Fly-Fishing on Central Oregon's Lower Deschutes River

By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 11, 2009

For insight into the cult of fly-fishing, consider the exchange I had with my wife upon returning from a day of stalking trout on the Lower Deschutes River in central Oregon.

Wife: "So, how was the fishing?"

Me: "Incredible! Awesome! An unreal day."

Wife: "Really? What happened?"

Me: "Nothing much."

About an hour's drive north of Bend, in the arid Central Oregon Plateau, the Lower Deschutes hews through a desert gorge between an Indian reservation and a huge tract of public land. I had signed up for a guided trip after hearing that the Deschutes is one of the Pacific Northwest's premier trout habitats. If you're going to spend a day on a river, it never hurts to catch a bunch of fish.

But neither is it necessary. Angling, perhaps more than any sporting pursuit, appeals to the human need to feel as though we're in the game, just one minor turn of events away from winning even if we've been losing all day. Fly-fishing offers a game reset on every cast, and as the line feathers out over the water, hope is renewed that this time, dammit all, that lunker will strike.

And the Deschutes River has some lunkers. "We catch a lot of fish here around 16, 17 inches," says my guide, Matt Carter. "But I've seen 'em up to 23, 24 inches, too."

The fish are plentiful: about 1,500 to 2,000 native wild trout per mile, which is at the "very upper end" of fish density for a trout fishery, says Rod French, district fish biologist for the Mid-Columbia District of the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife. Deschutes River rainbow trout are also strikingly beautiful, with red bands running up their sides. Although not unique to the Deschutes, these "redband" trout are noticeably more vibrant than their brethren in most other rivers, French says.

I meet Carter at 6:30 on an August morning at the Riffle Fly Shop along Oregon Highway 26, near Madras, shortly beyond where the road dives into the desert canyon. Carter, 27, fits the Western guide prototype -- strong, calm and of relatively few words -- and basically lives to fish.

When I joined up with him, he had just come off an overnight float trip with his girlfriend and their Labrador retriever puppy. Immediately following our day he planned to row downriver (motorized boat traffic is prohibited on parts of the Deschutes) to meet friends for a three-day fish-and-camp bachelor party. When the local trout season winds down in November, Carter heads to the Oregon coast to guide steelhead runs, then spends part of his winter -- often alone -- fishing rivers on Washington's Olympic peninsula, hiking and camping in the cool rain.

Our trip does not begin scenically. Shortly past the put-in, a few minutes' drive from the shop, we drift under a concrete bridge, then anchor on a shoal with a view of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation timber yard, where felled trees from the Cascade mountains are readied for processing. But this is a fishable shoal, so fish it we shall. Besides, Carter needs to assess my casting ability to help raise the chances that he can, in his words, "put us on some fish." (I have fly-fished rivers perhaps a dozen days and have a basic feel for it, but claim no real expertise.)


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