As a recent transplant to Oregon, I have become quite intrigued with the pursuit, and newfound challenge of Spey casting for steelhead. I have been applying myself to becoming a better Spey caster and in so doing searching for a steelhead trip with a strong educational component. With the guidance of Ken Morrish, I decided this past summer that the Deschutes River might be an excellent place for such a trip.
Originating in the central Oregon cascades and flowing north to the Columbia River, the Deschutes River is one of the Pacific Northwest’s most iconic fisheries. The lower Deschutes, from Pelton Dam to the Columbia offers incredibly scenic and fruitful fishing opportunities. A unique component of this stretch of river is that there are many opportunities to fish for both trout and steelhead throughout the day. What better way to learn how to Spey cast than to catch some trout between your swing sessions? The steelhead season on the Deschutes River typically runs late August through November so I decided to put together an October overnight float trip with Renton River Adventures, known for their deep knowledge of the Deschutes and their highly educational approach to guiding.
As summer continued, reports of low steelhead returns became a common thread. It became apparent I needed to re-evaluate my trip so I called David Renton, a dedicated Deschutes River guide for the last 30 years, for advice. David was honest about the situation during our phone call. Steelhead fishing this year was just not the right decision for the well-being of the fish nor those that cared most about them, and I was grateful for this verdict. His following statement, though, was one that completely changed my expectation for this river.
David made an incredibly compelling case for the river’s native trout. Trout anglers come year after year to target the notoriously hard-fighting Columbia River redband trout, which Deschutes anglers simply refer to as redsides. “Riley,” he said, “despite what many think, the Deschutes’ native redsides are by far the river’s premier resource. They, unlike virtually all Columbia steelhead stocks, have not been impacted or diluted by hatchery stock and they are among the purest wild rainbows in the American West. These fish define the uniqueness and integrity of the system.”
After a quick phone call with my fishing partners, Scot and Steven, we shifted gears and prepared for a trout-focused fishing trip on the Deschutes.
Our trip took place in mid-October and the weather was hard to beat with no rain, warm mid-day temperatures, and crisp, clean air complemented by inspiring views. Late season trout fishing in the Pacific Northwest should be heartily celebrated - large October Caddis litter the banks throughout the day offering fine dry fly and subsurface opportunities. Trout are still keying into chubbies and other large attractor dry flies and the nymph and streamer bite is exceptional. Baetis hatches grow more consistent through the fall and dense foam in shallow water is often peppered with sipping trout.
This river is structurally diverse with opportunities to fish long swing runs, wade shallow gravel bars, navigate beneath overhanging trees, and cast into a variety of technical back-eddies. Given all of this, anglers can choose to fish with a standard 4- or 5-weight single hand rod and small dry flies, dry-dropper rigs, or with a straight nymph and indicator set up. Streamer fishing can be very effective in several spots where larger trout hold, and trout Spey is an excellent way to experience the swing water with smaller flies. Finally, those who enjoy euro-nymphing will have endless options to drift nymphs all day if desired.
We employed a variety of tactics on this trip, from dropping nymphs below an indicator to fishing small dry flies toward the banks in small runs or back eddies. Scot has a strong preference for fishing with small dry flies and the guides planned stops at numerous back eddies where they found consistently rising fish. The dry fly-only method proved challenging, but incredibly rewarding when executed well, which Scot repeatedly was able to do.
Steven and I spent most of our days dry-dropper fishing, a method which proved to be the most consistently successful. While trout were rising to the large dry occasionally, our fly rods were most often bent by the trailing nymph. What I found to be most enjoyable about this was that it was truly difficult to tell the size of the fish at the end of the line. Even though I had the inspiring conversation about the redband trout with David, I don’t think I was fully prepared for what hooking one of these fish would feel like. Pound for pound, redsides fight harder than the average rainbow found in the West due to their genetic purity and the force of the water in this rugged system. To say these fish are strong is an understatement, and they will not come willingly to the net.
Under Dillon Renton’s watchful eye, I had the great pleasure of hooking into a trout that he claims was upwards of 20-inches but that felt like double that. A few aerials, a quick jog down the river and half my backing later, Dillon felt sure that this fish had bested us and it was time to bring him in or break him off trying. Fortunately for us (and to our surprise) it was the former. This trout was not only quite large, but brilliantly colored. The only word that I can think of to best describe him was wild. Dillon remained impressively casual about the encounter. Throughout the trip we were catching fish in the 13- to 15-inch class and while I was more than satisfied with this, Dillon continued to tell me that we could do better. This fish was the one he was waiting for, and while it’s not necessarily guaranteed for every float, it’s also not anomalous, a fact driven home by Dillon’s easy-going response to the situation.
The strength and defiance of these trout aren’t the only components that make fishing this river such an active adventure. The Deschutes can only be fished while wading; fishing from the boat, even when anchored, is not allowed and anglers interested in this river should be prepared for challenging wading situations. The riverbed is incredibly slick, and the push of the water paired with the grapefruit to bowling-ball sized rocks make finding one’s footing quite difficult. On the plus side this allows for some down time to enjoy the scenery and guide jokes while in the boat, and more intentional time spent fishing each individual spot while wading.
Each day culminated with arrival at camp where we were met with gracious canvas wall tents already assembled, appetizers and the evening beverage at the ready, and dinner on the stove. Chairs and changing mats marked the entry for each tent so we may change out of our waders and into camp clothes quickly and comfortably. In short order, a warm and well-rounded meal was served in a spacious dining tent that made all other camp meals pale in comparison. Lying in the cot after dinner, the sound of the nearby river and passing trains added to the mystique of this canyon and created a sense of place that we have been hard pressed to find elsewhere.
Hot coffee and warm breakfasts were welcome comforts on those crisp mornings, and the cooler temperatures meant we had a more relaxing start to the day, allowing time to watch the sunrise over the canyon walls. This river is stunning in Autumn, the glow of the canyon and changing fall colors were topped only by the deep purple-red of the native trout we encountered each day.
Ultimately, our decision to avoid steelhead fishing in this system became universal because, in an act of preservation, the state of Oregon closed the Deschutes and other Columbia River tributaries to steelhead fishing on September 1st. While it was not the trip we originally planned, we all felt delighted and grateful for this experience, and it is clear that late season fishing for redsides on this river offers an incredibly rewarding, consistent, and beautifully challenging trip that exceeds expectation.