There is a barely suppressed secret here in the West that some of the world's best steelhead fishing can be had outside Portland, Ore., in early autumn.
Steelhead are rainbow trout that spend most of their lives at sea and then return to their natal streams to spawn. They are big fish, as big as some species of salmon, and they fight with astonishing energy when they're hooked, often making spectacular leaps into the air. They pack lots of fat to sustain them while they're in the river, so their flesh -- sometimes salmon pink, sometimes tuna red -- is especially succulent. You can bake, broil, poach or barbecue. (I had a friend once who turned them into sashimi, but according to experts on marine parasites that's going a bit too far.)
I usually fly into Portland after Labor Day, although the fishing occasionally heats up before then, toward the end of August.
Portland itself is worth an overnight visit. It's a pleasantly sleepy city, rather midwestern in character, with tree-lined downtown streets and many turn-of-the-century brick buildings. The presence of the Columbia River is strong, and you can still get whiffs of the historic past down by the waterfront.
Any guidebook will point you toward Portland's museums and tourist spots, but there are a few other things you shouldn't miss.
Powell's Books is a warehouse-size place that stocks all the slow-selling but meritorious literary titles you'll never find in chain stores.
A couple of blocks away is Jake's, an old-time seafood restaurant of the brass and mahogany school. The main attraction here is Smith & Reilly, a locally brewed beer that compares favorably with British ales. Have two pints, some fresh clams or oysters and then go to a Portland Beavers baseball game.
The Beavers are a Triple A club, and they have the most villainous mascot in the minor leagues. The last time I was at the park, this beaver hit a soprano in the face with a cream pie after she'd finished singing the national anthem. Later, he dragged out an inflatable plastic umpire and proceeded to perform CPR on it while the real ump looked on in disgust.
The two steelhead rivers I fish in the Portland area are the Deschutes and the Salmon. The Deschutes, east of the Cascade Range about two hours from the city, is extremely popular with people who use flies. It's possible to wade the Deschutes or fish it from the banks, but it's better to hire a guide at Maupin. Most of the guides have wooden driftboats without motors, although some of the less-principled modern breed have resorted to jetboats.
Speed is antithetical to the Deschutes experience, so stick with a driftboat captain. Then you'll be moving slowly enough to take in the details. The countryside you pass through ought to be studied closely. It's dry and deserty, with brown hills and buttes that catch the light at sundown. You smell sage, maybe see a rattlesnake or two and fall into Hopalong Cassidy fantasies.
The Salmon River is in Clackamas County, about an hour-and-a-half southeast of Portland. The trip to it is such an easy one that I wouldn't hesitate to take along children. The Salmon isn't as wide or imposing as the Deschutes, but it has other virtues, including accessibility. It flows through a mixed conifer forest and has the classic configuration of a western trout stream -- stretches of fast water broken at intervals by deep green pools in which fish like to hold.
There are a few motels in and around the chief Salmon River towns -- Welches, Wemme, Zigzag -- but you're better off camping. Green Canyon Campground, right on the river, is an improved facility that's not too bad if you don't mind being around recreational vehicles. I prefer to drive on to Deadline Bridge, park the car and then hike into the woods on a well-marked trail that follows the river. The hiking isn't difficult, and it puts you in touch with an Oregon version of the forest primeval -- redwoods, Douglas firs, hundreds of ferns and lichens, huckleberries, salmonberries and fragile stands of foxglove.
All along the river, there are unimproved campsites. They're very private, separated from one another by at least a hundred yards. You'll find rocks arranged in a circle, nails driven into tree trunks to accommodate kerosene lanterns and logs chinked to provide seats and makeshift tables. This is basic stuff, the bare essentials, and you get it absolutely free.
Last fall I fished the Salmon instead of the Deschutes, and there were more steelhead in the river than I'd ever seen before. The water was very clear, and I was able to stand on the trail, look down into the pools and actually count the fish. In the bigger pools, I counted as many as 20.
One afternoon, I met a fly-fisherman who was carrying a six-pounder. He was so proud of it you would have thought it was his infant son. He said he'd caught six others like it, but he'd released them all, because one steelhead was more than enough.
Even if you don't catch fish, these steelhead trips lead you into wonderful country. I know of no better way to shake out the urban blues than to spend three or four days rusticating around a campfire. The amazing thing is how cheaply you can do it. When you're hungry enough, the greasiest kind of grub tastes good. Out in the woods, you begin to recognize how simple your desires really are. At night, tired to the bone, you sleep peacefully and well. There's nothing to remember. The river does it for you.