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Steelhead fishing promises to be good this year along this river that traverses both Oregon and Washington

by: SCOTT STAATS SPECIAL TO THE CENTRAL OREGONIAN -


The Grande Ronde River in northeastern Oregon and southeastern Washington offers a consistent fishery for steelhead, and some fantastic scenery. Born in the Wallowa and Elkhorn mountains, the river curves its way 185 miles through steep volcanic canyons and eventually empties into the Snake River.
   From now until the end of March, anglers target the lower sections of river where steelhead are holing up for the winter. Whether you go with a guide or on your own, or prefer fly fishing or spin fishing, there’s plenty of room and plenty of action on the river.
   According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s last fishing report, steelhead fishing is fair to good with anglers averaging four hours per fish in the most recent creel surveys. As long as the river and weather conditions remain favorable, they expect steelhead fishing to remain good as well.
   Fly fishing Oregon
   The Grande Ronde has two runs of steelhead and one of them is wintering up in the Troy area right now. That’s where Winding Waters River Expeditions is targeting the fish from now until spring when the run makes its way up the Wallowa River to the hatcheries.
   “We offer day trips through March from the Wildcat Creek Bridge to the Oregon state line,” said Paul Arentsen, owner of Winding Waters River Expeditions in Joseph.
   Arentsen said the steelhead are famous for their willingness to come to the surface and take a skating dry fly. When the water temperature is in the 50s or mid- to upper 40s, he said you can swing a dry fly and get the fish to rise and take the fly off the surface – skating a dry fly.
    When the water temperatures get colder, Arentsen said it’s time to start working a little deeper and swinging a wet fly that will be in the top one foot of the water. At this point, he’s still using floating line but when the water gets below 40 degrees he switches to sink tip line and goes deeper. Then it’s strictly nymphing with something like a heavy Prince Nymph. For rods, he prefers a 6-weight, 9-foot single-handed rod but anglers also have a choice of a 6-weight, 12-foot spey rod. Muddler Minnows and Bombers are the most popular flies he uses.
   “About 90 percent of the fishing we do is walk wading,” said Arentsen. “That seems to be the most successful way to catch steelhead. If we’re floating in the boat we will use a nymph and try to nymph through a good section of water.”
   He said fish average anywhere from 24 to 36 inches and a 10-pound fish would be a good one.
   When the temperature warms, Winding Waters offers overnight trips from Minam to the the Wildcat Creek Bridge – four or five days. Most of this 38-mile section is classified as wild and scenic. Anglers can choose a fully-guided trip or a supported trip where anglers guide themselves and fish on their own, with camp and all the logistics provided.
   Paul and his wife Penny started Winding Waters River Expeditions in 2004. His lead guide has been fishing the river for more than 30 years and loves fishing for steelhead on the Grande Ronde.
   Spin Fishing Washington
   “We catch steelhead in the Grande Ronde starting in October clear through to the spring,” said Adam Hocking, owner of Steel Dreams Guide Service based out of Clarkston, Wash.
   Hocking concentrates on the section of river between the Oregon-Washington state line and Highway 129. All fishing is from drift boats.
   “We usually toss bait at them,” said Hocking, “but we’ll also pull plugs and bobber fish as well.”
   When side drifting with eggs, he’ll use a small piece of pencil lead or a slinky weight. He prefers a 9 ½-foot light-action spinning rod spooled up with 8- to 10-pound test.
   Some of the runs are really short, he said, and you can anchor up on the side of the run and just cast out and bounce eggs. Other runs are longer and you can fish them more thoroughly just by drifting through and rowing back up and drifting them again as many times as you like.
   Hocking said the average steelhead is 24 to 26 inches (4 to 6 pounds). He’s caught them as big as 32 inches (8 to 12 pounds).
   “2011 was a good run and 2012 is expected to be a good run as well,” he said. “The steelhead fishing around here is going to be good every year it seems like. It’s not like the salmon runs when you don’t know what you’re going to get.”
   He’s had the business for three years and has been guiding for more than six years with other outfitters. He’s fished the Grande Ronde for more than 15 years.
   Need more information?
   For more information call Steel Dreams Guide Service at 509-869-9694 or go to www.steeldreamsfishing.com.

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