By Griff Marshall
A couple weeks ago I hosted two clients from Warm Springs to Trout Creek on the Lower Deschutes River for a day of fly fishing. Now, before I continue it should be noted that almost any day of the week since late-April I could have begun a story with that exact same opening line. The story is old, I know. But bear with me on this one, because it ends a little differently than most. My clients: Ed a homebuilder here in Bend and Dan, a guy Ed had built a home for. Dan was a quarterback for OSU back in the “Giant Killer” era. Pretty rad. We met before daybreak in front of Fly and Field Outfitters and carpooled up to the river. So instead of cranking NPR and chain smoking, I had company for the drive. They turned out to be interesting, cool and engaged. They both had some experience but were eager to learn the subtle tactics used on the Lower D. We would be on the water by 7:30 and the day was dawning clear, promising lovely weather.
Before going much further, it should be noted that I spent a lot of time on that stretch of river the previous few weeks. September had proven to be one of my busiest months of the season. And while there have been steelhead in the system, the trout fishing has been so insanely good that most of the time we put on my tried and true nymph rigs and that was that. For those of you who have suffered through my recent stories, you know that steelhead have been known to eat said nymph rigs. So without belaboring the point, I haven’t seen much need to specifically target steelhead. But anyway, yea I’ve been down there a bunch and felt pretty confident in my flies as well as how and where to use them. The only downside to this mindset is that I’ve been using very light tippet to create these effective rigs. As told in earlier stories, these rigs fool fish, but can be problematic when it comes to landing the above-average trout. So on the drive up to the river several times I tried to impress upon the guys how important it will be to really play the fish; to not horse a trout to the net, dance with it. I expressed that there’s no magic bullet, not surefire tactic. I told them that if every fish danced the same way, my job would be easier; they’d land more and larger fish; I’d write a book explaining how to land large trout on light tippet called “How To Land Large Trout on Light Tippet” which would become an overnight sensation, propelling me into the highest echelon of notoriety, I’d be welcomed into the literary and social circles inhabited by Lani, Geirach, Lyons, Travers and Duncan; I’d be made fabulously wealthy, surrounded by feinting and fawning nubile lovelies all waving fly rods seductively, each more desperate than the others to earn my undivided attention; I’d live in a massive house in Tetherow vaguely shaped like a trout, ensconced in a triploid-filled moat; I’d drive a customized Mercedes Sprinter van decked out with a see-through waterbed filled with Crooked River trout; my friends and family would speak gushingly at every opportunity about me and my mastery of all things Redside, constantly expressing wonder at what a remarkable fortune fly fishing had bestowed upon me. Yes, I told my already exhausted clients, if the fish all behaved similarly, things would be far different. But alas, the trout wish to play no part in my delusional fantasy world; they’d rather screw up every damned day for the last month and a half with their unsocial, camera shy idiosyncrasies. For, as many of you know from my previous, long-winded, insomnia-curing stories of late, the Lower Deschutes trout have proven a noble adversary when it comes to getting them in the net. At some point in my forty-five minute soliloquy, I did feel Ed and Dan’s collective attention drawn out my truck cabin and into the pastel sky, no doubt wishing they’d driven themselves.
At our first stop of the day we were broken of six times. Occasionally we’d only lose one fly. Sometimes all three, and the split shot. I told them repeatedly it wasn’t their fault, and some of the time it really wasn’t. I reminded them that they were making the drift and fooling fish and isn’t that cool enough? Yea, no. They wanted fish in the net. So did I. Ed had a bit more of a knack for playing them. We eventually landed a few really pretty trout, including a beautiful baby Bull. After an hour or so, while upriver re-rigging Dan who’d been broken off again, Ed yelled that he had a fish on. I made my way down there wordlessly. He was getting with the program now, using the rod, feeling what the fish was doing and about to do instinctively. As a guide one of the most rewarding moments is when I get to watch somebody learn the dance. They lead as much as follow. Reactions look planned. Nothing surprises. Ed and this fish were dancing. It was only thirty feet out, dogging hard in maybe six feet of water. The nine-foot, 5wt Echo Carbon was bending beautifully cork to tip. When I got alongside Ed, I noticed the line begin moving upstream. This is something only the cockiest fish do. Lesser beings spastically thrash, desperate to relieve the pain and pressure. The big, old, nasty ones, well they’re just pissed. You can almost hear them down there saying, “Aw crap, this again. Damn it! I’m such an idiot! But seriously, who fishes stuff that small this time of the year?” Well, that’d be my clients and me. We do. So suck it, big fish!
As I was saying, this one was down there mumbling to itself, swimming up river, just girding for the decisive bolt to deeper water, during which the line would break or the hook would dislodge. That’s what he’s done a hundred times. This season. I casually warned Ed that the fish would make a move before too long. It’s a scenario I’ve witnessed enough times to know. Sure enough, in the proverbial blink of an eye, the fish turned for the middle of the river and took off with stunning alacrity. Ed reacted perfectly, dipping the rod just enough to let the reel start giving line. The Echo ION 4/5 reel whirred and buzzed for five solid seconds. Then the fish headed for the Columbia. Another fifty or sixty feet of line and backing disappeared. “We’re taking a walk,” I announced, grabbing the back of his waders, letting him know this was not up for discussion. Around a small bend and then down along the grassy bank, in two to three feet of water, we trekked in pursuit. Perhaps a hundred feet into the walk, with Ed handling the fish beautifully just to my left, I positively clouted a submerged obstacle and was posthaste swimming along side him. There is large piece of garbage that’s been in the river as long as I’ve been around. I’ve waded around it dozens of times. But on this day, with everything else in play, I simply forgot it was there. It’s been a long time since I had the sensation of swimming in my waders. In this spot there’s just nothing to push up on. The water is too deep. There are no rocks around. The current is strong enough to make it hard to get your feet back under you. It’s just a really crappy place to fall in. Compounded by how quickly we were moving when I hit it, I bet I was face down for three or four seconds. Long enough, I’m quite sure, for cartoon bubbles to hatch from the surface, popping into “HELP!” and “IT’S REALY COLD DOWN HERE”. If Dave were there he’d have asked if I saw any fish while swimming. If any of you happened to be strolling up that bank just then, you’d have no doubt gotten a great guffaw out of it. As it was, only Ed was there to witness, and as it turned out his attention was so focused out in the middle of the river, he actually missed most of the action bankside. Once right side up, having made a quick evaluation of all that had fallen out of my pack, and busily wringing out the sleeves of my Simms Fall Run jacket, assessing how much water had snuck between my substantial belly and the wading belt, I checked on Ed. He was doing great!
From that moment I realized that he needed little coaching from me. We buddy waded through a couple sketchy spots and had to carefully navigate some overhanging branches. But for the most part he was doing everything as it should be done. Every time the fish got too close to shore it would bolt back out, tearing line from the reel. We were in an area where the fish had the better hand; we were doing everything right and yet this fish would not be landed until the topography dictated. We had covered at least a quarter-mile when we came to another overhanging tree. When we were fifty or so feet above it, a voice boomed, “Hey!! Where do you guys thing you’re going?” If I hadn’t been completely sober I might have thought the tree was getting all Wizard Of Oz on us.
To some unseen entity I replied, “Oh, hey, sorry ‘bout that. We have something big on here. Not entirely in control just yet…”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” the tree said. “Let me have a look,” Then the tree barked.
The fish was now finning, almost calmly right in front of the tree. I told Ed to stay right where he was while I readied the trusty Fishpond Nomad series net. Our best hope right then was the fish did not make another run. I figured it had to be pooped. Hard to say how much time had passed, but we’d been at it for a while. The tree guy was now standing just above us on the bank with his tree dog still barking that weak, crap-they’re-not-scared-of-me bark. The fish, now and for the first time fully in view, surrendered, folding into the net. Ed rushed down to see. I was quietly, reverently praising this one. “Sorry, man. Sorry for the hassle. But you’ll be alright.” It was not, as I’d been imagining, a steelhead. It was far rarer, far more elusive, and far more badass. In the net was a five-pound butter belly squawfish!!!
It was a Redband rainbow trout. And without a tape we’ll never know exactly how big, but I’ll go on record claiming it right around 20”. Now for those of you who spend your time ruthlessly hammering Wickiup River, or lolling around Crane Prairie in fancy lake boats this may not impress. But for those who spend 80-100 days a year busting sac on the “Day Stretch” of the Lower Deschutes this is something to relish, to honor and give thanks for. And that is what we did. There was the obligatory photo. I spent a minute simply admiring every aspect of the fish. Then I just cradled it for what seemed like a long time. Interestingly, even when it was strong enough to go, it stayed, almost as if appreciating my caress, my admiration. Eventually it gave a big kick and swam free into a new area of the river.
Ed and I crawled onto the bank and made our way towards where the odyssey had begun. I kept wringing out my jacket. I tried calling the shuttle driver in hope that he hadn’t left to get my rig and I could hike back for dry clothes. The day wasn’t frigid, but it wasn’t warm either. Not even a little. There was no answer. I’d spend the rest of the day with wet socks. No big deal. And anyway, there’s no way I was going to rain on Ed’s parade. The dude was stoked! We talked excitedly about the battle, the amazing trek down river, the brutish power of the fish. It was the biggest fish he’d ever caught on a fly rod. It was one of the biggest trout I’ve personally held on the Deschutes. It was a career moment for both of us. We popped over to the riverbank near the obstacle and found a couple things that had fallen out. There was still the matter of all the water in the pack’s pockets and some wet fly boxes. I know, I know, I should zip everything up all the time. It’s just that I, you know, NEVER fall in.
We eventually got back up to Dan, got his rig sorted and he farmed or broke of a few more fish. Then we moved on.
Not much more to report from the day until our last stop. Dan had yet to land a good trout so I put him in one of my honey holes and we began working it. He hooked up several times but either came undone or was broken off. There was one seam just below and a touch inside of where he was drifting that looked really fishy. So we set about working on the cast, the mend, the feeding of line, the next mend, so on and so forth. There was one little bit of the drift we just weren’t getting so I offered to show him, just once, so he could get a visual. Can you guess what’s about to happen? I know, it’s painful for me too. Right when the bobber is getting to the spot, I make the last little mend, all the while explaining that right there is where I expect the fish to…BOBBER DOWN!
I set the hook and the area around the flies erupts in that explosion of movement, color, frantic, chaotic splashing. Immediately I know this is not a trout. Nope, this is a steelhead. I got the impression that the hook set was solid, 9’ 6wt Winston LT bent perfectly with added pressure just to be sure the hook dug in fully. Beneath the bobber were a couple (maybe more!) split shot, a #16 something-or-other (not trying to be vague, it just really doesn’t matter) on 5X, a #18 BWO Trina’s Bubbleback Emerger (that specific enough for ya?) on 6X and a #20 Olive Soft Hackle also on 6X. So no matter how you slice it, this was a fish that most likely wouldn’t be landed. I asked Dave if he’d like to play it for, you know, four or five seconds. He reached for the rod. I reluctantly handed it his way. Then he clutched the cork with both hands, gripping the line between palms and cork. Instinctively, and maybe because I’m a big fat jerk, I grabbed it back just as quickly as it had been offered. Just then the fish made for the other side of the river. With rod bowed and Battenkill reel shrieking I turned to Dan and explained that the line really just needs to be able to go out, you know, quickly. Over by the far bank the fish rolled a couple times. I again offered the rod to Dan. He refused, saying he’d rather watch me play the fish; that he’d learn something. Cool. I get to play a steelhead on my old soft 6wt. Yea this will be totally educational. All kinds of learning. And stuff. The fish made a crazy move back to our side of the river, angling slightly down, throbbing, heaving, angry. This was the most uncommon gambol; not your wedding reception first dance. This was frenetic, mosh pit, crowd surfing lunacy. Not a familiar tryst, I don’t care who you are.
Ed had begun wading in our direction, wondering aloud at what all the commotion was about. I announced that we’d be taking a little walk and would he mind terribly grabbing the steelhead net from the boat. I know, I should have offered him the rod, huh? I’m such a jerk. Instead I start bossing my client around!
As soon as the fish felt the shallow water on our side of the river it was on another reel-melting run to the far bank. “Come on, boys. We’re heading downriver,” Off we went, one client watching me with his rod, the other dutifully hauling the heavy steelhead net, me with a steelhead thrashing eighty feet away; dancing.
Really bad guide.
At some point I quieted my guilty conscience enough to focus on actually landing the fish. Not sure when exactly I felt the tide turn, but for sure there was a moment when it occurred to me that I might actually be leading the dance. We were in a great spot where the bottom sloped quickly from the bank to deep water. The fish was no longer spastic. We wore it out there for another minute or two. Then I asked Ed to get downstream with the net and be ready. We’d only get one good chance at this one. Once he was positioned I raised the rod tip up high and got the fish’s head up just long enough to slide the entire thing into the net. There were the quick congratulations. I put the rod on the bank behind us. Then we realized it was a hatchery fish. I explained to the boys that we’d have to dispatch it to other rivers. We found a little spot on the bank with some properly-sized stones; I picked one and then held the fish still. I stroked its firm shoulders, admired every inch of its solid, powerful body. Hatchery fish, it should be noted, have endured the same voyage, the same hardships as their wild relatives. And as much as we all know what must become of them, I still feel every anadromous fish deserves some dignity in their passing. And so some was given this fish. Then I saved it from any further torment on this earth.
We made our way back to the boat and readied the fish for the cooler. Ed was stoked to have a fish to take home to his son. They would clean it and put it in their new smoker. Before placing the fish in a bag, I asked if Ed wouldn’t mind taking a picture of me with it. And like a good client that is exactly what he did.
The rest of the afternoon passed without event. We made our way back to Bend as the sun rested atop the lower row of craggy teeth we call the Three Sisters, Broken Top and Bachelor. The boys had stories for their families. They both were psyched on their day on the Lower Deschutes. I sat mostly in quiet shame.
Before leaving for California the next morning, I posted a picture on Facebook. It was of me, smirking, and a two-foot long hatchery steelhead not smirking. The afternoon sun looks as luxurious as it felt. The caption was something like “This happened today on a demonstration cast. #20 Olive Soft Hackle on 6X”. By the time I got to Cali there was a hilarious series of comments. Some were complimentary. “Awesome, Griff” “Wow” “Gorgeous” etc. Some were slightly snarkier. “Sometimes you really piss me off!” “Demo cast my ass! Must be a hatchery fish” “A swung fly is still a swung fly” “Not if it’s under bobber with three split shot” “Real men swing flies under a bobber” etc. But there, amongst all the clatter, was my son, my favorite human and far and away my finest contribution, the increasingly fishy Jasper Marshall with a simple, poetic and concise comment. It read simply, “Bad Guide”
As always, thank you for your time. Now go do something fun!