We have a very unique river running through Central Oregon. You’ve heard of it. It begins high in the Cascades at Little Lava Lake, flows north through a series of reservoirs along the east side of the Cascades, carving through sage covered high desert on its way to the Columbia River. The confluence is just upstream of Celilo Falls, the ancient fishing site now buried by the Dalles Dam.
Of course, I’m talking about the famed Deschutes River. How is this river so unique? In many ways, but those I am most familiar with revolve around the steelhead fishing. The Deschutes is really, really good!
I work the lower Deschutes. I’m not talking about the entire 100 miles of river below Pelton dam. I’m talking about the lower, lower Deschutes. I spend the majority of my time fishing the 22 roadless miles from the river’s mouth upstream to Mack’s Canyon. I am a swung fly, steelhead maniac, and that’s how I ended up here. For those of us with the sickness, the lower Deschutes is probably the best place to be.
Our fish come in droves starting in early July and chrome bright fish continue strong through November. Your fly is likely to swing over more steelhead in this stretch of river than anywhere else in the lower 48. It also helps that this stretch of river has some of the sweetest swinging water on the planet. The lower section of the Deschutes is a funnel through which the entire Deschutes steelhead population must travel. But that’s just the beginning. Add to that the fact that thousands of stray steelhead from other Columbia tribs spend weeks or months in this section. The cool, oxygen rich, emerald green flow is too tempting for those upriver-bound steelhead to pass up. I think you may even have a better chance at catching a Clearwater River steelhead in the lower Deschutes than you do in Idaho. Those are the big boys we all have nightmares about. Swinging a fly in the lower Deschutes you never know what you’re going to find.
With no road access, the best option for accessing the lower river is a jet boat. This section has been called the “double black diamond” of jet boating. Let’s just say it’s not for kids. To fish this magic water you need a guide, and if swinging flies is your thing, there is only one show in town, Larimer Outfitters.
Deschutes Steelhead in Full Force
For me, the Deschutes steelhead season got started a month and a half ago during the first week of July. Nearly all of the early July fish were beautiful natives. All were chrome and hot as can be. Grey backs and mirrored silver sides. It is rare to see even a hint of pink on a gill plate that time of the year. If you missed early July on the Deschutes this season, you have my condolences. Fortunately there is still time for you to make it up to yourself. There are still three more months of incredible fishing ahead!
Our record-breaking heat wave of late July is behind us, and the Columbia cooled last week to relatively safe traveling temps for our cold water friends. Last week with the cool evening temps and splash of rain resulted in the largest numbers of steelhead passing Bonneville Dam EVER! Last Thursday alone the steelhead count for the day was 34,053. That is double the previous all-time record for steelhead in a single day!
Much of this big return can be accredited to Judge Redden’s mandated water spill through the Columbia/Snake dams to aid downstream migrating smolts three years ago. This is good news for us, but our Columbia steelhead crisis is far from over. Only around one third of the steelhead that have passed Bonneville so far this year were born in gravel. Yes, these man made fish are missing fins, genetically impure and quite expensive for the taxpayer to produce. So I am calling on you to do your part for conservation. Go swing those flies and bring home some fresh hatchery steelhead fillets!
See you on the water,
Sierra Club Hunter/Angler Organizer
Native Fish Society River Steward
Photos by Jeff Mishler