The Deschutes River
You are waist deep in the riffle, the shadows and reflections of the basalt ramparts above turn the water golden brown. The fly rides in the surface film under light tension, the long rod balances lightly in your hand. Your eyes wander to the Great Blue Heron stoically perched in an alder tree across the river. You are content in this soft fluid world. The line tightens in a slow but deliberate pull and the heavy fish twists and turns trying to dislodge your hook. Your rod arches with his power and the line melts from your screaming reel. An incredible distance away, the huge silver and gunmetal fish bolts through the surface and you are caught in the frenzy of your first Deschutes steelhead and time stands still...
The Deschutes River heads in South Central Oregon and flows nearly 300 miles due north to enter the Columbia River near The Dalles. It drains all of the east side of the Cascade Mountain Range. Although this drainage is located in the arid rain shadow of the Cascades, the large area encompassed produces a river with average annual flows of over 4,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) at the mouth. One hundred miles upstream from the mouth, Pelton Dam creates 400-foot-deep Lake Billy Chinook. Agreements with the power company keep water fluctuations to a minimum. This tail-water effectively turns the next 60 miles of the Deschutes into an enormous spring creek.
The lower one hundred miles of the Deschutes is one of the most prolific trout streams in the western United States. Seventy miles are open to angling year-round. In this unique river, wild endemic desert rainbow trout rise to myriad hatches in riffles and back eddies mirroring green alders and brown basalt cliffs. These distinctive fish are affectionately called Redsides and are linked to the desert Red Band Trout group. Rocky Mountain Whitefish add to the spectacular nymph fishing. An occasional native Bull Trout adds variety to your catch.
The Deschutes River canyon is an oasis in the sagebrush covered desert. Bird life is concentrated here, attracted by the hatches that also feed the fish. Game animals come to water. The sun shines an average of three hundred days a year. The air is very pure and clear.
In winter, the Deschutes often has warm mid-day sun which triggers hatches of tiny mayflies and great dry fly fishing. Early spring is a time of March Browns or Gray Wing Olives. Late spring and early summer brings on the world-famous Salmonfly hatch. The warm weather of mid-summer through October brings hatches of caddis, midges, mayflies and small stone flies.
Steelhead are available nearly year-round, but mid-July through November is prime time when mint bright summer steelhead enter the river. These aggressive fish come readily to the surface and create one of the premier floating line steelhead fisheries in the world.
Topography and Geology
The Deschutes River in Central Oregon drains on the east side of the Cascade Mountain Range. The cold green water provides a counterpoint in what is otherwise a stark and arid landscape. The lower 100 miles of the Deschutes River canyon averages 2,000 feet deep. The sparse vegetation allows the angler to observe nearly twenty-five million years of geologic history recorded in the steep canyon walls. Forty million years ago, Central Oregon was a semi-tropical, flat coastal plain which may have received 240 inches of rain fall per year. About 30 million years ago, the drifting Continental and Pacific plates collided. The Continental plate was pushed on top of the Pacific plate and the coastline started to gain elevation. This was the birth of both the Cascade and Coast Range mountains. This rising land mass changed the weather patterns and Central Oregon started to dry up. The collision of tectonic plates resulted in a tremendous fracturing of the earth's crust. Molten magma rose through these fissures and spread out across the surface of the land. This created the second largest basalt mantel on Earth. These basalt flows occurred intermittently for nearly 10 million years and cover over 10,000 square miles. Some layers are a million years apart. The Deschutes has been in its present position since the last flows. There is reason to believe that the river has been larger during some periods, especially at the end of the ice ages. The canyon seems too wide to have been cut by a river of its present size.
There is evidence to suggest that humans have been companions to the Deschutes River for over 10,000 years. Any area with clean water and a substantial fish population is attractive. Primitive populations had no lasting impact on the scenery. However, since 1850 the human impact has been somewhat more imposing. Railroad building and livestock grazing have made major changes in the topography and vegetation. Present management is demanding that livestock are fenced from the riparian zone and in many places the stream side vegetation is recovering rapidly. Do not be mistaken that the Deschutes fishery was created by the tail water of the dams. The resident trout population certainly benefits from the rich stable flows created by the impoundments. The anadromous runs of steelhead and salmon, though still bodacious, have suffered from poor fish passage and the destruction of spawning habitat.
The Deschutes trout fishery is regulated to sustain and enhance its populations of wild endemic fish. Only two trout per day between 10" and 13" may be harvested. Only barbless hooks on lures and flies are allowed. The use of bait is prohibited. No fishing from a floating device is allowed.
Deschutes Redsides are a unique subspecies of rainbow trout called "Desert Red Band Trout" or (Onchryncus Mykiss Iridus). Adult fish are heavily built and often brightly colored. They are very strong and acrobatic when hooked.
The Deschutes River contains every age group with the highest population made up of three to four-year-old specimens that range from 13" to 18" and weigh 1-1/2 to 3 pounds. Twenty-inch fish weigh over four pounds and 23" fish weigh about six pounds. Many of these larger fish are four and five-year-olds which have not reached sexual maturity. They are incredibly strong and fast and can be extremely wary.
Deschutes Redsides are primarily insectivorous with stone flies, caddis flies and mayflies making up the highest percentage of the diet for fish under four years old. Larger fish consume large amounts of insects, but also eat many crayfish. According to biological studies and our own observations, Redsides eat almost no fish except for an occasional sculpin. This dietary preference for insects gives the dry fly and nymph fisherman many opportunities. Redsides can be extremely selective feeders. Often when multiple hatches occur the fish will be keyed on only one stage of one insect. The Redsides tend to move with the hatches and concentrations of fish may be located in one water type in the morning and another water type in the afternoon. These factors can make angling very tactical. Hatches change from week to week in often prolific confusion. Since much of the Deschutes is open to the angler year-round, fly fishing opportunities exist all year.
The Deschutes is world famous as a steelhead fly fishing river. This is because its steelhead will actively come to the surface for a fly. Steelhead start entering the river in late June and bright fish can still be caught in late November. The run is made up of three distinct races: the hatchery run, and two distinct wild races called the "A" and "B" runs. The hatchery run can start in late June during high water years and as late as August during low water years. It is comprised of fish which have spent 22 to 30 months in the ocean and average 6 to 12 pounds. The "A" run enters the river in July and August and is made up of fish that have spent 14 to 22 months in the ocean and average from 3 ½ to 6 pounds. The "B" run enters the river from September through November and is comprised of fish which have spent 24 to 36 months in the ocean and weigh from 10 to 16 pounds. Larger fish can be encountered any time.
During high water years, a lot of stray upper Columbia River stocks take up temporary residence in the Deschutes and add to its fishery. Only barbless hooks are allowed and all wild fish must be returned to the river.
The Deschutes maintains a unique location as the most southern of mid-Columbia River tributaries. Its water flows and fall temperatures are the most predictable. Its north/south alignment keeps late fall water temperatures in the range that allow steelhead enough energy to rise to the surface for a well-presented fly.
The size and topography of the river provide an ideal setting for the traditional greased line angler. Although many diverse angling methods will take Deschutes summer steelhead, floating fly lines and a traditional wet fly swing is accepted as one of the productive approaches. Most floating line techniques work best when the water is shaded by the canyon walls or by cloud cover. The angler usually begins at the head of a long run and fishes all the way through to the tail-out. Aggressive wading and fly casting may be required to cover the most productive water. The fly is presented downstream across the current and allowed to swing on a tight line toward the angler’s shore. A series of mends may be employed to control the speed and depth of the fly. Often two flies are fished on a cast or a single fly may be riffle-hitched. Waking flies are often employed in the same cast with a wet fly. Fly speed is very important.
Many hair wing wet fly patterns take Deschutes steelhead. However dark patterns in sizes four or six are proven to be most productive over the widest range of water and light conditions. The favored colors are black or purple with a touch of chartreuse, orange or pink.