Fly Fishing Oregon’s Lower Deschutes Canyon for Steelhead

Back from a mini trip to the Deschutes River canyon in Oregon that lasted just three days (five with driving time built in). The thing is, it felt like a good, long trip. Maybe that’s because we started our trip with several pints from the Double Mountain Brewery in Hood River, but got just four hours of sleep that night. We followed that with about five hours the following night and maybe the same the night after that.

It’s been a while since I’ve started fishing before dawn and ended after dark, walking back to camp with a lamp strapped to my forehead while placing careful steps so that I wouldn’t step on a rattlesnake. And it’s been even longer since I’ve eaten dinner well after dark after fishing all day long. To say that this trip wore me down a little is an understatement, but I feel like it’s a trip that every western angler ought to do because the scenery, the river, and its fish are well worth the effort.

I wouldn’t have seen the river at all if it weren’t for Chris Santella and Dave Moskowitz, two Portland guys who did all the planning, shopping, cooking and even the rowing, while I snapped pictures, helped our beer supply dwindle, and generally just fished and floated. They gave me the best portions of each run and generally treated me better than I deserve.

Although numbers of steelhead returning to the Columbia River and its tributaries are a little down this year, the Deschutes seemed to hold plenty of fish. The action wasn’t off the charts by any measure, but we caught fish each day, rose some that we couldn’t finish the deal with, and lost a couple that were on the line.

Chris with a last-light fish in Oregon's Deschutes River canyon.

Our daily plan was to fish areas where the sun was off the water because, as I learned, the bite goes way off when the light hits the water. In the mornings we fished wets and skaters in the shade and when the sun was up we either messed around in camp or put on a sinktip and dredged the depths. In the evening, as shade worked across the water the fishing perked and steelhead were active.

We landed a half-dozen for the trip, all on swung flies, and that seemed like plenty to me. The bonus was floating through some serious rapids, listening to Chris sing at camp in the evening, and on the water while he was fishing, and hearing Dave’s stories about fish and fishing. There were discussions about favorite authors, books, writing and the midlife crisis. Best of all was a lack of e-mails, smart phones, and computers—for three days in the roadless canyon we didn’t have cell service and we didn’t see a vehicle. What was going on in the outside world was something we didn’t really care about and had no control over. Our motto: we’d deal with it when we got out.

Chris Santella nailing the line on a big Deschutes rapid.

When we got out we dealt with a hatchery steelhead that I’d caught and killed a day earlier. Having eaten absolutely nothing all day, that turned out to be one of the tastiest fish I’d ever eaten. After the gear was packed up we cruised to Hood River and picked up my vehicle, which I’d left in a parking lot. I bid Chris and Dave goodbye and promised to reciprocate in Montana sometime. We went into the trip as three guys who hadn’t spent any real time together and we left, I feel, as good friends with shared experiences and stories to tell. That’s the best that fishing provides.

Razor fanged rattlesnake, only trying to protect itself, I had to haul off and blow his little head away, sucked out some venom, took a little skin and, he found his way onto my plate, there go my boots a talkin', telling me it's time to get stomping, I better listen or they'll kick my ass...

Chris Santella bombing out tight loops and looking for Deschutes River steelhead.



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