Deschutes River Steelhead: Current Report and Looking Ahead

drifing the deschutes

It’s shaping up to be a good steelhead year on the Deschutes. In the past week, 6,000 to 8,000 steelhead a day have been making their way over the Dalles Dam on average, for a total of over 170,000 already this year, and it is still very early in the game. Unlike our steelhead runs here in the Willamette valley, the Deschutes fish don’t start to show up in really good numbers until sometime in July, and continue to enter the river until late in the fall.

Yesterday evening I returned from a quick trip from Mack’s Canyon down to Heritage Landing at the mouth. While this section of river is often humming with the roar of jet sleds and busy with anglers, we found light pressure and plenty of open water. Every other weekend from Thursday to Sunday, the lower river is closed to jet boats, making the river accessible only to down river drift boat and raft traffic. This was one of those weekends.

casting on the deschutes

We put in at around 11 am on Thursday, and quickly made our way downstream, operating under the assumption that most of the fish were closer to the mouth. We drifted past miles of beautiful swing water, and as we got closer to where we were hoping to camp, started to fish a little bit. At our second stop, my friend Brandon made his way to the top of a fast and boulder-strewn run. Five minutes in, he was tight to a hot fish that ate his swung fly despite the bright afternoon sun beaming down in its eyes. After a blistering run, the fish came off, but it was a great sign. Who knew what would happen when the sun came off the water?

deschutes steelehead

It ended up being an awesome fishing trip. We were only on the river for just over 24 hours, which is not enough time to fish even a fraction of the tasty swing water in the Deschutes’ lower 22 miles, but had great action on swung flies. In low light conditions, I fished a small, sparkly purple wet fly, sparsely dressed and of my own design, with good results. We also hooked fish consistently on the swing in bright sunshine. Under these conditions, I fished a bright gold wet fly with sort of a Fall Favorite color scheme on a sinking poly leader, while the other guys had good success fishing leech patterns on a sink tip in the sun.

deschutes river steelhead

ethan nickel deschutes steelhead

As a professional flyfishing guide and outfitter, I don’t get much opportunity to fish this time of year. While I am out on the water almost every day, getting a chance to fish myself is entirely different. It was refreshing and reminded me why I love the sport.

spey outfit vxp

To make things even more fun, I had a brand new toy to play with: a couple months back, I bought a new spey rod, the Sage 6129-4 VXP, that I hadn’t had a chance to really fish yet. Sure, I had taken it out and made some casts, but I hadn’t gotten a fish on it yet, or fished with it enough to really find my rhythm with it.

Coupled with a Rio Steelhead Scandi weighing in at 435 grains and an 10’ Airflo Poly Leader the 6129-4 VXP proved to be an incredibly efficient fly delivery system. It is light and fairly stiff, and in the hands of a skilled operator, will throw bullet-tight loops with very little effort as far as one would ever care to. I have also fished Skagit heads, heavy tips, and weighted flies on it, which it handles with far more grace than you would expect from a 6 weight. In short, it is a very versatile rod and a joy to fish with.

steelhead on the deschutes

deschutes steelhead fly fishing

We had a great fishing trip, but before the last week or so the reports I had been hearing were not that positive. The Deschutes had been running warmer than the Columbia, so the fish didn’t have a compelling reason to pull in. There were some fish around, mostly smaller wild fish, but the bulk of them were hanging out in the big river. Some days before our trip, the water temperature of the lower Deschutes came within a degree of that of the Columbia, so the fish started to show up in better numbers. Thermal blocks like this are not that uncommon on this portion of the river, but the operation of the new temperature control structure on Pelton Dam seems to be exacerbating the problem.

While the project on Pelton dam, a joint partnership between PG&E and the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, is well-intentioned, designed to re-establish wild salmon and steelhead stocks in the upper-basin, it is also has wrought some changes that many of us didn’t see coming. While it has been operating for less than two years now, and it remains to be seen if these changes will become the new annual pattern, it seems reasonable to assume that they will. For the last two years, the salmonfly hatch started to pop two to three weeks earlier than it has in recent memory, because the lower Deschutes was running two to three degrees warmer in the spring than it has since the installation of Pelton Dam in 1958. In the late summer and early fall, the river was again running a bit warmer than usual, which seemed to slow down upstream progress for many of the summer steelhead.

Last fall the fishing was, on average, somewhat slower than usual in late September much of early October. While we saw fewer fish on average per day, the upside was that we caught proportionally a lot more wild fish, and among those many were big, beautiful specimens. The fishing picked up later in the season. Last season, some of the most productive steelhead fishing was in late October and the first half of November up on the Trout Creek to Maupin stretch.

November is a great time to fish the Deschutes for steelhead, but it often doesn’t book as well as the rest of the season because of the potential for cold weather. Given the right camping gear (which we provide) and the right clothing, even if the weather does turn cold, the experience is enjoyable and there can be some great fishing. I am offering 10% off three and four day steelhead trips in November for groups of four anglers or more. Please contact the Caddis Fly for details and to book.-EN

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6 Responses to Deschutes River Steelhead: Current Report and Looking Ahead

  1. Rob R says:

    You deserved a trip like that! Thanks for the solid info, Ethan.

  2. Fishhamp says:

    Shhhh! Your not supposed to tell everyone.

  3. gregH says:

    Nice report Ethan. Very cool…

  4. themostdangerousanimal says:

    Great report! I love the photo of KD hooked up.

  5. mike doughty says:

    bad ass!

  6. Capt. Nate says:

    It’s hawg time!

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