and others.  Meanwhile, hatchery fish are headed to the Round Butte Dam where they were released into the system. 
The setting here is high desert with sage brush and juniper trees dotting the canyon walls.  Columnar basalt layers jut upwards hundreds of feet in some areas.  The smell of sage and juniper mix a spicy sweet smell that invites you to breathe deeply and soak up the canyon glow.  The weather was calm with afternoon winds and sun for most of our mid-October trip.
Maupin, OR., where we met, straddles the Deschutes roughly around the mid-section of the lower 100 miles.  Plenty of road access is found both up and down river of the Maupin area.  By mid-October, steelhead have strung out through the entire lower 100 miles; making Maupin a central location for this part of the run.  A great shop to visit for local reports and flies is John Smeraglio’s Deschutes Canyon Fly Shop located on the east side of town near the end of the bridge.

Now, back to the fishing.  Cast, swing, step; our guide Rob Crandall coached me on the finer points of the swung fly and moving through a run when my rod jolted and the line lurched tight!   After some ripping line and a lot of bent graphite (I used a 13’ -6 “ #7 weight rod), we soon landed my first Deschutes steelhead.  After the third fish of the day I finally remembered my goal of landing one steelhead for the entire trip! 
The fishing strategy was fairly simple; cast, swing, step and repeat. However, many little details to the main point flushed out with my time on the water. The more controlled the swing speed, the better the results. Carefully mending the line after the cast prepares the line for the swing. Move the line smoothly across the water, like steering your car through a corner. Fish here like to follow a fly. Consistent speed of the swing optimizes results. 

Moving through the run is another part of the strategy.  To consistently hook Deschutessteelhead we rarely casted to the same spot twice.  My biggest argument with the Deschutes was the boulders and bottom structure that required careful wading. With wading being a big part of the effectiveness of the strategy, good traction is a must. Felt-soled boots with spikes provided a good grip and a wading staff helped probe out the depths and steady me against the current in some spots.  Polarized glasses helped in seeing the bottom structure and avoiding underwater obstacles. 

Fly patterns varied depending on the run we fished and the fly line of choice.  For morning and evening fishing with shaded water, we could use a floating line with classic patterns like the Green Butt Skunk, Purple Peril, Undertaker and such.  During the day or on specific runs in the shade we would use sink tips.  With the submerged patterns we would use leech type flies.  Black was a favorite color and purple a close second. 
Camp was comfortable with ample food and well prepared comforts.  We all had a cot and sleeping pad in large canvas tents with plenty of room to get up and walk around.  Dinners were hearty and served in one main tent in a group setting. This is where the stories flowed, the fish lies grew taller and the fish got bigger. 
With 32 secluded and scenic miles on the Deschutes River now behind me, I found my first steelhead and many more after that, made some new friends, learned to Spey cast and waded some big water.  It was a great adventure and I recommend it to anyone from beginner to expert steelheader.  I know I’ll be back and while I’m on the flats this winter and spring I won’t be worried about my wading but I might be dreaming of swinging a fly for steelhead. 
To book a trip with Rob at Water Time Outfitters call 503-704-6449 or visit: www.watertimeoutfitters.com  
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