This article was published on: 09/7/10 12:00 AM
Fishing dry flies on a float of the Upper Deschutes is a great time, but don’t expect to catch any big trout
By Mark Morical / The Bulletin
Published: September 02. 2010 4:00AM PST
As the evening sun sank slowly behind the pine forest, fish were rising along the marshy riverbanks as far as the eye could see.
One finally rose to my dry fly, and I pulled back with a fierce hook-set.
Too strong. The fish were small, and I pulled the hook right out of this one’s mouth.
With serene surroundings and plenty of evening fish action, the Upper Deschutes from Wickiup Reservoir to Benham Falls is an ideal stretch to float.
But the fish — brown trout, rainbow trout and whitefish — are not as big as they once were. Low wintertime water flows out of Wickiup Dam have hampered the fish population, according to Brett Hodgson, a Bend-based fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Most browns and rainbows are in the 9- to 12-inch range on that stretch of river. Fred Foisset, of the Hook Fly Shop in Sunriver, remembers when he would routinely catch brown trout ranging from 2 to 5 pounds.
“It’s a good fishery,” Foisset said last week. “But it’s nowhere near as good as it once was. It’s unbelievable how many people would come fish (here) if it was a much better fishery, or even close to what it once was.”
Over the last decade, water levels as low as 20 cubic feet per second from November through April each year have harmed spawning trout, and have limited fish survival over the winter.
“(Low winter flows) are definitely the major limiting factor to fish productivity in that reach of the river,” Hodgson said. “That low flow is inhibiting spawning success and available habitat for over-winter survival. So we see low densities of large brown trout.”
The Deschutes River Conservancy (DRC) is one of several local groups dedicated to restoring flows on the river by continuing to work with irrigation districts. (Water is stored in Wickiup Reservoir during the winter and then released in the summer for irrigation, making for low river flows in the winter and high flows — averaging 1,500 cfs — in the summer.)
This “ramping up and down” of the water levels creates inhospitable conditions for resident trout below Wickiup, according to Scott McCaulou, program director for the DRC. The long-term goal of the DRC is to increase winter flows to 300 cfs.
“There’s a stretch of water in the Deschutes that has potential to be a blue-ribbon trout fishery, and that’s the stretch below Wickiup,” McCaulou said. “But because the way the reservoirs are managed, they use the water year in and year out.”
McCaulou said the DRC is hoping to eventually come up with some “large-scale management agreements” with the irrigation districts.
Until then, most of the fish in the river from Wickiup to Benham Falls (open to fishing from late May through Oct. 31 each year) will be fairly small.
But Foisset, Sunriver resident Jack Campbell and I set out on the Upper Deschutes below Wickiup last week for a late-afternoon and evening float, looking for some dry-fly action on any size of fish.
It’s one of the few sections of river in Central Oregon on which anglers can fish from a boat.
The plan was to float about three miles from Bull Bend Campground to Wyeth Campground, where boaters must portage to avoid the dangerous Pringle Falls. Foisset would anchor the drift boat at hot fishing spots along the way.
The calm river meandered through grass-lined banks and a seemingly endless forest of ponderosa pine.
We cast dry flies (Parachute Adams and mayfly imitations) at fish we saw rising to break the water’s surface. Foisset paddled us into position close to shore. Targeting a fish in this way can be exhilarating, knowing that the trout is right there beneath your fly, and then watching it take your fly.
It can also be frustrating when they don’t bite. But we did not seem to have that problem, as Foisset knew the precise fly pattern and size for the evening hatch. As late afternoon turned into evening, trout after trout rose to our flies. Once I got the hook-set down — a gentle rise of my arm rather than a Bassmaster’s strong tug — I had no problem bringing fish to the boat.
When we saw a fish rise, we would cast upstream of the rise, perform an upstream mend to keep the line away from the fish, and let the fly drift downstream above the fish. When a trout took the fly, we would wait a beat for the fish to turn, then give a gentle hook-set and strip the fish into the boat.
Most were small hatchery rainbow trout, but some were wild browns. By the float’s end, Campbell and I had reeled in and released a total of nearly 20 fish. Campbell had the fish of the day — a healthy 15-inch brown trout that took his fly just as he was about to recast.
Anymore, that size of fish is hard to come by downstream of Wickiup.
To increase angler opportunity, the ODFW stocks that section of river with 2,500 hatchery rainbows four times each year during the spring and summer, according to Hodgson.
“We continue to stock hatchery rainbow in that stretch because there’s such a minimal recruitment of native redband,” Hodgson said.
And the anglers know it.
Foisset said he used to guide about 140 clients per year on the Upper Deschutes below Wickiup. Last year, he said, he guided eight.
“If it can get re-established, I think the locals will take more advantage of it, and I think the tourists would flock here to fish the (Upper) Deschutes River,” Foisset said.
As we approached the boat ramp at Wyeth, a full moon began to ascend through the ponderosas in an ever-darkening sky. On a fishing trip of its own, a gray heron flew low across the stream in front of us.
The river appeared to teem with life.
As groups like the DRC continue to work to restore the river, maybe even more life could return to the Upper Deschutes.
And bigger fish.
Mark Morical can be reached at 541-383-0318 or at email@example.com.
Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2010