Breaking My Silence
I am finally breaking my silence after weeks of writing and discarding 5-6 versions of this report. Here goes nothing....
On August 27, ODFW closed the Deschutes River from Sherar's Falls down to the mouth to all retention of and fishing for steelhead from September 1-30. On August 28, I launched at Mack's Canyon with Alex Gonsiewski and his client David for a three-day float to the mouth - fishing for steelhead. I knew that this could very well be my farewell to steelhead fishing on the Deschutes. Over my 23 years as a guide, I have seen several steelhead rivers close to fishing and they have, for the most part, remained closed to fishing.
Every cast I made during that three-day float was punctuated with a tinge of sadness. It felt like I was visiting a dying friend in the hospital. Of course, I fished a floating line and a surface or near-surface fly the entire time and pinched down the barb on each fly before tying it onto the end of my line. I was fishing the way I always have and always will fish for steelhead on the Deschutes. This method of fishing is the least invasive and least harmful way to target steelhead, and in thousands of days of guiding 2-3 anglers each day, I cannot even remember one time that we hooked and landed a steelhead that didn't swim away strongly. Every steelhead that was ever hooked under my watch, either by me or one of my clients, was released unharmed. Every single one - adipose fin or not.
The news of the fishing closure was a shock to us, not because we haven't seen the writing on the wall for years, we have seen the dam counts falling year after year. We were in shock because of the randomness and sudden action of the ODFW decision to only close a couple of rivers to steelhead fishing. It also was problematic that the closure is specifically for steelhead fishing - which leaves the river wide open to salmon fishing. Anyone can make a claim that they are targeting salmon, while they continue to fish the same waters where they would fish for steelhead while using the same gear.
If ODFW had closed the river to salmon and steelhead fishing, but kept it open for trout fishing, there would be a whole lot fewer people out there able to claim that that fly or lure tied on with 10-12 lb. tippet was intended to hook two pound trout.
From what we have seen while guiding trout below Sherar's Falls, some guides are operating as if the regulation changes don't apply to them. One guide even got into it with one of his subcontractors for refusing to guide his steelhead trips in the section of river closed to steelhead angling. There simply isn't any enforcement or any way to enforce the regulation that you cannot fish for steelhead when the river is still open to salmon fishing - unless you catch someone carrying a dead steelhead.
A guy came in the shop this weekend and said that he was near the mouth and saw a guy walking along the river with a huge dead wild steelhead - carrying it with his hand in the gills. When he pointed out to the guy that it was a steelhead and not a salmon, and that it was wild, the stupid angler "released" the dead steelhead back into the Deschutes.
ODFW picked just a couple of rivers to close to steelhead angling, and two of them are rivers on which our entire fall season depends. Other rivers remain open and actually allow the harvest of hatchery steelhead. We are waiting to hear if the Deschutes is going to reopen to steelhead fishing in the month of October - ODFW has us dangling out in the wind with no clue if we will be able to salvage any portion of our season.
While we cannot swing barbless flies for catch and release steelhead fishing in the lower Deschutes River, on September 15 ODFW approved additional gill netting openings in the Columbia. As you are reading this report, hundreds of wild steelhead are perishing in non-discriminant gill nets strung throughout the Columbia River. HUNDREDS. So many more than would ever have been killed in a catch and release fishery. That should bother everyone who steelhead fishes.
Although the John Day River is closed to all fishing until the end of the year, ODFW is allowing angling for steelhead (no retention) and salmon in the John Day below Tumwater Falls - an area where fish will be stacked up below the falls and particularly vulnerable. Oh yes, you can use bait to target these fish - which is much more likely to be ingested deeply and cause mortality than hooking a fish on a lure or fly. Great rules, ODFW.
Those are my rants about the closure.
Now, a little bit about the fishing over the past few weeks.... We have shifted a lot of our anglers to trout fishing - which includes swinging flies with small 3 or 4 weight trout Spey rods, as well as a lot of dry fly fishing. The weather up until Saturday was summer-like and we still are having great action on grasshoppers, caddis, and small craneflies. The trout are feeding voraciously in preparation for winter, and they are still in the usual summer holding spots. Here's a dandy of a trout that I caught about a week ago:
As the water cools down and the weather cools, the trout will move into winter holding water. This means that they will be concentrated in backeddies and slow pools on the Deschutes and will abandon the faster, more oxygenated riffles for lazier winter water.
Euro-nymphing techniques have been very effective lately, and we do not see that changing even as we head into winter. That style of angling seems to work very well all winter.
We have been swinging flies for steelhead in the portions of the river that are still open to steelhead angling. It isn't uncommon for us to be fishing above the falls in the month of September anyway, because the White River often blows out and causes the lower river to be unfishable. I can remember my first or second year of guiding was one of those years when the White River was incredibly muddy all through the month of September and we floated 3-4 boats every single day above the falls.
There are very few fish around this year - no surprise - but we have hooked and released some beauties. Catch rates seem pretty much in line with those that we have seen in the past 3-4 years.
Is it controversial that we are continuing to fish for steelhead (above the falls) after the very public announcement by one outfitter on the Deschutes that he cancelled his entire season (and ODFW shut it down anyway a few days later)? A lot of anglers are confused and are feeling that they should be ashamed for wanting to swing flies for steelhead. Many have chosen not to fish for steelhead this year. Many others have made their annual trek to the river because it is what they do in the fall and it is such a huge and important part of their year that they cannot imagine not being near the river.
The pilgrimage to the river continues because the fishing trip has always been about so much more than putting a bend in the rod or getting a photo with one more chrome-bright fish. Our angling friends who make the journey to the Deschutes once or twice a year are here to spend time with each other and with their guide buddies. They are here to fish, but not necessarily thirsty for numbers of steelhead. I am confident that many of our angling buddies would even fish with the point of the hook cut off, if it meant that they could still spend the day on the water.
The fishing trip is about heading out on the water in the dark early morning hours, it is about sitting in the driftboat drinking coffee and waiting for first light, it is about sharing stories from home and photos of family, it is about hearing the lovely click of the reel as you pull the line off it to string your rod, it is about knocking the rust off during your first few Spey casts of the season, it is about reconnecting with your gear and with the river, it is about selecting that special fly out of your favorite fly box - perhaps the pattern that you tied or that someone tied for you, it is about being enveloped in the mist rising off the water on a crisp October morning, it is about seeing, hearing, and sharing the river with the migratory birds as they follow her upstream and south, it is about checking in with your balance as you navigate the slippery rocks in a fine piece of steelhead water, it is about standing with your guide at your shoulder and both of you knowing that you are approaching the sweet spot, it is about having a nice hot lunch in a shady spot on the river followed up by a cat nap in a comfy chair, and it is about being together with friends to share dinner and a wee dram after a day on the water. It is so rarely about just the fishing or just the fish. We need to spend time with our best friends on the water, and so we are.
So, we didn't cancel our season. We fish above the falls, we swing a few runs in the morning and fish for trout the rest of the day. If our guys want to hunt for trout all day, we are game! Many a steelhead trip has been converted to a trout trip and everyone has been having a great time. Our moments on the water are precious and we will not let ODFW take that precious time away from us.
I will end this report with a quote from my favorite fishing writer, Roderick Haig Brown:
"I have two hopes for the future. The first and lesser one is that game commissions will one day have sense enough to set limits that measurably reflect the sport safely available. The second and deeply urgent one is that we shall grow a race of sportsmen no one of whom will ever consider it a matter of pride to have killed a limit."