Steelhead Fly Fishing Odyssey in Hell's Canyon
The Snake River in the greater Pacific Northwest region of the United States is the longest tributary (1,078 miles) in the Columbia River basin. In turn this forms the longest river that enters the Pacific Ocean. The Snake heads in western Wyoming, then flows through Idaho, Washington and Oregon. Hells Canyon of the Snake River forms part of the border between Oregon and Washington and is North America's deepest river gorge at 7,993 feet. According to USGS the river flow in the section we were fishing was about 8,000+cfs (about twice the size of the lower Deschutes), a formidable size river to wade-fish.
The best adventures always occur when things are slightly beyond your control. That heightens your attention and forces you to maximum alertness which allows you to learn new things or relearn old things. It also helps if you have teacher to streamline the learning curve. Patty and I were very fortunate to have been invited by Al Buhr, a savvy guy who has spent many many days and nights camping, fishing and boating in Hell's Canyon. Thanks to Al's insights it took me one half hour to hook my first two steelhead. He pointed downstream of his parked boat, "See where those two currents come together down there? That seam is a known steelhead holding area. No need to wade more than four feet from the bank. I'll be back in about twenty minutes." I was landing the second fish when he returned.
Don't get the idea that it was always that easy. It wasn't. We were fly fishing for steelhead, and they aren't usually very easy to catch. The summer steelhead run in the Columbia River basin has been the poorest in many years. Also we didn't get out of bed very early each morning and steelhead are most active during low light conditions. To make the situation even more challenging we stuck to floating lines and flies that rode on or near the surface of the water. I got two thirds of my fish on a waking fly and even hooked one steelhead on a dead drifted dry fly (not my first, but my first in many years). We got fish every day.
The steelhead we encountered on the Snake were similar in size to the ones we normally get on the Deschutes; typical A-run Redband steelhead. Even though the river is much larger than our home waters, casting distances were similar. Patty and I were each comfortable using 6-weight Spey gear. Dark flies worked better than bright ones.
Wading in Hell's Canyon is some of the most difficult I have ever encountered. The rocks are large, hard and lie on the bottom loose with no fill between them, so they tend to move around. My wading shoes had studded Vibram soles. The river bottom was so slick that even with a staff it not only impeded my progress, but also ruined casting until Al loaned me a pair of his extra wading shoes with studded felt soles. Boy what a difference. More on that later.