Wenaha Warnings

(Photos by author. Lou Wentz’s latest book is Tributaries: Fly-fishing Sojourns to the Less Traveled Streams)

A month or two before we decided to move to Oregon, I came across a destination article in one of the national fly-fishing magazines featuring the Wenaha River in the northeast quadrant of the state near the Washington-Oregon border. At the time all my fishing expeditions had been confined to middle and northeast parts of Pennsylvania and the Catskills, so it was intriguing to come across a new watershed in the far western reaches of the country. The write-up checked a lot of boxes for me, but 18-inch rainbows and wilderness trek stood out as attractive features that stayed in the memory storage with a side note attached. If I’m anywhere near here I must check this place out. It would, no doubt, be the most demanding wilderness I was to enter if I ever got my chance.

The Wenaha is only twenty-two miles in length in some of the most harsh and haunting beautiful terrain in this part of the West. The Nez Perce (Nimiipuu) roamed these lands for centuries before European colonization, living off a great bounty of elk, deer, salmon, and native trout along with camas, bitterroot, wild carrot, huckleberries, raspberries, choke cherries, wild cherries, nuts, and seeds. The river is named for a band that inhabited the area, the Wenak, the name being modified over time by immigrants to the Oregon Territory. The elevations in this region range from 5700 feet at the source of the North Fork, 2800 feet where the South Fork joins to make up the main branch, and finally at 1600 feet where it enters the Grande Ronde at Troy. Over geologic time the river carved shear-walled basalt canyons from a high-elevation plateau. The National Forest Service Management Plan (2015) describes the landscape as “Ponderosa pine dominates the lower drainages, then transitions into a forest of lodgepole pine above about 4,500 feet, with some larch, fir, and spruce. Subalpine fir reigns supreme at the highest elevations, with native grasses and forbs covering the ground. Rocky Mountain elk thrive in this area, which seasonally attracts more hunters than hikers. Rattlesnakes are sometimes seen and mule deer, white-tailed deer, moose, black bears, wolves, coyotes, cougars, bobcats, and snowshoe hares are present. Also present, though rarely seen, are bighorn sheep that inhabit the area.” 

Of course, the magazine piece came with some warnings not usually noted on eastern rivers- beware of cougars, wolves, rattlesnakes, and bears. Since we are talking black bears here, I wasn’t too concerned unless it was a mother with cubs, but rattlesnakes, wolves, and cougars were out of my wheelhouse, and I contemplated an expanding concern. But what is life without a few risky adventures, so not too long ago an early September journey led me to crease a map to get to some delectable Idaho fishing in the Selway Wilderness before dropping down to the town of Troy, where the Wenaha action culminates. I rented a tiny rustic cabin whose charm was surpassed by the number of cobwebs a solitary spider could weave in a space containing only a bed, kitchen, and rudimentary bath. It served as a base camp for three days while I explored an outdoor paradise in the off-season after Labor Day and before the Steelheaders invaded. Seems that summer steelhead runs begin in late September and various hunting seasons in October are the main draw for outdoor types in that region. Spring brings runoff and high water for whitewater enthusiasts. Summer can be quite warm, reducing fishing opportunities on the Grande Ronde to smallmouth bass, while the trout in the river head up the cooling Wenaha.

According to those who have studied such things, the fishing opportunities on the Wenaha include bull trout (C&R), redband rainbows, and whitefish as the primary coldwater gamefish. As I mentioned, some of the rainbows can get quite large, but as it turns out, they are quite migratory and are hit-and-miss action most seasons. I don’t know anybody who treks to the wilderness for whitefish, but if that’s your game, well then, by all means, have at it.

I decided that the easiest entry into the Wenaha watershed was the trailhead just outside of Troy. Early September is still quite warm in the region, but the Wenaha Valley is shaded and combined with the stream flow, is cooler than the surrounding rangeland along the high ridges. I decided to throw my waders over my shoulder and walk in with hiking boots, as I was not sure how far up the trail I needed to traverse before I could access the stream. Blue elderberry was mingled among the conifers on the trail as I headed upstream, looking for a place to drop down to the river. The hike was a combination of keeping my eyes close to the ground on the lookout for rattlesnakes while turning around every so often to make sure I wasn’t being stalked by a cougar. I’m told that they pounce on the backs of prey and try to snap their neck all in one motion. Instant death if you will. It’s something I was not particularly relishing as part of a fishing trip bargain. I have a sturdy branch made from a Douglas Fir that I carved into a useful wading staff and clutched it firmly during the hike in. The instrument was to serve two purposes on the trail, to nudge any rattlers that got too close, and to beat off any attacking cougar, should I be so unfortunate.

I can’t exactly say that this was my first wandering into potentially dangerous habitat. In my early twenties, I hiked my share of terrain in the badlands of North Philadelphia and the drug-infested Hunting Park neighborhood in the City of Brotherly Love. Your approach mirrors the same level of caution, looking ahead for safe passage and always glancing behind to make sure you’re not being followed by less-than-desirable natives on the lookout for an easy mark. These were the days before my forays to trout streams and rolling hills, where self-preservation took on heightened importance in places where I wouldn’t recommend a casual stroll today, with or without a sturdy hiking staff. So yeah, the cougars, bears, and rattlesnakes offered a nostalgic glimpse of a life once lived, blending in a bit better in more appealing surroundings, with a survival rate for this angler about the same. High, but still chancy.

The path started along the ridgeline in a westward direction and made a gradual descent toward the stream. The strong western sun soon became filtered by the conifers about one hundred yards down the trail. About a mile in, I could hear the river, and even smell it, in the dry, still air before I could catch a glimpse. As I proceeded, an opening appeared that allowed my descent on the crusty dry soil that held a composite of grasses, dead tree limbs, and the occasional shrub. There it was before me. The Wenaha. The descriptor ‘mighty’ would be both insulting to the river and any honest writer. Back in Pennsylvania, a stream this size might better be described as a ‘crick.’ It was about twenty to twenty-five feet wide with a modest flow around stove-sized boulders and small sweepers, often punctuated with grassy islands and long gravel bars. At low flow season, before any anadromous species were to enter the system, the cool waters likely held trout and whitefish. Instead of dropping down right away, I pressed forward on the path, hoping to get deeper into the forest where it would be less likely that a stray angler might drop a line. Another two hundred yards along the path, I made a panoramic gaze, checking one last time for any danger that might wreck my highly anticipated descent to the stream. The path eventually led to an opening within fifteen feet of the stream, where I could shuffle side-step to the water’s edge. 

Sitting on the trunk of a fallen tree, I put on my waders, slapped the reel onto my rod, and crept into the ankle-deep flow. This was it. Wilderness nirvana. From the magazine pages to a cross-country journey that led eventually to an infrequently visited backcountry stream, I began lusting for those eighteen inchers that are often promised, but only sometimes delivered. Bumping along the cobble until I was mid-stream, I poked around in my fly box for my go-to’s in hatchless situations, I selected a brace of weighted wets that would imitate caddis emergers tumbling amongst the stream bottom before lifting in the current. As I pulled them out to tie on, a wasp landed on my wrist. I quickly brushed it off when another one landed on my arm. Shaking it loose, I continued tying when a third wasp landed on my face. Becoming a little annoyed, I glanced at the water in front of me, only to see a half dozen more wasps dipping into the surface of the riffle, drinking, and then flying off. I immediately recalled a chapter in Charles Fox’s book This Wonderful World of Trout where he describes discovering a ‘wasp hatch’ in a summer outing on a Cumberland Valley stream, only to have to invent a wasp fly to match the hatch before his return to land a big brown feeding on them. Though I did not have a wasp fly in my fly box (how many anglers do?), my situation was different. No trout were taking these wasps. In this arid landscape, the Wenaha presented the only opportunity for this insect to quench its thirst, and I had been nothing more than a convenient launching station before they dove to the water’s surface for a long drink. While they were annoying, and I was a bit apprehensive by their presence, a quick flick of the hand or shake of the wrist sent them on their way. I only became a bit concerned when they landed on my face, though they were mission-focused and maybe never saw another human in their brief wilderness lives. On the danger scale, their presence never rose to the level of angry black bear, hungry mountain lion, or a marauding gang at 18th and Diamond but if a swarm suddenly started attacking it could certainly approach the seriousness of a rattlesnake bite, especially if you are one of those people who suffer life-threatening anaphylaxis from insect bites. And just a note, you’re quite a few miles from the nearest urgent care center.

Setting up a two-fly system, I began to explore the deeper pockets in front of me. First cast resulted in a quick take and release. More casts offered the same pattern of grabs and runs, Thinking I was pulling the fly too quickly, I let the fish swim with the fly a bit before yanking back the rod tip. The technique worked. A six-inch rainbow fluttered across the stream’s surface as I pulled it towards me. Waving off wasps as I moved downstream towards deeper holes and hidden undercuts, I tagged fish after fish, sometimes two on one cast. The trouble was, the Wenaha was fishing like a sardine factory. Four to six-inch rainbows wildly attacked my flies at every likely piece of water. I kept moving downstream, hoping that lower in the watershed would yield better results, but the wasps and the small trout were my only gifts that afternoon. Eventually, the wasp hatch petered out but my scouting never produced a hefty fish.

            My biggest trout was probably nine inches, and the best news I can offer you is that you won’t need a professional beekeeper’s suit to keep yourself free of unwanted piercings. There may be eighteen-inch rainbows somewhere in that river, but they eluded me. I will disclose to you that the Grande Ronde, a much bigger river than the Wenaha, does hold some sizeable rainbows downstream of the mouth of the smaller river, so if big fish are your game, it’s still worth the trip to that remote part of Oregon. If you are ever thinking of wandering up the Wenaha at that time of year, add water-thirsty wasps to the list of dangers you could encounter in that rugged wilderness journey.

Helpful links:

https://www.rivers.gov/river/wenaha

https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/umatilla/recarea/?recid=56893

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troy,_Oregon

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