Salmonfly hatch on the Lower Deschutes

May 24, 2012
Salmonfly hatch on the Lower Deschutes

By Mark Morical / The Bulletin

Last modified: May 24. 2012 12:06PM PST

WARM SPRINGS — Walking the well-worn trail from Mecca Flat and scanning the river for suitable fishing holes, it is easy to notice how at this time of year the Lower Deschutes is teeming with life.

Two red-winged blackbirds fluttered above a tree whose branches stretched out over the river. A deer leapt gracefully over a fence and scampered into a thicket about 50 feet from the bank. In front of us, a small lizard scooted across the trail and disappeared into the long, lush green grass.

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.

The salmonfly hatch is currently reaching its peak on the stretch of the river north of Madras from Mecca Flat downstream to Trout Creek.

On the day we visited the area earlier this week, salmonflies, 3-inch-long gray and orange bugs that land on the surface of the water to lay their eggs, covered the cheatgrass on the banks of the river, and a few fluttered their wings 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 middle to late June.

Now, if the three of us could just get our flies on the water. A fierce wind blew downstream and made it nearly impossible to cast. We tried salmonfly nymphs in the morning but had little luck.

Word from other anglers was that the trout had “gorged themselves” the week before. This came as little surprise. Historically, the salmonfly hatch would reach its peak near Mecca Flat around Memorial Day weekend or later. But in the past couple of 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 Don Ratliff, a fish biologist 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, Ratliff explained.

“It's pretty much in full swing,” said Dave Merrick, of Fly & Field Outfitters in Bend, referring to the hatch. “Our guides started seeing bugs early last week. The last two years have been early, and this year is right on par with the last two.”

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

“There's an old saying that if you're not losing a dozen flies (in the trees or shrubs), you're not fishing the right spots,” Merrick noted.

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.

After no success nymphing, we finally decided to tie on golden stoneflies and see if we could tempt any redband trout to the surface. Many anglers do not even bother nymph- ing when the hatch is on.

Merrick advises anglers to not hesitate to use dry flies this time of year.

“If you're waiting to see bugs flying and fish eating, you're missing the boat,” Merrick said. “The fish are very opportunistic. Whether (salmonflies) are flying or not, I'm still throwing dry flies.”

Finally the wind calmed a bit and the sun came out. We took off our jackets and soaked up the rays. Suddenly, more bugs seemed to be flying in the air.

We tied on golden stoneflies and roll casted (short, low casts) to get them out on the water through the wind.

After several casts, Bulletin photographer Ryan Brennecke's fly was attacked. He waited a beat for the fish to turn back down into the water, then lifted his rod to set the hook. He stripped in a 20-inch native rainbow and admired its rich color and spotting.

He released the fish, then landed a smaller redband a few minutes later.

The hatch is on, and the natives are still hungry.

— Reporter: 541-383-0318,

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