December 10, 2009 - Swinging For Steelhead On Lower Deschutes

January 4, 2010
December 10, 2009 - Swinging For Steelhead On Lower Deschutes

Swinging for steelhead on the lower Deschutes

By Gary Lewis / The Bulletin
Published: December 10. 2009 4:00AM PST Gary Lewis / For The Bulletin

Bill Valentine watched from the bank, his Spey rod strung, line taut as a bowstring. Matthew Mendes, our 20-year-old guide, pointed me to the next run, 10 steps farther.

Every run has a bucket, a spot where the river is a little deeper, where a hydraulic pillow gives a steelhead a place to rest. This run had several and Matthew worked me through each one. Cast across or quartering down, throw an upstream mend, let it swing. Two steps in, 10 steps out and up, eight steps down, 10 steps on a diagonal to the bank. A geometry lesson, the fly, a blue and black articulated leech, scribing perfect arcs.

Al Bagley, owner of River Bend Guide Service on the Warm Springs Reservation, couldn’t fish with us today, so he sent his grandson. I always wonder what a guide half my age can teach. It wasn’t long before I found out.

I fish with a Spey rod only once or twice a year. Every time I pick it up, I have to relearn elements of the presentation. Mendes stepped out behind me to help me make adjustments, straighten casts, control more line.

A fish pecked at the fly, I let it turn and take the line and lifted the rod. Nothing. A longer cast, two more steps and another grab. The next time, the hook stuck and a fish ripped line off the reel before it threw the fly.

On the next run, we started short again. Valentine waded in upstream.

You don’t learn to fish a two-handed rod by reading a book or watching a video. You learn with a teacher by your side to explain and demonstrate each move. But after one lesson you can be fishing, and reaching more water (and more steelhead) than the average caster can reach with a single-hander. If that isn’t enough incentive, learning the Spey moves will make you a better caster with a regular rod.

That said, there is a sweetness when the two-handed rod is matched to the right Spey line and the hunter has learned efficiency and economy of motion in the discipline of positioning the fly, anchoring and delivery. At this point, the steelheader has become a hunter. Valentine has found the sweetness.

His first fish was a hatchery buck, about 5 pounds and full of fight. He brought it to hand and killed it for the smoker.

The sun slipped out across the eastern plateaus then the Deschutes, submerged in shadow, exploded into bright daylight, the riffled water glittering. And then a fish pulled out my shock loop. I set the hook toward the bank and the hook was anchored in the corner of its mouth. A wild one, it would have tipped the scales at about 6 pounds. I watched it kick away into the current.

Valentine’s second fish took his fly at the end of the swing then charged him as he tried to strip in line and keep his feet anchored. In a moment it was almost in his lap, jumping 5 feet off his belt buckle. He landed that one, too, then released it.

Mendes, watching from behind and above, saw a steelhead holding off a bank of green moss. “Let him take it, let him take it.” The fish followed, but didn’t grab. I took a step upstream and tied on a smaller fly and swung it again. The fish followed again. A few more casts and we went looking for another.

Downstream, a fish grabbed, turned and streaked away, almost wrenching the rod from my hand. Five pounds of fury that turned out to be a perfect native buck with a glorious crimson sash, his olive back stippled in black, his fins tipped in white.

We quit early, after seven fish were brought to the bank. It was one of those days when we could have landed twice that many if we’d fished until dark.

Since then, I’ve spoken with half a dozen fishermen who sampled the steelhead run this year. They speak in hushed, reverential tones of double-digit days and Idaho-bound B-runs that left them beaten, their 10-pound tippets — and hearts — broken.

Steelhead season seems to be winding down, but there are summer fish in the rivers until March and chrome-bright winter fish to chase in coastal streams.

Steelheading is about perspective. Lani Waller teaches the hunt in his new book, “A Steelheader’s Way.”

“Time? Forget it. There is no future and no past, only the immediate connection to the current and the pool, the fish, and nature’s signals, signs and revealing patterns.”

In the canyon, it is hard to remember the things that mattered so much yesterday, the goals for tomorrow. Here, the river is timeless, basalt walls and the grass that lines the bank, the wind, the water. It swirls about my ankles and boils around my knees as I wade deeper, my first casts short, covering the water in wide arcs.

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. © 2009

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