Fishing the salmonfly hatch

May 21, 2014
Fishing the salmonfly hatch

The Lower Deschutes in May is the place to be for anglers

By Mark Morical

WARM SPRINGS — Ryan Brennecke quickly stepped off the trail onto some boulders and cast his fly to the river under an overhanging tree.

We had found zero success on dry flies after a couple of hours of fishing, and I had already switched to nymphing.

“You’re still sticking with the dry fly?” I asked, and I was promptly answered by a hungry redband trout attacking Ryan’s fly.

Splash! Chomp! Swirl!

“Uh, yeah,” my fishing partner said dryly as he played the fish to the bank.

I rushed to change my setup and go back to dry-fly fishing with the salmonfly imitation.

The trail from Mecca Flat to Trout Creek along the Lower Deschutes is well-worn this time of year with the boots of eager anglers.

We followed that trail last week, hoping to get an early start on fishing the salmonfly hatch, which is now approaching its peak on the stretch of the river near Mecca Flat.

Two red-winged blackbirds flapped their wings noisily as we continued hiking after Ryan’s first catch. In front of us, a small lizard scooted across the trail and disappeared into the long, lush green grass. Wary of rattlesnakes, Ryan walked cautiously through areas where the grass rose high next to the trail as I followed.

The insects that cling to those blades of grass are what bring anglers by the thousands to the Lower Deschutes every year in late May.

On the day we visited the area last week, salmonflies, 3-inch-long gray-and-orange bugs that land on the surface of the water to lay their eggs, covered some of the cheatgrass on the banks of the river, but not many could be found on the river’s surface.

Hungry native redband trout feed on the salmonflies, which usually appear in mid-May on the Deschutes River north of Maupin and move upstream all the way to Round Butte Dam through mid-June.

Historically, the salmonfly hatch would reach its peak near Mecca Flat about Memorial Day weekend or later. But in the past few years, the hatch has come a week or two earlier.

The ongoing project at Round Butte Dam to reintroduce salmon and steelhead into the Upper Deschutes Basin has warmed water in the Lower Deschutes enough to hasten the hatch, according to fish biologists for Portland General Electric.

The equipment at Round Butte Dam on Lake Billy Chinook is providing the optimum water temperature (one to two degrees warmer than before the project) and current to allow the new downstream salmon and steelhead smolts (juveniles) to thrive.

Ryan and I continued hiking the trail, looking for spots on the river where trout might feed on the flies — tight to the banks, under overhanging trees from which the flies occasionally drop.

Salmonfly nymphs spend three to four years in the river. When the water temperature warms in the spring, they migrate along the river bottom to shore. Eventually they crawl out of the river onto rocks, trees or plants, where they metamorphose into adult flies and grow a set of wings.

Even after Ryan’s nab of the trout earlier, the fishing had slowed, so we went back to nymphing with Jimmy Legs patterns. Soon thereafter, Ryan landed two more redbands, one a really bright, shiny 20-incher that I could tell he enjoyed bringing to hand.

He then went back to a salmonfly pattern of his own creation, and in a matter of minutes he landed yet another trout that came splashing out of the water as he stripped it in.

After landing two trout on dry flies, and two on nymphs, we were still at a loss as to which was the most effective fishing method.

Also, Ryan had now caught and released four fish and I had none.

Eventually we hiked to a spot about 2 miles downstream from Mecca Flat, where the river seemed to boil and the current flowed in all different directions. As I drifted my dry fly — without a bite all day — suddenly a fish pounced on it.

Splash! Chomp! Swirl!

I set the hook so hard that I broke the line right off the fly, leaving it in the mouth of the trout, who swam away for some smarter angler to catch later.

It figured. A gentle lift of the rod, or perhaps no movement at all on my part, probably would have sufficed. But I was so eager from the mystique of the Lower Deschutes in May, and from having been skunked all day, that I got caught up in the moment and was too aggressive.

As we hiked back toward Mecca Flat and the car, we stopped at several more holes, but I had missed my only chance.

Even in the throes of the hot and heavy hatch, patience and timing are musts.

— Reporter: 541-383-0318,

Share this post
An aerial view of a body of water.