The Lower Deschutes in Winter
By: Frank Day
When talking about winter fly fishing in the Pacific Northwest there is generally one thing that comes to mind; Winter steelhead. While we do love our winter steelhead they are not the only fish around eating flies. For the angler who prefers solitude and a lack of people over all the fish in the world while surrounded, there is an alternative in January. Often times during peak season our favorite winter steelhead rivers become so crowded that the quiet and peace we seek is difficult to find. While anglers are battling for water on the west side of the cascades there is an escape to the east. The past several weeks I’ve put down my 7 and 8 wt spey rods in favor of my 3wts or a light switch rod. The lower Deschutes is in prime winter fishing condition. Here’s a quick 5 point break down on why you may want forego steelheading for the weekend and dust off your trout sticks.
- Stoneflies are in beahavioral drift.
- Egg drift.
- Baetis hatches
- Swinging sculpin.
- Less pressure means less wary fish.
For those who are unfamiliar the life cycle of stone flies they are not just active prior to emergence as adults. Depending on species the number of instars (molting cycles) can vary but the salmonfly will go through 9 instars in its 3 year life cycle. This means that every 4 months you can experience that same great nymphing with stonefly patterns just prior to their emergence into adults. This is a great time to find that fish you’ve been looking for. There are many different sizes and kinds of stoneflies and their nymph vary also. Many are yellowish brown. Some are dark brown or black. None are purple, yet some days a large purple fly can be the best choice for winter trout.
Fish are spawning 12 months a year. December and January are no exception. During winter the tail end of the chinook spawn is still occurring and a large, easy, mass of protein is hard for a growing redside to turn down. There are also whitefish spawning at this time. Whitefish spawning is a bit different from most other salmonids in that they don’t dig a redd. Instead they will school together and release their eggs and milt into the current to freely drift until it finds a resting place. Because of this whitefish eggs are an easy target for a redside to intercept as they are in the drift. Small glo bugs in various colors under an indicator are killers this time of year.
In the winter there is some dry fly activity. I won’t kid you, it’s not an easy game but it does occur. Is it like a summer evening where you’ll land a dozen or more fish if you’re at your best? Absolutely not. Can you take pride in a single hard earned fish? Absolutely! Winter dry fly fishing is a difficult game. It is not a high numbers method of fishing, but a highly rewarding method. If you can raise and land a trout in the dead of winter you can give yourself a pat on the back as you’ve just achieved something noteworthy within your fly fishing. During the winter most typically on slightly warmer day with a hint of precipitation, baetis mayflies hatch. They will typically emerge in late morning to early afternoon and are present for a short period of time. Having an extra rod rigged up for the occasion is a great idea as these hatches are not the easiest to predict and being ready is crucial as they can sometimes only last 20 minutes, just the right amount of time to re-rig a rod and miss it.
The sculpin hatch is a 365 day a year deal. I have caught redsides on swung sculpin all 12 months of the year. For the diehard steelhead bum who wants nothing but a tight line grab this is a great way to scratch the itch. Swinging for Deschutes trout with a 3 wt spey rod is an absolute blast that’s guaranteed to have you grinning by the end of the day. These fish are just as aggressive and hard fighting as their sea faring counter parts and are in much more frequency. An added benefit is that the sculpin targets the best of the best. The trout that needs to eat that sculpin typically will have shoulders that say “I need protein, lots of it.” I would say that on the average the trout that eats a swung sculpin has a higher metabolism, and is thicker, and harder fighting because of it. A size 8 or 4 sculpzilla is a very hard fly to beat in this arena
One of my biggest reasons for fishing trout in the winter is the lack of company I find on the river compared to the spring and summer months. Not only is it extremely peaceful and enjoyable, but the lack of angling pressure and human traffic has an effect on the fishing for the better. When trout are rested they are less wary of flies and easier to catch because of it. There’s nothing wrong with easy. It’s also a perfect period for an experimental angler to try out various methods that he’s curious to see will work. Rested fish will show themselves to unconventional techniques much more readily than heavily pressured fish making winter the perfect time to try those “what ifs”
So the next time you’re fishing for winter steelhead and find spinners, bobbers, other anglers’ flies, and all other manner of tackle being hucked towards you out of a boat, remember that there are always alternatives, and that trout don’t grow legs and leave the river at the end of October.