I left Baltimore mid-March in sub-freezing temperatures to be welcomed in Portland by cherry blossoms, forsythia and daffodils gracing green lawns. These lush conditions prevailed as I left the city and ascended the Cascade Mountains. Once east of the Cascades everything changed dramatically: I drove out of a dripping evergreen rainforest into a sagebrush desert. I had entered the rain shadow: 40 inches of rain falls on the west side of the mountains while only 10 inches falls on the eastern slopes.
Year-round fishing is possible in much of Oregon, but the Deschutes, Crooked, and Metolius rivers offer opportunities to catch wild fish within three hours of Portland. These waters don't freeze, making them a destination for cabin-feverish anglers from Wyoming, Montana and Colorado, as well as West Coast regulars and Eastern visitors.
A wide range of public and private stakeholders are focusing on a comprehensive effort to restore anadromous salmonids in the upper Deschutes basin. Work is primarily focusing on habitat restoration and fish passage over Pelton-Round Butte Dams. Groups such as Trout Unlimited chapters, Federation of Fly Fishers clubs, American Rivers and Oregon Trout are working closely with local, state, and federal government agencies, as well as the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and Portland General Electric.
Each river can be fished on your own, without a guide, but advice from local anglers and fly shops is invaluable. Nourished by the plankton-rich water in reservoirs feeding these rivers, the fish are healthy and very strong - fit from living in the swift river current.
For nearly four million years the Deschutes ("river of falls") has deepened its canyon through lava flows - a wide, slate-gray stripe at the base of black basalt and sharp, burnt sienna scree. A haven for both steelhead and native rainbows (also known as redbands or redsides), the river flows north for 200 miles - from its headwaters in the Cascades to the Columbia River. The last 100 miles downstream from Pelton Dam is the most productive water.
Throughout the year there are salmonids (e.g., salmon and trout) feeding in the Deschutes. It is perhaps best known for the summer steelhead run that begins in early August at the mouth of the river and continues until December 31. Reckless redbands that leap all over the upper river during salmon fly season in late May and early June display the Deschutes at its most sporting, but the river boasts magnificent hatches year-round. (Insects are a good indicator of the health of a stream and water quality. Certain insect species live part of their life underwater, then swim to the surface and change from a bottom-dwelling creature into an airborne insect. This emergence process is called "hatching.")
Outdoor writer George Strakes describes blizzards of caddis from two to nine from the end of July through August, when the fish are all looking up and will take Adam's soft hackles with abandon. In winter and spring, the Deschutes is primarily a nymph fishery; large golden stoneflies work well.
The river is open for year-round fishing from its mouth to the Confederated Tribes of Warms Springs boundary about 70 miles upstream; the upper section opens the last Saturday in April. Generally speaking, the river above Sherars Falls provides the best trout fishing, while the 44 miles below the falls is better for steelhead. A road follows the river for 30 miles from the locked gate above Maupin downstream to Sherars Falls, providing frequent, easy access.
An estimated 1,300 trout per mile swim in the waters between Sherars Falls and Pelton Dam; the majority are native Deschutes redside (redband) rainbows. As Mark Bachmann, owner of the Fly Fishing Shop in Welches, explained to me: redsides are "desert redbands." They are native fish and dominate all Oregon fisheries east of the Cascades, having laid their claim before coastal rainbows.
Like brown trout they selectively eat a variety of insects, underwater and on the surface. Bachmann explained that the redbands feed on top in certain areas at certain times. He suggested focusing on careful presentation in back eddies, dropping my fly in the foam line. His advice paid off: most of the redbands I caught were hooked in back eddies where fish were resting near the bank.
Most redsides are in the eight- to 15-inch range and a few reach 20 inches. Oregon Trout played a part in the establishment on a slot limit on the Deschutes: Only two trout between 10 and 13 inches may be kept - just right for a camper's supper. A combination of this lack of pressure and stable river flows results in an increasing number of large fish.
In an extraordinary example of foresight, Oregon Fish & Wildlife has prohibited fishing the Deschutes from any kind of floatation device since the 1930's. Boats are used only to transport anglers to productive reaches. Once there, they anchor, get out and wade. This regulation results in masses of water over which a fly line never passes, providing safety and shelter for fish.
Fishing the Deschutes
David Nolte, Director of Special Projects for Trout Unlimited, likes to divide the Deschutes into three sections. (1) Upper Deschutes: from the headwaters at Lava Lake to Bend. The Deschutes starts as a classic small trout stream with easy wading. This is the least fished section of the river and it provides the coolest water, creating excellent habitat for brook trout and brown trout, Kokanee salmon, whitefish, and native redbands.
The upper section flows through meadows and pine, cutting into banks and creating oxbow twists and turns. Two large reservoirs, Crane Prairie and Wickiup, provide trophy stillwater trout angling. These reservoirs change the amount of water released into the river, and the small classic trout stream becomes a large river with opportunity for large brown trout.
(2) Middle Deschutes: from Bend to Lake Billy Chinook. Here the water ranges from 30 to 60 feet wide and holds brown and redband trout. The water moves slower than in the upper reaches and sometimes the flow is extremely low from spring to early fall, a result of dewatering by irrigators. The redbands tend to occupy the faster water and the browns dominate the slower reaches. Access is through Cline Falls State Park and the Bureau of Land Management (managed public lands that parallel portions of the river).
(3) Lower Deschutes: the 100 miles from the outflow of Billy Chinook Lake at Pelton Dam to the Columbia River. This water ranges from 100 to 150 feet wide and is best known for steelhead. However, an estimated 1,300 trout per mile forage here, with the largest concentrations of redbands (2,000 trout/mile) between Warm Springs and North Junction. There are also spring and fall Chinook salmon runs in this part of the river.
When I fished it in March I caught numerous redbands and a few brown trout, all in the 12- to 16-inch range. I floated for seven or eight miles with George Strakes and his fishing buddy, Dan Thomas. We put in at Pine Tree access and took out at Beavertail. The river was flowing at 5,600 cubic feet per second (optimum flow for anglers is between 3,500 and 4,200 cfs), but the water was clear and fishable at 48° F. The weather was balmy (in the upper 60's) with no wind or rain.
The first fish I caught was a 12-inch redside that took Strakes' March Brown nymph, and the second one succumbed to a big golden stonefly nymph. The guys had good luck using a Butch's Bug (a big black, ugly stonefly nymph with long rubber legs).
We drifted the river, but one could walk or inch along slowly in a car, stopping frequently to look for rising fish in back eddies. Often we walked on banks high above the water, sliding down scree to cast a fly in appealing backwaters. Strakes cautioned me that, except during the salmonfly hatch and the summer caddis hatches, an angler shouldn't expect to take numerous fish in a day on the Deschutes. I can attest that what is hooked will be quality wild trout: these redside rainbows are muscular and hard to subdue.
To my surprise (not to mention that of my fellow anglers), I caught the largest fish of the day (on a crayfish pattern tied by Pennsylvanian Ed Kraft). A 5/6 weight eight-and-one-half- to nine-foot rod is good for trout, while a seven- to nine-weight or a spey rod is appropriate for steelhead. The Deschutes river rocks are slippery. Cleated, felt-soled boots and a wading staff are advised. This is big, strong water. The good news is that you don't have to move far to find fish.
(The Deschutes, Crooked and Metolius are all easy to access. The map shows the primary points of entry, however there are many additional pull-offs along the Deschutes between Maupin and Mack's Canyon.)
Much has been written about the Deschutes and its insects (see Resources), so I mention only the major standbys here. Year-round major hatches include five subspecies of Baetis, caddis fly and stonefly nymphs, and midges. Major periodic hatches include the salmonfly (Pteronarcys californica) #4-6 size flies, #8-10 golden stonefly (Hesperoperla pacifica) nymphs, Pale Morning Duns (PMD's) (July-Sept.), caddis flies (late July-August). Michael Crutcher, a Deschutes regular, claims that weighted Hare's Ear nymphs (#12-14), elk hair caddis (#14-16 mid-days in March), and parachute Adams in a #14-16 are the three inexpendable flies you need on the Deschutes!
The best fishing on the Crooked River (a major tributary of the Deschutes which it joins near Lake Billy Chinook) is the 12 miles running beside State Highway 27 between Bowman Dam (Prineville Reservoir) and the town of Prineville. It is not uncommon to see eagles soaring near the rim of the canyon that cradles the river as it emerges out of deep lava-rock canyon walls highlighted by an unusual spectrum of lichens. This is a very inviting piece of water, offering an angler the extraordinary combination of easy access, breathtaking scenery, and more than 3,000 redbands per mile. Add these advantages to an abundance of mountain whitefish (but the trout outnumber them two-to-one) and you have one of the best year-round fisheries in Oregon. If you happen to be a beginner, this tailwater can be a serious confidence builder.
Nearly all 12 miles can be accessed by anglers, along State Highway 27 which runs on the east side of the river from Prineville to the dam. The river flows between 30 and 250 cubic feet per second depending on the season. After it plunges from the dam the river widens and is easy to cross and to wade from either side. There are seven small public campgrounds on Highway 27 in this stretch, each providing 25 primitive sites. Anglers can park at these or at smaller pull-offs along the highway.
Nymphs will produce year-round but the discerning fisherman looks for hatches. The dry-fly action can be blazing. Hitting the river in late July, Dave Nolte told of catching more than 100 fish in an hour on a #16 caddis. The fish averaged 10 inches, with some exceeding 16 inches. Fish are evenly and plentifully distributed throughout this stretch.
Hatches generally follow the schedule of those on the Deschutes. The Crooked tailwater is noted for scuds (especially immediately below the dam). A #18 orange scud fished over weedbeds with a floating line (no weight, no strike indicator) can produce fine fish stories.
Anglers should not be concerned when they see that the Crooked looks like a big swatch of double-mocha coffee. The discoloration is the result of large amounts of suspended fine sediment. The silt does inhibit insect propagation, but many, many fish have no trouble finding your flies!
The Metolius is one of the largest spring-fed rivers in the United States. It is surely a candidate for the most beautiful and a must-see for visiting anglers, the scenery alone is worth it.
The river bursts from a spring surrounded by ponderosa pine at the base of Black Butte near Camp Sherman. Throughout its course, the Metolius defines "bottle-green." Shades range from aquamarine in the deep chutes to royal blue in pine-shaded back eddies. One can usually see to the bottom - more than ten feet deep.
After concentrated efforts by TU, Central Oregon Flyfishers, and Oregon Trout, the Metolius is now managed as a wild trout stream. It has not been stocked since 1996 and is open to catch-and-release fishing year-round.
Although it is only 30 to 40 feet wide, the river's gradient and very cold temperatures (mid-40's) limit trout habitat. It is now believed that large wood is important to the river. Big trees, such as old-growth ponderosa pine, fall into the water and redirect currents. This creates side channels, gravel, islands, shelter and pools. TU members and others are constructing in-stream habitat for trout. While the count of redbands is only about 100 per mile, there are encouraging signs of increased population since stocking was discontinued.
The Metolius' cold water provides the finest habitat for bull trout (Salvelinus confluentis, a char) in the country. This species is now making a comeback from near extinction in the mid-1980's through a wide range of partnerships including support from the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation-TU partnership and the Bring Back the Natives program. These monsters range from five to 20 pounds, with the average fish in the five- to six-pound range and catches of eight- and ten-pound fish possible.
Fishing the Metolius
Because of its strong current and considerable depth there is little wading on the Metolius. It is best fished from, or close to, its banks. Fast riffles and runs that don't lend themselves to dry fly fishing dominate the water, and the lack of cover makes fish reluctant to rise.
Many Metolius regulars recommend fishing long (12'-15') leaders with fluorocarbon tippets on a slack line downstream. Because the use of lead or split-shot is prohibited, anglers often use weighted stoneflies to get to the bottom.
Matching the hatch is critical since the fish don't often feed on the surface. The best time to fish dries is during the Green Drake hatch in May, during the golden stonefly hatch in early July, and during the October caddis emergence. Overall, however, beadhead nymphs will be more productive than dries.
Bull trout hang near the bottom and the best flies to use for them are sculpin and minnow imitations, Woolly Buggers, #10 Clouser Redd Foxees, and large streamers. John Judy, a master guide, author and bull trout expert, recommends light-colored streamers that the angler can see deep down in the current.
From Camp Sherman to Lake Billy Chinook, access is readily available on roads and trails. Popular access points include Lake Creek, Wizard Falls Hatchery, the Gorge Campground and Bridge 99.
From the Portland airport take I-205 towards Gresham. Go east on Route 26 towards Sandy and Welches. Turn left (east) on Route 216 and go 27 miles. Turn right on Route 197 to Maupin (the lower Deschutes).
To reach the middle and upper Deschutes, continue from Maupin to State Highway 97 and go south towards Madras for the middle section and towards Bend to the upper waters.
For the Crooked River take State Highway 27 south from Prineville.
To reach the Metolius River continue on Route 97 to State Highway 126. Turn west on 126 to Camp Sherman.
Tackle Shops and Guides
The Fly Fishing Shop, Welches (between Portland and Maupin). Mark Bachmann, co-owner. (503) 622-4607.
Deschutes Canyon Fly Shop, Maupin. John Smeraglio, proprietor. (503) 395-2565.
Deschutes River Outfitters, Bend. (541) 388-8191.
The Fly Box, Bend. (541) 388-3330.
Fly and Field Outfitters, Bend. (541) 308-1616.
The Hook Fly Shop, Sunriver. (541) 593-2358.
Kaufman's Streamborn, Portland. Lodge for rent at Maupin. (800) 442-4359.
The Patient Angler, Bend. (541) 389-6208.
Fin 'N Feather, Prineville. (541) 447-8691.
Camp Sherman Store, Camp Sherman. (541) 595-6711.
The Fly Fishers Place, Sisters. (541) 549-3474.
John Judy Flyfishing, A superb guide. Camp Sherman, (541) 595-2073. John is the author of Slack Line Strategies for Fly Fishing, Stackpole Books, 1994.
Where to Stay
C&J's Lodge, Maupin. Carroll and Judy White, proprietors. Inexpensive. (541) 395-2404.
Deschutes Motel, Maupin. Moderate. (541) 395-2626.
Deschutes River Lodge, Near Redmond. Jeanene and Dick Stentz, hosts. Magnificent view of the Sisters, overlooking the upper Deschutes. Expensive. (541) 923-4701.
The Oasis, Maupin. Mike McLucas, proprietor and guide. Nice clean cabins. Moderate. (541) 395-2611.
There are lots of motels and B&B's in Bend and Redmond. For information, contact the Central Oregon Visitors Association: (800) 800-8334.
There are seven beautiful camping sites set in ponderosa pine groves on the Metolius between Camp Sherman and Candle Creek. These are allocated on a first-come, first-served basis and there is a small fee attached. There are 30 drive-in and another 50 walk- or boat-in campgrounds along the Deschutes. For reservations and information: (800) 452-5687.
There are seven small (25-site) public (BLM) campgrounds on Highway 27 on the Crooked River. For more information call BLM in Prineville (541) 416-6700.
Where to Eat
Deschutes River Inn, Maupin. Inexpensive. (541) 395-2468.
The Oasis, Maupin. Inexpensive. (541) 395-2611.
The Kokanee Cafe, Camp Sherman. Inexpensive. (541) 595-6420.
Rainbow Grill, Maupin. Bar and late night fare. No reservations.
Bend is a destination resort area and offers many fine eating opportunities!
To identify a fishing friend, discuss opportunities, or learn the latest about Oregon TU projects, contact Dave Nolte at (541) 923-3344; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. Licenses and regulations. (503) 229-5403.
To purchase a map ($4) of the Ochoco National Forest (headwaters of the Crooked River) contact: Supervisor's Office, P.O. Box 490, Prineville, OR 97754.
Deschutes by Dave Hughes. Frank Amato Publications, 1990.
Fishing in Oregon by Madelynne Diness Sheehan and Dan Casali. Frank Amato Publications, 1999.
Fishing in Oregon's Deschutes River by Scott Richmond. Flying Pencil Publications, 1994.
No Nonsense Guide to Fly Fishing Central and Southeastern Oregon by Harry Teel. David Marketing Communications, 1998.
Slack Line Strategies for Fly Fishing by John Judy. Stackpole Books, 1994.
Ann McIntosh is author of the fishing guide, "Mid-Atlantic Budget Angler." Stackpole Books, 1998. She initiated the Budget Angler feature in Trout magazine, the national publication of Trout Unlimited. Her home water is the Gunpowder River in Monkton, MD.
David Nolte is Director of Special Projects for Trout Unlimited. When not fishing the Deschutes River at his home near Redmond, Oregon, with his wife Janice and his dog Salmo, Nolte promotes trout and salmon conservation.