Is Fall Finally Here?
It has been a blistering hot summer by anyone’s standards, and I, for one, am ready for my favorite season of the year to finally arrive. What is it about fall that feels so good? For me, living on the Deschutes River in Oregon, the obvious answer is: Steelhead! However, there is much more to the season than steelhead, just as there is much more to steelhead fishing than actually hooking the fish.
I love the crisp mornings of fall when you open the door and take that first sharp breath of air. I love the first rains mixing with the dry sage and juniper – the smell that wafts from the desert is a strange olfactory mixture of both acrid and sweet. The thirsty soil sucks up every raindrop of the first few storms, preventing nary a drop of the water from raising the river levels. The sun falls lower and lower on the horizon each day, losing its intensity and heat as one week rolls into the next. Before long, the first few flakes of snow fall from the dark grey skies above and fall rolls into winter.
The steelhead returns are as low as we have ever seen them, and this is both disheartening and disturbing. So many of us are asking ourselves if it is right to even go out on the river and swing for these few surviving fish. Everyone has to make that decision for themselves, and I believe it is important to practice some form of self-limiting behavior. For some anglers this will mean that they choose not to come to the river at all this year, for others they may limit their visits, others will fish as much as they possibly can in any way they see fit, and to each his/her own.
I know that I need to spend time on the water to feel whole. I don’t necessarily need to hook a steelhead, but I need to be around and immersed in things that bring me close to steelhead. I need to sit down at the bench and tie some special barbless flies with white polar bear wings. I need to populate a beautiful Wheatley clip fly box with my favorite flies: green butt Lum plums, steelhead coachmen, steelhead muddlers, rusty bombers, engagements, girly girls, night dancers, October caddis skaters, and a bunch of new designs that will remain unnamed until they are chosen by a steelhead. I need to stand in the water with my fly box in hand, scouring the contents of the box until one fly speaks to me in the moment. I will use a double turle knot to tie the chosen fly onto the end of the floating leader and Scandi line that I have strung through the guides of the Anderson or Burkheimer Spey rod plucked from the lineup in the gear room. As I pull line off the Hardy reel and it sings its sweet song back to me, I will feel the hope and anticipation welling up in my heart. The direction of the wind will determine whether a single Spey cast or a snake roll will send my fly across the expanse of the Deschutes, and the fly will touch down out on the seam and begin to dance as it ferries across the current. My fly will be visible to me skating on the surface or muddling just an inch below the surface. The only steelhead that will see that fly, and that may rise up to mouth that fly, is a fish that feels comfortable, confident, and curious about his surroundings.
I am fortunate to have hooked many steelhead over my lifetime and more fortunate to have spent years on the water introducing other anglers to Spey casting and swinging for steelhead. I have seen steelhead seasons with great abundance and have created so many great memories with friends and clients on the water. My desire to hook another steelhead does not burn with the white-hot intensity that it once did, and that’s okay. I have confidence in the floating line because I have hooked the vast majority of my steelhead with this method, and it is the one that brings me the most joy.
I choose not to dredge down deep to sulking steelhead. I will wait for the fish that chooses to rise up to the fly on a floating line presentation. That is my choice of fishing methods that could have the least impact on the steelhead. I have Skagit lines and sink tips, but I will leave those in the gear bag. Another angler on the water may follow me through a run using those methods and may hook a steelhead that ignored my skater. If that happens, I will be the first to reel up my fly, set my rod in the bushes, and offer to help landing that fish or taking a photo. Every steelhead hooked this year will be celebrated but it will also be handled with extreme care, kept wet, kept under water, and released unharmed. If I fish a few pieces of water and none of them happen to be harboring a willing fish, so be it. I am okay walking away from the river without so much as a grab.
My fishless self will enjoy sitting by the river’s edge watching the water flow by. I will enjoy rowing my boat on the shimmering waters of the Deschutes, and, as the days get crisp, I will watch for my favorite migratory birds. I hope to see a ruby crowned kinglet, or a flock of bushtits, or a green heron, or a night-crowned heron, but I will be just as happy to see my old friends like the great blue heron and the kingfisher, or the pesky mergansers with their Elvis hairdos. Most of all, I will be thankful that the Deschutes is still open and that I am still allowed to swing flies in pursuit of steelhead. Not everyone is so lucky this year.
Fortunately, the water temperatures have cooled significantly thanks to a cold front that rolled in. This makes both trout and steelhead happy – fish need cold water. The cold front is currently making the river a fairly windy and inhospitable place this afternoon, but it will pass and the caddis will be happy and all over in the bushes. If the clouds stick around for a few days, or the smoke continues to blanket the river, the mayflies will be popping off.
One thing about this summer that sets it apart from most other summers on the Deschutes is the prolific number of grasshoppers on the banks. The trout have made note of the situation as well, and they are eager for hoppers this year – more so than we have seen in years. A hopper-dropper rig has been very productive. Therefore, all of those chubby chernobyls that have been sitting in your fly boxes since the salmonfly hatch can be put to use imitating grasshoppers over the next week or so. Use a tungsten beadhead weighted nymph as your dropper and hold on to your rod because it is going to get bent!
Have fun on the river! We will see you in the fly shop.