When last seen, the Fly and Field crew was hosting a crew of four clients on a four-day camp trip from Warm Springs to Maupin. We pick up the story having just passed through Whitehorse Rapid. Griff had just enjoyed a beer…
Our boat only stopped a couple times to Whitehorse and camp. We did pull both boats over briefly to watch as Andrew waded Tony into a difficult spot where they ended up hooking some nice fish. We had a productive stop right above camp where the brothers had a cool double as the afternoon winds squirreled up and down the canyon. The entire day flashed on me as we stood out on the long bar above Davidson. From our killer breakfast burritos to Brett’s steelhead, all the beautiful trout, the yummy brat-fest lunch at Wingdam and our fun pass through the rapid. We had rowed through long stretches of the burn along the Reservation side and been amazed seeing the spots where the fire had jumped the river. And I’d been reminded why that stretch of river is my favorite, over and over.
“Rush or Queen,” Tony chimed in over appetizers of bacon-wrapped, cheese-stuffed peppers. The debates raged unabated through the perfectly seasoned pork loin with rosemary fingerling potatoes and tarragon, cream carrots. “Greatest athlete of all time? One, two, GO!” Several of us either stated or agreed the Kaitlin Jenner was it. The canyon winds calmed. An hour was spent on the small bluff above the river, stargazing. Constellations were pointed out, disputed. Smoke wafted into night sky. There were moments of reverie, silence, deep breaths. Back at the table, most agreed that this night would be an early one. Midway through the trip, knowing that we had much river to cover, another night still to celebrate.
After everyone had tucked in, I dragged my chair out the bluff, sipped a bit of whisky and listened as distant snoring mingled with the river’s whisper. Out there, as exhaustion and invigoration collided, I felt the spirits of all those who have passed through these canyon walls before me. There were great, proud tribes, alternately living in peace and war, living off nature’s bounty, in harmony with seasons, moon cycles, all the other inhabitants of the riparian habitat. So easy to imagine the tribal camps on that very spot. The teepees, fires, salmon and steelhead hanging from alders-branch racks. Not even a little stretch to hear the subdued conversations between elders and warriors, strategizing simply how to survive another day, how to predict storms, floods, fires, enemy tribes, pissed off bears. What was necessary to protect the women and children from the next threat? Which of them would sneak to the canyon rim in the predawn to survey the canyon from above, spot encroaching danger? How must they ration supplies? Where would they go if and when they needed to move? It’s the day-to-day aspect of what their lives were like that consumes me in quiet moments such as that. All these spirits and energies presented to me even as I got into my sleeping bag and peered through the small gap between hoody and fabric. Into the endless cosmos I gazed. How insignificant are we? Out amongst the vast wilderness, underneath endless space, what, if any of this really matters? All that really means anything is this instant, this breath, this time to let heavy eyelids slide closed.
Our third day dawned cool and clear. The winds of the previous day had calmed. The camp was quiet with little chatter and next to no river song. The big, swirling pool had some trout rising to an unseen meal. A few of us stood on the bluff sipping coffee watching fish sipping bugs. We all sat for breakfast that morning for hash browns, bacon and eggs. “Eddie Van Halen. Greatest living guitarist of greatest ever guitarist? One, two, go!” There were alternating affirmations and scoffs. And that’s all required for a spirited debate.
Once camp was broken and stowed in Austin’s boat, we were off. I’d have Dan and Dale day three. Our first stop was the islands above North Junction, water that has always produced. I mean always. Not on this day. We went through half a fly box. Fished high and low, shallow and deep, slow and fast, under bobber and swung. I think we may have gotten one whitefish in the net. And maybe had a few other fish on. For a second. It was confounding. I can get a little “grudgey” about spots like that when they don’t offer up what I know they’re capable of. We may have stayed a few minutes longer that we ought to have. Yea, I’ll admit to taking it a little too personal at times. My guys were into it. They kept trying new rigs or altered ones. We no doubt got after it at that spot. As we boated up, I assured them, as I always do after a slow stop, that the fish had to eat eventually. We’d get ‘em.
We found the others below North “J”; Brett hooked up as we drifted by. “Party fish at Wire Hole” I announced. Thumbs up from the boys. One of the great parts of staggering our group with the other outfitter down there was feeling fairly assured that the spots we wanted would be there for us. So far we hadn’t had one significant disappointment and Wire Hole proved no different. I pulled the boat up under the heavy riverside trees and got the guys in. I put Dan in the upper bucket as he still hadn’t landed anything on the day and had the trickier spots at our last stop. Dale waded the boulder bottom out to a zone with solid potential. I honestly cat tell you exact fly combos, but I’d hazard a guess that the top bug was a Jimmy Leg, middle something along the lines of a little Rubber Leg Hare’s ear and the dropper being a Prince. Yea, folks, old school. That Prince has been accounting for a lot of fish lately. It wasn’t long before Dale was belt deep in the mighty river, rod high over head and throbbing into a nice fish.
He played this one beautifully and before long a 14” Redband folded heavily into my net. We were, as we almost always are, astonished by the beauty and tenacity of these fish. No matter how many native trout I get clients into or fool myself, the Deschutes Redband continues to amaze.
Not long after that first fish, Andrew and the other guys came around the bend and began fishing below my boys. Brett was getting after it with the Spey rod and took the lower end of the run. Tony took the zone just below Dale and all of sudden it was Kids Fish Free Day at Wire Hole. The fishing wasn’t red hot for that session, but we had plenty of action. Tony tangled with another beautiful trout. This one, like most so far on the trip, gave enough of a fight in the first minute that we were waiting for something much larger to jump out in the middle of the run. But in the end, another great native posed for a picture with Andrew and Tony. I went up to work with Dan for a bit and we were quickly into a gorgeous trout that brawled as valiantly as the other had. That fish was a reminder of how complex the fishery can be down there. We made a pretty minor adjustment with fly selection and rigging, and right away he got eaten. This should come as a lesson to anyone who fishes down there with any regularity; constantly reevaluate your presentation.
A few minutes later, something large ate Dale, who had just kept fishing, moving from one zone to another. How large? Well, from the speed it swam away on the first run, really large. Dale did everything right in those first few frantic moments. I’ll go on the record as being sixty-five to seventy percent sure on this one after the run. Dale held on beautifully for another couple minutes as I went to the boat for the big net. The fish was a fly line away and dogging hard out on the edge of the heavy current. Then, with good tension on the line and the feeling that the fight was just getting started, the line went suddenly slack. I told him to reel hard, just in the case the fish was charging, but it wasn’t. It was gone. Didn’t see that one coming. Really thought we’d hold on a little longer. But the fish, whatever it was, had a different agenda. Simple and painful as that.
A few minutes after that, Dan hooked up again. Now the fish were eating. This one immediately took off on a reel burner that prompted Dale to back up and out of the way as the fish ripped down into the slower water of the run. Again I was over near the boat about the grab the big net. Then the tides turned and Dan quickly got the line back. A minute or so later we got our first look at the fish, which while a proud a strong Redband, was not nearly as big as we’d imagined in the wake of its first run. This fish might be the most badass Deschutes fish I’ve ever met. And I told it so as we got the hook free and cradled it before release. After this fish bolted back into the run, Dan and I stood dumbfounded at how powerful it had been, how stunned we were that a 14” fish had ripped that much line at that speed.
Not long after that fish, we climbed about Opal and begana nice long row. Sandwiches were eaten. Beers were enjoyed in the front of the boat. The glorious, sun-drenched day blessed our float. We stopped briefly at Grandma’s Run where Dan hooked another really nice trout. This one tore for the middle of the river and sailed clear of the current while tossing the fly from its jaw. The entire episode lasted perhaps three seconds. That is what we call a good, old-fashioned ass kicking. Not much you can do about that. You tip your cap and try to fool another.
A mile or so down river we spotted the first bighorn sheep. There were two distict herds with both ewes and rams, one way up under the top caldera, the others much lower down. For those of you infamiliar with these animals, they actually migrated across the Bering land bridge from Siberia you know, a long time ago. There numbers dwindled through hunting and desease to the relatively small populations we now have. They are reclusive, incredible skittish and about as impressive an animal you’ll ever see in the wild. There are trips down there when we don’t see any. In the spring, there are a couple spots where we’ve seen thirty or forty spread out along one ridge. We’ve also seen four massive rams grazing above a camp down there last July. This was a particularly cool sighting in that there were a bunch of them all moving slowly down canyon, grazing, checking us out as we checked them out. I got out my good binochulars and we took turns watching them do their thing. Not sure why I love seeing them down there so much. But every time I do it touches a part of me not normally affected by wildlife. The herd would move down river with us for a while and then at our last stop before camp, we saw a couple big rams up in a spring. We eventually saw more sheep that wild horses. That’s never happened for me down there.
Stay tuned for Part Three next week!!