October saw us as busy on the Lower Deschutes River as we’ve been all season. In a rather unexpected burst of activity we had guides working from Warm Springs down to the waters around Maupin, including several memorable multi-day trips. Now as we ease into November, days shorten and we all contemplate another long dark season, I feel compelled to reflect for a moment on what an amazing 10th month we had.
Early in the month I had the pleasure of guiding one of my favorite people I’ve ever met on the big river. Steve P is a guy from New Jersey. He owns these crazy popular coffee shops called Green Planet Coffee Company. Twice a year he visits our land and rents the house down at Luelling’s Homestead. This year he brought his lovely wife Patty and a few other friends from places dotted across the country. I met a few of them at the Warm Springs boat ramp one afternoon and we fished lazily down to the house, stopping at a few of my favorite spots. No steelhead were landed, but some awfully beautiful trout were. My usual nymph combos were effective as long they were drifted the right way through the right water! Fortunately Steve, Patty and their friend Reggie were more than up to the task. It was a lovely afternoon that eased into an even nicer evening, culminating on the bar across from the house where Jerry landed several stout redsides. And then fell in! For those of you familiar with that spot, you know it’s not where you want to go down. Luckily Reggie is a strong guy and held his position on the verge between gravel bar and deep swirling currents. It should be noted that he fell because he’d hooked a nice fish and was trying to step backwards to maintain tension. We had, it should also be noted, discussed how that was not the preferred technique! Face your foe, get the rod up high and strip like there’s no tomorrow; that’s the preferred technique, especially when standing in heavy current adjacent an angler-swallowing hydraulic. There’s your top tip of the day, folks. And yes, to answer your question, we landed the fish. And yes, Reggie was put in the boat afterwards for an extended time-out.
That night I was treated like a king by my incredible hosts. There was seasoned lamb shank, grilled slowly, the most epic mint reduction glaze, fresh-picked broccoli, scalloped potatoes, more really good red wine than we could all drink and company I’d keep over any dinner table, anytime, anywhere. Afterwards there was fine scotch on the deck overlooking the river as she sung softly. Late into the night Steve and I talked about, well damn, I can’t even remember! But I do recall much laughter, philosophical thought, deep appreciation of life. Then there was sleep.
In the morning as my clients slept I snuck down to the river and swung up a truly massive steelhead. This fish brawled for a solid ten minutes, rolling, running, diving. It was easily one of the bigger fish I’ve tangled with on the Deschutes. In the end, and just as Steve was wandering across the dew-covered grass, coffee mug cupped under his nose, the fish gave a big head shake and tossed the hook. Simple as that; as if I were merely a slight annoyance in the hazy dawn.
After breakfast the same three folks climbed into my boat just as the river raised 500cfs! I mean you could actually see it happening. I gulped nervously but failed to mention this latest event to my eager clients. Unsurprisingly, the fishing pretty much sucked all the way through lunch. We worked hard at it, but the fish were in caution mode. Let me explain, or better yet, let someone more sagacious than I do it: Many years ago while working another large tailwater, a renowned local guide, and deeply intellectual man once explained how big flow changes might affect the fish and fishing for them. It would help, whilst reading this next bit, if you conjured your best trailer park accent (or Dubya, the Bush #43), as it should be noted this occurred in Redding, CA. And it went something like this:
“Alright, Griff. Hey, what the hell kinda name is Griff anyway? Sounds foreign. You a foreigner? Don’t talk like one. But hell, where was I? Yea, so it’s like this. Now I want you to imagine yer sittin’ in yer livin’ room and yer watchin’ a game. Prolly soccer, cuz yer some kinda foreigner. So yer watchin’ soccer, which you prolly call football, but whatever. And yer diggin’ into a big ol’ plate of chicken wings. God, I love wings. You love wings, Griff? Hell, I don’t even care. And you prolly got a rack o’ PBR tallboys just sittin’ on the table next to the wings. Sheeeyat, that sounds like some kinda night don’t it, Griff. Anyhoo, so yer five, maybe six wings deep and suddenly BAM yer livin room starts shrinkin’. Walls, floor, ceiling, everything’s closin’ in on ya. The light changes angles comin’ through the windows. Everything you’ve gotten used to starts changin’. You might even have to get off the couch and on the floor cuz the ceiling feels so close to yer head. Yer pretty sure yer not gonna die, but damn shit just got REAL! So you duck yerself down next to the couch and wait for a while. At some point you realize the room’s not shrinkin’ anymore. Takes a minute or two just to sort that out. Then you look over and the game’s still on! And ya think, ‘Hells bells I ain’t dead!’ Then you take a little while to assess the situation. You know, like ‘Okay, I’m cool. Game’s on. House ain’t shrinking anymore. This spot on the floor’s actually workable. I can see the TV and everything.’ But let’s be real here, Griff. It’s gonna be a few minutes ‘fore you start thinkin’ ‘bout diggin’ back into those wings. RIGHT?!!! Even though they’re still sittin’ right there front of ya! Prolly all piping hot and smellin’ like that honey mustard sauce you can get by the gallon at Costco! O, you’ll get back after ‘em ‘ventually, maybe even with a bit more vigor. How you like that, me usin’ a big word like ‘vigor’? Didn’t think a hick like me had that kinda game, did ya? Anyway, yer gonna eat cuz you have to. But it might be a bit. Kinda depends on how much yer living room just shrunk. Or expanded! Yea, dammit, goes both ways! Let THAT sink in for a minute! Yup, that just happened. Blew yer mind , huh? Didn’t see that one comin’, did ya? That’s why I call it The Expanding and Shrinking Living Room Theory as Pertaining to Trout and Salmonoids, or TESL TAP TAS, ‘cept that almost sounds foreign. And I don’t much like foreign stuff; it’s weird and, you know, foreign. Anyhoo, that’s my theory.”
In all honesty, and I’ve really no reason to offer anything but, I might have embellished just a touch. But that is certainly the gist of it. I refer to such soliloquys as Sagacious Homeys In Trailers, or… you get the idea.
So on this day we experienced first hand and up-close the expanding living room theory. Aside from the obvious apparent changes, the more subtle color and velocity alterations were there too. After lunch I put us on some water that looked and felt as “normal” as I could find. After a slight re-working of our rigs we were quickly into fish. Some of them large. One of them a steelhead that didn’t last long, but hey, it was something!
Patty had the hot rod and it was so fun talking her through playing some really nice trout on my old Winston LS. One of these fish took us on a solid walk with Steve in tow. It was the perfect way to wrap up a couple incredible days. Steve is a guy I can truly call a friend after the times we’ve spent together and to steal his phrase “I’m a better Indian for it!”
Next came a series of camp trips. The first was three days from Trout Creek to Maupin with two wonderful, hilarious and fishy gals, Kim and Heather. Kim is experienced and was looking to expand on techniques for fooling trout and steelhead. Heather, brand new to fly fishing was just into having a bent rod in her hand. We had beautiful weather, perfect campsites, a relatively uncrowded river and plenty of fishing action.
After a couple months working the “Day Stretch” pretty hard it was refreshing to be down there amongst the seclusion and beauty. There is a wildness to that 34 miles of river you don’t get much in life. No cars, no cell phones. Very little to interrupt the grandeur. The first day we fished hard in the South Junction area, mostly with single-hand rods using a variety of nymph rigs. Much of the same stuff I’ve been using upriver worked, along with a few bigger flies meant to attract steelhead. Heather got her first fish on a fly rod waist-deep in a really good riffle. Being alongside someone for that moment is always a rush and Heather made it all the more fun by being completely, unabashedly stoked. It would prove to be the first of many gorgeous trout she’d land over the next three days. Kim was putting in time, fooling a bunch of nice trout but really wanting to make contact with a migrating fish. She would have to wait a bit longer for that.
Camp that night was full of laughter, tequila, music, good food, all the stuff riverside life should have. Dinner was pork loin marinated in ginger, garlic, shallots and soy sauce, then glazed with sesame oil, brown sugar and honey. The sides were pine nut cous cous and curry broccoli. Dessert was gourmet chocolates. And some really good tequila! Then it was time spent around the campfire, telling stories, being silly. This was one of those trips when you get the feeling real friendships were forged under a canopy of stars with the river humming softly out there in the dark. We were at Whisky Dick so there would be no late night revelry. Whitehorse lurked just down river. We’d have to row her in the morning; not something that should be attempted while hungover or sleep deprived!
The morning dawned still and clear. We had a simple breakfast of fruit, granola, yogurt, juice and coffee. The plan was to break down camp and get downriver a bit. We’d spend the early part of the day targeting some prime steelhead water. As we worked on camp, Kim asked if she should fish. I told her that I highly recommend fishing, especially if you want to catch fish. That’s why I get paid the big bucks. She wandered just upriver with my 8wt single-hander. Another guide service had their bagger down there already and he was waiting up there for us to clear out. Kim went up in his direction. Not fifteen minutes later he came down and told me that my client has a big fish on. We grabbed the net and ran back up to find Kim indeed tied to a steelhead. For those of you who haven’t ever tangled with one of these fish or watched as someone else does, it really is a major event. Every steelhead -similar to trout- has a different M.O. and learning to predict its next move is critical to landing one. Kim was doing a great job with this fish. Her only issue was the shallow gravel she was on extended out quite a ways and the river beyond was swift. Each time to fish was coaxed near enough to net its belly would scrape the bottom and it would bolt for the middle of the river and then downstream again.
My new best friend, Matt, the other bagger was in the river holding my steelhead net. I was, it should be noted, and I write this with some shame, still in my “civvies” and camp boots. So it was up to Matt to land the fish unless we dragged it onto the shallow cobble, which is never my preferred method. So back and forth they went, this steelhead and Kim. Heather was down there watching too. Neither of the gals was familiar with the tenacity and strength of these fish. Fortunately Kim had great instincts for the give and take; the fine balance between dominance and submission. There is no rushing things with these fish, and that can be the hardest part for the uninitiated. As the fight wore on, there was little need to coach Kim. She was doing everything as it should be done. The fish was tiring. Matt was ready with the net. It was just a matter of time. And sure as anything we know of, the great fish eventually folded exhausted into the net after perhaps ten long minutes. It was a moment of quiet triumph, as is often the case with a big sea-run fish. There is a part of us that wants the fish to win the fight, a nagging desire to torment it no further. And so a collective sigh releases over the ancient canyon, a release of thanks, apologies, respect. There were the obligatory photos of fish and angler, and then the slow walk back to camp.
We were packed and afloat by 9am and on our way to the rapid. It was decided that we’d run without scouting as long as there were no signs above telling to do otherwise. The drift down was not rushed. Is it ever? A great Golden Eagle was flushed off a gravel bar mid-meal. A Bald Eagle made its way down river with us.
The sun shone in a cobalt sky. And yet, even as the river ghosted along, we knew what lay beyond the next couple bends. At least Kevin, our bagger and I knew. The gals remained blithely unaware of the violent torrent we were approaching. At one point they were ordered to put on life jackets. A minute or two later they were asked to not talk again until told they could. Kevin, the far more experienced oarsman, led the way. I found my seam, rested, tried to slow the heart rate. Kept the boat at a comfortable angle. The sound filled first my right ear and then every sense I possess. Then a couple positive oar strokes over the “Knuckles”. Looking for “Hogsback” over my right shoulder. But all I saw was explosions of whitewater. I searched a split second too long. By the time my attention was drawn to what lay just ahead, “Can Opener” was right there! Luckily the two oar strokes I needed dug in and the boat pulled nicely off the nastiness. Unluckily, I was now reversing when I should have been spinning the transom from right to left. I remember distinctly beseeching of Ruby to back up into the eddy behind “Can Opener” while pulling with the right oar and pushing the left. My beautiful old boat spun on a dime and backed up beautifully. It took perhaps three stokes more than normal to hold her off the boulder garden on the right side, but she did what I wanted of her and posthaste we were scampering headlong into the chaos that is the “Washing Machine”. For some reason -perhaps because the river already knew I’d pooped my waders- the waves parted perfectly and we got through taking on minimal water. And then there emitted the completely involuntary war hoop into the canyon walls.
In the small cove behind “House Rock” we pulled the boats in. I grabbed a beer from the cooler and jumped onto the bank where I sat on a rock facing the river. The only time I ever drink a beer while guiding is right there, having navigated Whitehorse, with the rest of my life laid out before me, my heart overflowing with love of life, my veins pulsing pure adrenalin. Most of the beer goes in the river as a gesture of gratitude and an invocation that the river continues to humor my presence.
The rest of the day was relatively uneventful. We did not touch another steelhead as the sun shone bright and the air warmed to a comfortable low-70’s. As pleasant as the weather was, you want it a bit nastier for the steelheading to be really good. There was little complaining as the afternoon descended on the canyon. Kim caught several more beautiful redsides. We arrived at camp for appetizers and cocktails. Dinner was New York steaks, spuds and Caesar Salad. We ate heartily under the stars with a small fire burning nearby. A more enjoyable evening is hard to imagine. And by the night’s end we all wished there was one more to look forward to.
In the morning, after fishing camp water hard early to no avail, we ate breakfast burritos with melon, coffee and juice. Then we broke camp and made our way down the last ten miles of river. The highlight of the third day was Kim hooking into another tremendous fish as a light rain fell. This was a brief encounter. The big fish ran her out to some heavy current, gave a couple big head shakes and broke off the whole rig. There wasn’t much that could be done in this case. Sometimes those fish just own the situation. We re-rigged and got into some really nice trout before moving on. Both gals ended up having a fun day as the weather lifted and closed in throughout. We had several seasons in one day! But by the take-out we all agreed that the trip had been both a successful fishing trip as well as about as much fun as could be expected, or handled!
There was one day to turn around and take four guys down the Warm Springs-Trout Creek stretch for a fairly unusual two-day camp trip. Because one of them couldn’t stick around for both days, we camped at Trout Creek instead of along the “Day Stretch”. These were guys from Toyota, both over in PDX and here in Bend. There was a mixture of experience. A couple of the guys were set on swinging with two-handed rods while the others were fairly new to fly fishing and wanted simply to get a fish on. They went with me. The swingers jumped in Martin’s boat. It was a gorgeous day, we were in no rush, and all we had to do was fish to Trout Creek and set up a camp. These are the days we guides dream about. At my first stop of the day we were into fish right away. My guys, Ben and Rob, both got with the program right away and were making great presentations and hooking fish. Maybe an hour into the day Rob, who still hadn’t landed one, hooked a gigantic steelhead. We were using stout 6wt rods with a combination of flies on tippet anywhere from 2-4X. Not being sure which fly the fish had eaten we were reluctant to try horsing it in. As it was we really didn’t have that much control anyway! When this fish made its move back towards the Columbia, that is where we went. Ben had reeled in and was wading with us. At one point we got up on the bank to give chase. From up there I got my first proper look at this steelie. It was one of those 9-10lbs fish that we just don’t see that often. Maybe it was the same one that shook me in front of Luelling’s a week earlier! We followed this fish way down river. Rob did brilliantly. There’s really nothing I would have done differently. He kept great pressure, let the fish run, worked the rod at various angles, all that stuff. At least a quarter mile downstream and ten minutes into the fight I finally thought that maybe we were actually gonna land this thing. I was thirty feet below Rob. Ben had my camera at the ready. The fish was beginning to poop out. The stars were aligning. And then… Anyone wanna guess what happened next. For those of you who thought that the fish rubbed its belly on the bottom, exploded for the middle of the river and broke off the entire rig, well aren’t you the smart ones. After all that. The fish simply had massive reserves. I can’t remember feeling so gutted at the loss of fish. Rob was stunned. Having never played a fish on a fly rod for any period of time, he just figured that we had it; nothing could go wrong, which is a great attitude to play fish with by the way. Most of us would have known how many ways that battle could end in the fish’s favor and played it with way more stress. But Rob was just playing with no preconception as to all the potential pratfalls. It was a long walk back up the bank. Rob was equally stoked and confused! I tried to explain that the line we were using did have a breaking strength and sometimes these fish can easily exceed it. I told him he’d done incredibly well all things considered. I told him in all honesty that I wasn’t sure I could have done any better. I told him repeatedly that we’d get another chance soon.
Back up at our spot I re-rigged both guys, got Ben into a good spot, positioned Rob a little lower in the run than where he’d hooked the steelhead. His first cast went unmolested. But his second one… Our collective world exploded anew. This fish was not nearly as large as the one previous, but easily twice as indignant. We hoped briefly it might stick around our run. And then it was out towards the middle of the river and tearing line. There were several spectacular mid-river jumps, impressive runs, insane sub-surface rolls and cartwheels. I will spare all the details until we ended up way down river…again. Rob handled this fish with the touch of an angler, dancing all the while. A little ways below where we’d lost the previous fish we came across a couple guys fishing. Turned out to be a couple buddies, one of whom, Matt, guides down there, one, Jacob is a client at Fly and Field and a fishy dude for sure. They were cool enough to reel up and let us play the fish through their water. As much as I’d loved to stay out of their way, we just weren’t in control! A couple minutes later the fish was tired enough to get its head up and slide it’s substantive body into the net. All this time I figured we had a steelhead. It’s that time of the year. The fish had fought with all the brute strength and tenacity of one. But once this fish was folded into my net and I got a good look at it, I realized it was a great big trout! We all four came in and hovered over the net, bumping heads to get a close look. Yep, a trout. Those of us who spend a bunch of time down there know how rare this fish is. We marveled at the size and beauty of it. A truly extraordinary fish for the Lower Deschutes. We got a handful of pictures before releasing it. This fish lay calm, exhausted in my hands for a solid minute before kicking back to life.
The big trout proved a hard act to follow. The rest of the day offered up a bunch of nice trout. No more steelhead, at least not that we can confirm! We did get broken off a couple times by large, unseen foes. But there was much fun had in both boats all the way to Trout Creek. Martin and I set up a comfy camp, got appetizers served, a nice fire going and prepped a big steak dinner for the boys. I’d like to report the night went without incident, but that would be a big, fat lie. Yes, sadly this night would end with a filleted phalange. The only good news -for everyone else- is that it was my finger that encountered one of Martin’s really sharp knifes. Not one of theirs. We did our best to clean and dress the wound but it was bleeding pretty badly and undoubtedly not very clean. Martin and I persevered and finished cooking. Dinner was served and eaten. The fire crackled flames into the night. The boys all enjoyed beers and laughter. Martin and I stayed up late reflecting on what a cool season we’ve had and all that there is to look forward to. We spoke reverently of the Lower Deschutes; it’s history and heritage. Then we slept.
In the morning my finger throbbed and was incredibly sensitive to the touch. Knot tying would be difficult at best. I stole a look at it and didn’t like what I saw. Martin and I agreed that he would take the remaining three guys for the day and I would get back to town for treatment. This proved a good idea. We made breakfast for the boys and then they hit it for the ramp and another day on the river. As soon as they drove off, I was overcome with remorse for not going too! In the end, I took my time breaking down camp, packed all the gear in the truck and made my way up the road from Trout Creek at a very unfamiliar hour.
I was in town by noon and had the finger looked at. A nice woman at the BMC Urgent Care took a look and decided that even if it had required stitches originally, it was now simply a matter of cleaning and sealing with skin tape. She did seam to take perhaps too much pleasure in proving how dirty the wound still was. Sadistic freak. I was given a small container of skin tape and sent on my way. And yes, I know you’re all on the edge of your seat now, positively wracked with curiosity as to how well my finger has healed. Quite well, thank you.
Just for the record, Martin’s guy stuck a big steelhead that day as the crew floated Warm Springs to Trout Creek again. Damon had put in the necessary hours dedicated to swinging up some steel. We are always extra happy for the angler committed to catching a fish on the swing and Damon certainly understood his odds weren’t great, but stayed focused and was properly rewarded. Getting one on the swing in the Day Stretch is always reason for celebration. Congrats, Damon. And Martin too!
Stay tuned next week for Part 2 of “The 10th Month”
As always, thank you for your time. Now go do something fun!