September 9, 2010 – Bend Bulletin – Sweet steelhead goodness

This article was published on: 09/9/10 12:00 AM

Sweet steelhead goodness

By Gary Lewis / The Bulletin
Published: September 09. 2010 4:00AM PST

At the surface there is tension, two worlds in suspension. Between the water and the sky there is a skating fly.

Out there on the water, the river in shadow, a creation made of foam splashes down. Its deer hair legs tickle the surface, its foam belly rocks. It chugs, pushes water, skates, chugs again.

We wanted to get an early start, so I booked a room at the Imperial River Company in Maupin. It was dusk when we checked in and zero-dark-thirty when we left our keys at the desk.

Damien Nurre, of Deep Canyon Outfitters, waited at the launch with our rods rigged and ready. We loaded our overnight gear and drifted into the dawn.

Less than 20 minutes later, with a 13-foot Spey rod in my hand, I grinned at the sky. It seemed the height of vanity to try to tease a 6-pound ocean-going trout to take a dry fly on the top. Name any other method of taking a steelhead and it is easier, more effective than this.

It takes a certain amount of faith to believe there is a fish somewhere within the 60-foot arc of cast and swing. We have to believe there is a pod of fish, two maybe, or 20, holding for an hour or a day on some hydraulic pillow in a boulder-strewn run.

In every pod, we like to think there is one, curious enough, aggressive enough, annoyed enough to chase, to smash and grab.

“Start where that first boulder breaks the water,” Damien said. “Short at first, then longer. When you are casting the whole head, then take one step down at a time, about the length of a steelhead, somewhere between 24 and 36 inches. We want to give every fish a chance.”

Step, cast, mend, let the fly swing, hold the rod close, lift and lower the tip. Out there on the water, the deer legs and foam chug through the surface chop. Step, cast, swing. The cadence and current conspire to put a fisherman in a steelhead trance.

We worked several runs before sunlight hit the water. Now it was time to go deeper, to probe the shadows on the west sides of boulders. I cut off the dry and tied on a wet fly, purple with mylar in the wing.

There were precious few shadows left at a quarter to noon when, near the end of my swing, I felt a tug. I let the line pull out between my fingertips and the cork till 24 inches were gone.

It is a matter of a moment between the tug and the long upward sweep of the hook-set, but your heart stops and nothing else matters except whether or not the fish is there. With the hook in the corner of its mouth, the fish was broadside when I felt it.

Headed toward the main river, it ripped out 40 feet of line then returned to its boulder in an attempt to saw my leader in two. I kept the rod high and the fish thrashed at the surface then raced into the current again.

Twenty-five inches, about five pounds, the fish was fin-clipped. A portion of his mandible had been removed when he was a fingerling at the hatchery, which indicated this was not a Deschutes fish, but a stray from another watershed.

We drifted down to our camp site where Matt Shinderman waited with dinner. We would try again to coax a chromer to the top when the shadows hit the water about 6 o’clock. “This is one of my favorite spots,” Nurre said. “Sweet bouldery steelhead goodness.”

Cast, mend, swing, chug, step. Downstream, Damien tried to raise a fish without a hook on the fly. After a half-hour, he got a fish to chase and called me down. It wouldn’t take a second time. We worked it with the dry then switched to a No. 8 Coachman. Nothing.

In the gloaming, Damien raised another and called my name. My fly chugged through the chop with no response from the curious fish we had the faith to believe was still there. The wind stopped at dark and calm settled in the canyon.

Our faith and vanity were renewed in the morning. We stepped in at the top of the run into sweet bouldery goodness.

In the tailout, at the end of the swing, a steelhead followed. When it turned away, it pushed a wall of water on the surface. With the same length of line, I threw the fly, chugged it. Again, the fish broke the tension at the surface, but there was no tug, no take, just a bucket-sized swirl and he was gone.

There will be another day, in September or October, this year or next. Perhaps I’ll have to present the fly to many more pods of fish before one will take a dry on top. It’ll take some faith and not a little vanity.

Gary Lewis is the host of “High Desert Outdoorsman” and author of “John Nosler — Going Ballistic,” “Black Bear Hunting,” “Hunting Oregon” and other titles. Contact Lewis at

Published Daily in Bend Oregon by Western Communications, Inc. © 2010