HOMIES ON THE DESCHUTES
Not often I get to float down the river with a crew of local fishy effers, dignitaries of our community of anglers, talented artists and my boss! Actually, it’s never happened before. But last Thursday the stars lined up and we went for it. The day we shared will be remembered by each of us for a long time. Fish were caught, laughs we shared, beers imbibed. We boys turned loose for a day to play in our favorite park.
For those of you unfamiliar with the regulation changes down there, the river officially became a year-‘round fishery as of January 1. The stretch from Pelton/Round Butte dams to the northern boundary of Warm Springs reservation used to close Jan. 1 until the general “trout opener” the last weekend of April. ODFW has seen it through their wisdom to experiment with a new regulation on the “Upper” Lower Deschutes. The methods are the same. The slot and bag limits are too. But now we can “target” whatever we like all year long. This winter has not been conducive to a lot of, shall we say, Research and Development because of the weather and road conditions. But lately that has all changed.
The day came together under the guise of a “media capture” session, meaning we would go down, shoot some fishing stuff, produce a couple product review videos, create content for fishing reports and newsletters. Things like that. Well, we got some of these things done. Others not so much. It was agreed that we’d bring some cameras, hang out, fish and see what happens. One of the new guys at the shop, Zac had to bail out last minute because he jacked up his hand. We were scrambling around for people to join when the big boss, Scott, asked if there were any open seats. My usual response of, “Maybe. Who’d you have in mind?” was greeted with, “Me.” And so to our collective disbelief, Scott committed to disappearing for a day from shop life, for the first time in a couple months. One of our guides, Martin would row his boat. A hugely talented local photographer, videographer and editor, Steve would join with Martin. And Gabe, he of the Trout Bus would be our 5th. The forecast for the day was high 50’s and relatively light winds. The Lower Deschutes flows have been moving around a bit, but held steady a little over 5000cfs.
We made our way to the river around 8:00am and readied the boats. Scott went right in at the ramp and fooled a nice redside before the boats were wet! We all stood around as he landed it, making suggestions and comments as to how a fish should be played and released; complimenting him on a job well done, as if he were a client who had never touched a fly rod.
Our first stop served up a few more fish, trout and whities, all falling for standard nymph rigs. Gabe got his first trout of the day there on a Prince of all things. At one point we had all five of us lined up looking like “Kids Fish Free” day. The morning was warming and still; heavenly weather after the long, cold winter we’ve all endured.
The two boats split up for a while as we got down river of Martin and Steve. The three of us ended up at the homestead and spread out a bit. I have an “old friend” down there that I like to go after when I have a client who can make the cast or if I’m on my own. I’m not about to disclose his location but I’ll tell you that if you find him, he’s pretty much always there. I’m not saying with certainty that it’s the same fish every time, only that a really good one holds there. On Thursday I tweaked the rig a little and then went in, confident that we’d find him. It only took a few casts before connection was made. The fish ate deep and then took a nice run towards the middle of the river and then jumped. Scott, who was in the boat working on his set-up, leapt -as much as Scott ever “leaps”- into the Deschutes and made his way down to me. This would prove to be a pretty long fight as the fish kept taking little runs and bullying in the slow water right in front of us. In the end, though, it did succumb and lay calmly in my hands for a few pictures before the release. I’d guess the fish at 16” and just incredibly healthy, beautiful and stout.
Scott went in with my rod and got one or two before the other boys rowed around the corner. We buddy-floated to the next spot and then fished it pretty hard, taking turns in the better buckets. Mysteriously, we landed only one whitefish in there. But oh, what a whitefish it was! Martin was the skilled and fortunate angler to fool, battle and eventually land the beast. A finer bit of angling you’ll never witness. A trophy if ever there was one. Proud to call that guy my co-worker.
We rowed to the next spot in tandem again. This time we split up a little to fish the entire run. Scott and I went down towards the tail, Gabe swung the middle, Martin and Steve up near the head. Down low we fooled a couple smaller but beautiful trout. Then we heard someone yell. We charged up there to find the other three huddled over something just upriver of my boat. Turns out Martin had landed himself a steelhead. It was under a bobber but we swore we wouldn’t tell anyone, and we are nothing if not men of our word. You’re secret’s safe with us, Martin. The hatchery hen would probably go 26”, a little soft, but you’d expect that this time of the year. She was dispatched to another river and then thrown in the cooler. For those of us who fish the river a lot throughout what has traditionally been our season, it’s a bit of a revelation to find steelhead still roaming around in certain places. We were pretty sure that most of -if not all- the hatchery fish would be up around the dam by now. The last few trips have yielded steelhead but they were all wild ones. So yes, folks there is still some smoker fodder down there. You can always count on to do the legwork done and get the straight story.
The next stop was a little slower but we did find a pod of really active, eager and full-bodied “Butter Bellies” that miraculously all fell for the same rig fished the same way through the same spot. The definition of insanity at both ends of the line. For those of you keeping score at home, that means we got the Lower D Grand Slam in the boat. Yep, let’s count together, trout, whitefish, steelhead and squawfish. The big four. A day to remember.
We pulled both boats into the “harbor” at the Hawaiian Islands and that’s when things got really fun. Maybe it was the combination of beer, buddies, bent rods and February sunshine. Or maybe we’re just dicks, but the snarky commentary ramped up a few notches there as we took turns with one rod -my Winston LT 9’ 6wt, Winnie– working a really productive bucket right next to the boats. I think Gabe went first, and then me, then Martin, who on one miraculous, immaculate drift set into something properly heavy. At first it stayed deep, offering only weight and the occasional headshake. I made the extroadinary effort to stand up in the front of my boat to watch the ensuing battle. Martin was really putting it to this one, assuming the dominant position in the dance, not giving any line. For perhaps fifteen long seconds, this stalemate went on. Then Martin through shear, brute strength gained the upper hand, testing fully his knots, and made line against the stern, arrogant pressure below. Just when we expected to see a great, shiny beast come into view, instead what we found affixed to the bottom nymph was the rarest of catches on the blue ribbon waterway; a porous, caddis case-encrusted rock. And what a beaut it was. A pound and a half if an ounce, sparkling in the early afternoon sunlight, an emerald. Needless to say some time was spent beholding the trophy. So reverant of the moment were we that the obligatory “grip and grin” photo was forgotten before releasing the native back to its rhealm. Then it was Steve’s turn. He admitted going in that Martin’s was a tough act to follow and that he was feeling great pressure. I’m not sure Steve has ever tried to fool a fish with so many people babbling behind him. This was his first day of trout fishing under an indicator in six months! His passion for swinging flies for steelhead takes over pretty good, which we can all appreciate, but on this day it was all bobber, all day, so get with the program, Buttercup. Through the non-stop heckling at every missed set on fish or bottom, Steve persevered. And finally, after ten minutes of just brutal commentary, his bobber dove for the bottom, he reared back and set the hook, and perspectives changed.
We all, save Scott, who couldn’t be bothered to extract himself from the cushy seat in the front of Martin’s boat, ended up in the river, ready with a net or camera. Steve brawled the fish beautifully, astonished by this redside’s strength and tenacity. It did eventually tire and fold into the net. We all came in close to admire the simple perfection of a Lower D trout. An ordinary miracle. Steve’s first in a while. A really cool moment to share with buddies.
Scott and Martin both went in and caught a fish or two then we moved down to our last stop, where again we took turns with one rod as the others offered polite, encouraging words. As if. The heckling went next-level yet again down there as the water upriver sparkled afternoon light. I got my fish out of the way pretty quickly. A whitey as I recall. I was far more interested in sitting in the front seat of my boat -a true rarity-, cracking a brew and donning my best British commentary booth voice. I’ll be completely honest here and admit to forgetting many details right up until Scott hooked something large. Whatever it was, there were no panicked leaps or sudden, unstoppable runs. Scott simply buried the rod tip and reeled. When at last the bobber was close, he lifted the rod tip and the scenario changed.
The river exploded with a steelhead that was apparently displeased, just then, with its lot in life. We all stopped whatever we might have been doing, which for me was particularly difficult, and got in the river, close to Scott and his steelhead. This one, we’d soon find out was wild, not dissimilar in size to those recently encountered down there. It fought hard in the deep, swirling eddy as we snapped photos and Gabe readied the net. But this is where things got a little strange. Scott, for some reason and unbeknownst to any of, has an aversion to nets, at least when it comes to steelhead. Now, it must be known that I report this next episode putting my cherished employment at risk, but if I’m ever to be trusted as a thorough and reliable source of information, all the facts must be brought forth.
Or maybe I just feel like throwing somebody under a bus, for what buddy-fishing story would be complete without such a thing. Anyhoo, the first time the fish tired Gabe moved in with the net only to be waved off by my intrepid boss. The rest of us searched the heavens for some reasonable explanation. None was offered. I’ll elaborate on the situation just briefly here. Scott was fishing a relatively soft 9’ 6wt rod. The fish had eaten the second fly, which I knew was a size 14 nymph, perhaps 10-11’ under a bobber, and we were using 4x tippet. Oh, and there was net RIGHT THERE! Because of the rig’s depth there would be no leading of the fish to a waiting hand. No, the rod would have to be tucked under an arm, the leader grabbed with a free hand, and only then would he be able to MAYBE get the fish into his grasp. Have I mentioned that we had a net handy? And that we were down there trying to get pictures with which we might sell some guide trips and that I might use in the presentations Scott signed me up for giving at this week’s Portland Sportsmen’s Show, and that we had a net WAITING? Further, have I brought up that this fish he was playing was a wild, gorgeous steelhead?
Yea, it was. And if I’ve ever seen a fish ready for a net, it was that one. Perhaps I’ve driven this one home a little too much. Anyone wanna guess at what happened next? Anyone? Yea, you down in front, with the pocket protector in his fishing vest, go ahead. What’s that you say, Scott broke the fish off trying to land it like one of Jerry’s kids? That’s correct! But tell us, why, pray tell, would you surmise such a thing? Because he was using 4x? Yes, you’re correct and aren’t you the gifted one. Who’d of known such a thing could happen? If we’d only had a net.
I know, I know. I’m already looking for another job.
Soooooo, I think that’s about all to report from our day fishing the Lower Deschutes with the boys. I will tell you all that I had about as much fun fishing the Lower Deschutes as I can remember that day. Some of you may recall a story from a couple weeks ago when I was fishing with my son, Jasper down there. That day was far more special, held dear and one I’ll be grateful for until my last. This past Thursday was just plain old, shits and giggles fun; something to be grateful for also. The day reminded me what a lucky lad I am to be here, now and surrounded by so many amazing people, able to drift such an epic river, prompted to still act as a gleeful child. And can you imagine, it was all done in the sacred name of Research and Development? Well, we’ve done our homework. Thorough as ever. Now come out and fish with us!