A day on the Deschutes
It is said that when it comes to salmon and steelhead fishing that 10% of the fishermen catch 90% of the fish.
I don't know if that is totally accurate or not, but I know that I am in the 90% that don't catch very many fish.
There's this old joke where two guys decide to go fishing, but don't have fishing licenses. The first one says we should really go get licenses, but the second one says don't worry, we won't get caught — we are going to go fishing in the middle of the week, and they will never check.
So, the two guys head out to the river on a Wednesday and start fishing. They haven't been fishing for very long, when the fish and game warden drives up and stops. He gets out of his car and asks the two guys if they have fishing licenses. They both say no, and the game warden says that they are going to have to stop fishing and he is going to cite them. So, the two guys reel in their lines, and on the end of both lines are big magnets and nothing else. So, the game warden shrugs his shoulders, tells the two guys that he isn't going to cite them after all and heads back to his car. As the warden drives away, the first guy turns to the second guy and says, boy, it's sure a good thing that that game warden doesn't know anything about fishing for steelhead.
Well, to tell you the truth, I don't know much about fishing for steelhead either, but this past week I headed out to the Deschutes River. I had planned on going to Mecca Flats, but when I checked the fishing regulations, I found out that the portion of the Deschutes from the north end of the Warm Springs Reservation to Pelton Dam closed to fishing at the end of the year. So, I headed to Maupin and went downstream. The river was in perfect condition until the White River entered just above Sherars Falls. As is often the case in winter, the White River was running high and muddy, making the Deschutes murky for a short while downstream.
There is nearly 27 miles of road that goes down the Deschutes from Maupin. Much of that stretch is on public property and is fishable. There are small areas of private property, and there is a portion that is owned by the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. However, all portions of the river are clearly marked. There is a small portion of the river from Sherars Falls to Buckhollow Creek that is open to bait fishing. The remainder is flies or lures only.
A long time ago, I used to salmon fish in the summer below Sherars Falls, so, I am more familiar with the river below there than above, so I chose to head downstream. There were three or four other cars parked along the river, so, I decided to go even further downstream to get away from everyone. The road ends at Macks Canyon, so I parked at the end of the road and walked downstream, where I tried fishing with a series of lures, with no luck.
The weather was cool and calm, with temperatures in the high 30s. Early in the morning, the river was covered with fog, but as the day went on, the fog slowly lifted, leaving what looked like heavy cloud cover clinging to the cliffs atop the canyon. All in all, it made the day look rather dreary, but the Deschutes is beautiful regardless of the weather. And, surprisingly, the grass is already starting to green up and grow. It looked almost like an early spring day.
I have seen people do well fly-fishing for steelhead in the Deschutes, so I decided to switch to flies.
If you are a fly-fishing purist, then it's probably time for you to stop reading now.
I love fly-fishing, but I'm terrible at it. I can catch a few fish in smaller rivers like Crooked River, because there you really don't have to cast well to have at least a chance of catching fish. However, in larger rivers, I have serious problems. On my first cast, I snagged the bush behind me. I spent some time extricating my fly from the bush and tried again. This time, I hooked a different bush. So, I waded out farther into the river and tried again. I thrashed the water for maybe 15 minutes and decided that I was not going to catch anything on a fly rod.
Again, if you are a fly-fishing purist, you might consider diverting your eyes. Since I was having trouble casting a fly to where I wanted it, I switched tactics. I walked back up to my car, got my spinning real and rod and did the next best thing.
I tied a pair of flies on my regular fishing pole, added a little bit of weight and waded into the river.
On my first cast, I snagged a rock and lost a fly. I attached another fly and tried again. Nothing. Several more casts and still nothing, so I waded a little deeper into the river and further downstream. Still nothing. As lunch approached, I still hadn't gotten a strike, so I headed back up to my car and stopped for lunch.
Then, I started driving back up the river toward Maupin, looking for a good location to fish. Between Macks Canyon and Beavertail, I stopped again, this time at an area with a strong back current along the bank. I switched to a green butt skunk and a chartreuse Teeny nymph and let the flies drift downstream, then slowly wound in my line as the back current carried it back upstream, and immediately I got a strike. Not a strong strike, and not a catch, but at least I got a strike. I repeated the same pattern for about an hour more, getting a strike every three or four casts, but never hooking a fish. I think I had too much slack in my line, but regardless of why, I just couldn't hook anything.
I finally gave up early in the afternoon and headed back to my car. I spent another hour taking photos of the river and the cliffs above it, but fishing was a bust.
The Deschutes can be crowded in good weather later in the year, but at least for now, in the middle of the week, it is nearly deserted. In the entire stretch of river, I saw just seven other fishermen. Perhaps it was because of the weather, or perhaps it's because fishing is just slow right now. I don't do enough steelhead fishing to really know.
Either way, even the worst day fishing is a lot better than sitting inside working, so all in all, it was a good day despite my incompetence.
If you decide to go
It is 46 miles from Madras to Maupin. Once in Maupin, a road veers right just before the bridge on U.S. Highway 197. Take the road, then almost immediately take a left and you will find yourself heading down the river. Until a couple miles below Sherars Falls, the road is well maintained and paved. Further downstream there are portions of pavement and portions of gravel road. The road has a few potholes, and at least on Thursday it was pretty muddy, but it is otherwise good road. There are plenty of turnouts to park at and plenty of good stretches of water to fish. There are several campgrounds along the river, and portions require a usage fee.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.