Deschutes River, Oregon
By Chris Santella
Oregon may not rank as high as neighboring Idaho and Montana for bucket-list dry-fly fishing, but there are exceptions—March browns on the McKenzie; green drakes on the Metolius; Hexagenia on the Williamson . . . and, most notably, salmonflies on the lower Deschutes River.
In fact, my first great day on the “D” came with the salmonflies. But for some years, I grew disenchanted with the hatch. It can be erratic—the fish are on them one day, and completely indifferent the next. If you’ve driven the 100-mile, each way, day-trip from Portland, anticipating big things and only roll a few dinks, it’s hard to not be a bit bitter. Especially after months of dour winter steelheading, when you don’t really expect to catch a fish; with trout I kind of do! The salmonfly emergence seems to bring out every man and woman in the Beaver State who’s ever uttered the word “trout” . . . and quite a few from Washington and California too. Staked out in a favorite spot not far below the Warm Springs put-in, I once counted 40 driftboats in a two-hour period. (I stopped counting after that.) All these boats for a roughly eight-mile drift—a third of which is only open for angling on one side of the river, and where all fishing (with the exception of disabled anglers) is wade-only.
As I’ve grown older—and perhaps more patient—I’ve adjusted my expectations, learned to wait out the fish and appreciate the salmonfly hatch as a chance to encounter the biggest redsides (a strain of rainbow endemic to the Columbia River Basin) the Deschutes has to offer. I used to think these fish topped out at 20 inches, but I have learned that they can grow larger than that. My aging eyes also appreciate that I can actually tie the fly on without magnifiers, and follow its drift.
The Deschutes drains much of the northern half of central Oregon, beginning southwest of the city of Bend, and flowing north to its terminus with the Columbia. While salmonflies occur in the Middle Deschutes (above Lake Billy Chinook and the Pelton Butte Dam), most angling efforts focus on the 100 miles below the dam—that is, the Lower Deschutes. Stoneflies are present throughout, and the emergence can begin down low in early May.
“The lower Deschutes is primarily thought of as a steelhead fishery, but there’s some great trout fishing,” said Sam Sickles of Steelhead Outfitters in Hood River. “There’s not much pressure in the lower 20 miles for trout, and that makes the fish happy and willing to eat dries.”
As upstream waters warm toward the mid-50s, the hatch migrates south, generally reaching the Maupin area by mid-May, and the Warm Springs region by Memorial Day. Once the salmonflies start dropping, fish will be on them—some days better than others—for several weeks. (Around Warm Springs, the fish seem to be looking up for at least a week or two after the last naturals have vanished.) I used to think that mid-mornings, when the first breezes kicked up, were best; but I’ve had some fine early afternoons and evenings as well. On good days, fish seem to eat for a while, rest, then eat again.
While I have seen Deschutes rainbows hammer salmonflies (and their imitations) in riffles, on seamlines and on featureless flats, many fish take up lies under or just downstream of alders and other streamside trees/bushes, sometimes in absurdly shallow water. Here, they’ll wait for bugs that have successfully shambled to shore and broken free from their shucks to be blown into the water. The Deschutes is a powerful river, and waste-deep wades (allowing you to cast back into shore) can be precarious. I prefer to get downstream from a fishy spot and sidearm a cast up and in. While I’m not opposed to prospecting, I’ve done better watching and waiting for a fish that’s working (there’s where the slightly extra patience helps). The trout I’ve targeted—especially the larger specimens—seem very particular about the bugs they eat . . . and I mean the naturals. I’ve watched them come up and refuse several naturals, only to take my bug. Go figure. A fly that’s been slapped or even jerked into position (to negotiate those branches) doesn’t seem to put them off, as long as there’s a drag-free drift when it reaches the fish.
What bug to use? Realistic foam imitations work well early in the hatch. If you begin seeing refusals, go to sparser pre-foam flies, like Stimulators or Sofa Pillows. As the hatch winds down, it’s hard to beat a size-8 or 10 Chubby Chernobyl with a purple body. Look in any Deschutes regular’s fly box in May and early June, and that’s what you’ll find.
Chris Santella is the author of 22 books, including the “Fifty Places” series from Abrams. A frequent contributor to the New York Times and Washington Post, he also plays guitar in a roots rock band, Catch & Release.