For some, Las Vegas, NV may seem like the ultimate playground. A 24-hour town with more hotel rooms than hikes and so many golf courses that locals believe the man-made lakes may actually constitute a scenic overview. For myself, Las Vegas represented purgatory. Without any rivers or lakes (although it's a joy to be at Lake Mead where 120 degree weather is the norm and carp devour cigarette butts) the fly fishing around my hometown is obsolete. Needing a change, I decided to find somewhere north, and moved to Portland. The drive up seemed like an eternity, as I passed beautiful rivers and lakes that I knew held fish. Naturally, the second I arrived in Portland I drove my U-Haul to the closest fly shop to ask where the closest river was that I could catch some trout. The owner of the shop looked at me and smirked, "You haven't fished if you haven't fished for steelhead," he said.
Instantly my mind began to race. Part of me scoffed at this idea, as I had heard stories of steelhead fishing. Casting large flies at behemoth rainbow trout who have returned to rivers from the ocean in order to spawn. Only, these sea-run trout have saved up enough energy reserve so they don't have to eat while on their journey. Therefore, you’re casting at fish to basically piss them off or hope that perhaps they will strike after remembering feeding habits of their youth. The stuck up trout bum in me decided that these fish were not as clever as trout, which key on specific insect patterns to make up their diet. Then the owner started showing me pictures of steelhead and videos of the fight when they do happen to strike a fly. My interest was piqued. I rented DVD's about how to fish for steelhead and proceeded home to watch them as I unpacked. Unpacking quickly fell to the wayside. I couldn't watch DVD's of people fishing without fishing. A friend of mine from Yellowstone who happened to live in Portland, Greg, called me and mentioned that he was going to float the Deschutes River for three days. I knew setting up my house would have to wait. I had heard stories of trout fishing on the Deschutes even while I lived on the famed Madison River in Montana. It's a river of fishing lore and missing out on an opportunity to cover over 25 miles on the river was not something that crossed my mind. I got my fishing gear ready and tossed and turned all night in anticipation of my first fishing expedition in Oregon.
We drove out in the morning and followed Highway 84 to The Dalles. For someone who has been trapped in a Vegas desert for over a year, the drive was idyllic. Following along the Columbia River Gorge, passing Multnomah Falls, and watching as the horizon met with Mt. Hood reminded me of the time I spent in Montana. The cloudy skies of Portland gave way to endless blue skies in all directions. We were going to put in at Mack's Canyon, which was about 45 miles off Highway 84, and take out at the mouth of the Deschutes before it dumps into the Columbia River. As the gravel road caressed down the canyon, I caught my first glimpse of the Deschutes funneling down, my excitement became insurmountable. We were meeting a couple of Greg's friends at the put in and as we set up our gear I learned a little more about what to expect along the banks of the river. Apparently poison oak was prevalent, and quite a burden if it were to come into contact with the skin. Luckily, Greg alerted me what it looked like: “It’s green," he said. Oh well, I'm sure I would feel it right away and learn quickly (I would later be told that it may take up to three days to see any sign of contact). Aside from poison oak I was also told to be wary of rattlesnakes ("they're not aggressive") and scorpions ("not that poisonous"). Even if a park ranger had given me a thorough talk about what I should watch out for I wouldn't have heard much of anything except the river running in the distance. I was ready to get my rod in the water, and we still had at least seven miles of river to cover.
Prior to launching, we had taken into account that the river was running high, about 5,700 cubic feet per second. This meant that we would be covering around three miles an hour while drifting. Also, many of the rapids that could potentially be troublesome would be easier to maneuver with higher water levels. We put on the river in the afternoon and planned to float for a couple hours until the sun got off the water. Greg and I were running a Maravia raft down while his friends, Evan and Andrew, ran a two-man pontoon cataraft. Both boats handled the rapids in the upper section with ease, and we found a campsite after seven miles on the river. After setting up camp it was finally time to fish. For myself, it meant setting up a 5-weight rod to cast nymphs at trout, but for Evan it was either steelhead or bust. I wanted to know so much about steelhead fishing that even my excitement to finally fish was halted temporarily while I watched Evan. He truly was an artist, having perfected casting with an 8-weight spey rod throughout a hundred yard run on the Deschutes. A spell was cast on me as I watched his double haul deliver a fly to steelhead in a slower run on the river. Although he didn't land any fish that evening the power that bolted through his rod ran through me. Luckily, I was able to entice a 14-inch rainbow trout on a rubber leg stonefly imitation before returning at dark to eat before calling it a night.
We woke the next morning as the sun peaked over the horizon. The desert air was still cool and the cooler morning water temperatures gave way to a good morning of fishing for trout. I landed fish on caddis emergers all morning. The feeling of a tight line and a trout making a run down river is one that can never be replicated. I had landed four fish and missed several others when the tricky wading waters of the Deschutes took advantage of a first timer without a wading stick. I slipped on a boulder while trying to dislodge my flies from a downfallen log in the river when I took a plunge. Although I’m no stranger to falling in a river, I wasn't prepared for the key mistake I had made. I had forgotten to zip up my vest in my excitement to tie my fly on, and while skating off of boulders going down river, I lost my go-to fly box. Out of productive flies and soaking wet it was time to head back to camp and pack up before floating another ten miles to camp for day two. The sting of losing all my best flies almost outweighed the productive morning I had, but the serenity of being on a river is never lost. It's what makes fishing so special. That as long as you’re on the river there are no worries. The noise of civilization is muted by birds, insects, and the rivers roar. I could always get more flies, but I could never return to this moment. I have lost a lot in the river's currents and along its banks, but it has given me so much more.
After we packed up camp we set out for our float, which would be about four hours today in order to cover 12 miles. Evan was particularly excited because upon reaching our destination we would be in pristine steelhead water. Steelhead had just begun to enter the Deschutes, so the further we got to the mouth, the more steelhead there would be. Unfortunately for me as we got closer to the mouth the water temperatures would rise steadily from the headwaters, meaning trout fishing would become increasingly more difficult. As we put in for the day I asked Greg if we could hug the right bank on the off chance of finding my fly box floating down river. After just five minutes of floating we saw another fisherman down river. Greg thought I should ask everyone if they had seen my box, so I shouted to him. Miraculously he had found a fly box, and it was mine. This seemed rarer to me than catching a fish, and the honesty of the gentleman will not soon be forgotten. Already a morning full of excitement we traversed through the canyon as deer drank along the banks, osprey flew overhead, and an eagle soared through the air with prey locked in his talons. We stopped about six miles into our float on day two to eat lunch and fish a riffle. I caught a nice fat rainbow on a crawfish pattern, without the possibility of knowing that this would be my last trout of the trip. As we floated down we passed many fishermen, all searching for steelhead. Almost everyone we asked responded that they hadn't had any luck. I remember a DVD I watched about steelhead said that landing one steelhead in a day was considered a good day. Why not just fish for trout? I would soon find out.
We arrived at camp for the evening around six. Although I fished sparingly I was actually more excited for dinner. My camping menu generally consists of cold hot dogs, white bread, and sardines but Evan had alluded to a fresh Chinook salmon dinner. Although none of us landed any fish that night I’ll remember it as one of my fondest memories of the trip. We were out of cell phone range, there was no bathroom in sight, and there was a hard ground ready to be slept upon while four new friends shared a salmon, corn, and mashed potato dinner as the moonlight caressed off the river. Although we slept sparingly after forgetting our blow up mattress we awoke the next morning ready to fish before floating and getting off the river about eight miles down. This section of water had more people on it then the upper reaches, and coincidentally everyone was steelhead fishing. After getting skunked for a few hours down river I started back up towards camp, passing Evan on the way. This time as I passed him, he yelled at me with a tight line. I hustled down the embankment to get a look at my first steelhead. His reel howled as the fish ran down river and all 10 feet of graphite rod were bent in a fervor. After a couple minutes of fighting the fish he landed a native Deschutes River steelhead. It was about eight pounds and well over two feet. I finally understood why I was the only person trying to fish for trout. All the trout I had caught wouldn't have even tipped the balance against this behemoth. Its gorgeous silver body swayed in the river before being released back to the Deschutes. I decided to simply watch Evan fish for a while. He yielded four out of six steelhead, which for many fly fishermen, would mark the best morning fishing in their lives. It was remarkable. Ironically, I was the one who was hooked.
I never tried to fish for steelhead while on our float. I had excuses abound: wrong rod, only trout flies, no wading belt, poor knot in my backing, and anything else I could think of. The truth though was that I was scared, scared of failing. Scared to fish for three days and catch no fish. But as I reflect on the float I regret not stepping out of my comfort zone because fishing is about so much more than just catching fish. It's about taking in the scenery of a river so gorgeous it runs through your dreams. It's about observing nature continue on whether your boat is floating down river or not. It's about building relationships without the help of Facebook or text messages. Most importantly, it's about learning something new about yourself, and I had learned a lot. But most importantly I realized that I would never really fish until I fished for steelhead.