A successful fall steelhead trip starts with the right provisions. If you're running the lower Deschutes, you'll need a boat capable of surviving a head-on collision with a speeding pick-up truck, about half a dozen rods, and 150 hand-tied flies. If it's October, you'll need clothes suited for the third week of June as well as the first week of January because you're likely to experience weather that oscillates between those two polar extremes on any multi-day float. You'll also want some durable, cleated boots to navigate the river's swift currents and notoriously slick rocks. Finally, you'll need the equivalent of a fully stocked bar, at least one bottle of bitters and a jar of pickled, spicy beans. Oh, and an air mattress, which aids in sleeping and can be used as an inflatable boat, should you happen to leave yours at the bottom of the river, as we nearly did a few weeks ago.
In hindsight, maybe that's probably why we saw so few boats on the section of river between our put-in at Trout Creek and Maupin, a popular rafting and angling destination. Maupin is also the only real town on the lower Deschutes, a place whose identity is intertwined with the river (its middle school mascot is the Redsides, after the native rainbow trout and its only bar, which is conveniently located right on main street across from the fly shop in the Rainbow Tavern.)
Maupin is the place where sensible people go to fish come late October when a hot shower, warm bed and cold beer are the soothing salve after a long day of only marginally productive fishing. But armed with a couple of boats and the notion that we were escaping the ubiquitous crowds, we opted to choose the road less traveled - a three and a half day float through some of the best steelhead water on planet, some 30-plus miles of football field-sized runs, shimmering riffles and plunging pools. It was a course that would also take us straight through the river's most revered set of rapids, the mile-long Class III+ Whitehorse Rapids.
Each year, the rapid claims one or two boats and a few people have lost their lives in the long, boulder-strewn stretch of the Deschutes. A sobering reminder of the river's toll sits at the scouting point just above the top of the rapid where a makeshift memorial has been erected to a teenager who died several years ago on a organized trip.
Knowing all of this, our party approached the trip with some measure of trepidation, at least on the part of our experienced, but untested drift boat captain, my good friend and close fishing partner that I'll call here simply Jo Boo.
The rest of us, while holding a healthy respect for Whitehorse, were more focused on the fishing. It had been an up and down season on the lower Deschutes through late summer and early fall. It's a time of year that we all cherish, beginning with the scorching days of early August and ending sometime in late November or early December when your line and your fingers begin to literally freeze. Fishing for steelhead is always hit and miss. To begin with, no one is really sure why steelhead even chase flies or lures; most scientific evidence shows that the ocean-going rainbows don't even eat on their return trip. Then there's the issue of population density. Each year, hundreds, if not thousands, of steelhead enter the Deschutes, seeking spawning grounds, a cold-water refuge from the Columbia's slack currents, or just an upstream adventure. What remains of the once prolific wild fish run is augmented by stray fish from other rivers and a pair of hatcheries that turn out assembly line fish that look better in your frying pan than on the end of your fly line. But with more than 100 miles in which to spread out, finding fish that are willing to chase a piece of dyed feather wrapped around a metal hook can be difficult, especially when you don't know where to look. That was largely the case with our group, which included experienced anglers, but no one who had fished this particular section of water for steelhead. What we did know is that some friends of ours who fished the section last year returned with epic tales of wrists weakened from fighting fish after fish.
But as anyone who has ever wasted a decent amount of time chasing steelhead knows: you can throw last year right out the window. Every year and every run is different. And 2010 was no 2009. Last year more than 600,000 steelhead swam past Bonneville Dam, the first in a series of Columbia River impoundments. This year, a little more than 400,000 made the same journey. That's still more than the 10-year average, but not nearly the number we saw in 2009. Adding to the lower than expected returns was a summertime spike in river temperatures on the lower Deschutes that resulted in fewer fish being caught and concerns that many fish were bypassing the Deschutes altogether in favor of other rivers farther upstream, read Idaho's Snake River.
But we were holding out hope for one big weekend to essentially close out the season. Fishing reports were spotty and the river was running high, which would make both wading and fishing more difficult. We were also expecting near freezing temperatures at night and the prospect of a strong storm system moving in before the end of our trip. Perfect. Three-hundred-fifty dollars in beer and groceries later, we were ready to hit the river.
We launched on a beautiful Thursday morning/afternoon, drifting our flotilla, which consisted of my friend Toby's NRS raft and Jo Boo's 16-foot aluminum drift boat-deep into the canyon. Still we were off to a better start on this trip than when we finished our last river trip together when I "caught" a full can of beer zinged at me from Toby's nearby boat with my upper lip. Luckily, I escaped with my front teeth, if not my pride. This time there would be no beer hurling.
That night we made camp above a small homestead below South Junction, the last public access point above Maupin. We ate homemade chili and sipped cold Coors beers while huddling around a lantern that provided a lot less heat than you might think, but served as a decent focal point. We had one day in the books with zero fish to show. More concerning, an outfitter camped above us reported that fishing had been slow. They were having a tough time putting their paying clients on fish. It was a refrain we'd hear more of in the next few days.
The next morning, Jo Boo stayed behind to watch our two dogs while the rest of us went out in search of some good water. We came back two hours later to find that the dog sitter was the only one to hook a fish - a small hatchery steelhead that he plunked right in front of our camp. That's what you get for stomping two miles down the railroad tracks in the dark...
We were miles away from the rapid, but Whitehorse was looming large. Jo Boo downplayed his concerns. He'd done his homework and Toby was an experienced boater who'd run Whitehorse several times before. After packing our gear, we pushed down river. Within just a few hours, we arrived at the scouting point. A parking lot of sorts on the right side of the river where drift boats and rafts moor temporarily while their occupants scout the churning mess of rocks and spray below, an activity that is usually accompanied by a lot of pointing, and stern nodding. I opted to fish while the rest of the crew hoofed downriver for a look. Half an hour later they were still gone and the fish weren't biting. I found my crew perched over the top of the entrance point, not far from the memorial to the deceased rafter. I couldn't help but think it wasn't the kind of reassurance that you're looking for if you're a first time rower, or even an experienced one for that matter. Twenty minutes later our crew was ready to go. Rowing gloves cinched tightly on his wrists, Jo Boo assured us that he was confident in his line. So with a twinge of guilt I loaded, not into his boat--my usual spot on these trips--but into my friend Toby's raft, leaving my friend John to make the maiden journey through Whitehorse with Jo Boo. To be fair, I'd been riding in Toby's boat all day. And I had no hesitation about riding in Jo Boo's boat. But we probably should have gone rock, paper, scissors for the spot in Toby's boat. But we didn't. So I loaded into to the raft taking John and Jo Boo's fishing rods with me at their request and, in a final display of deference, Jo Boo's car keys. My clothes, however, in a show of solidarity with Jo Boo, would make the journey in his boat along with the rest of my belongings, save my two fly rods. We pushed off and as I looked back at my proxy, John, I couldn't help but think that, like me, he was a father of two young girls. I was fairly sure they'd see their dad again. Oh well, nothing to do about it now.
Within a few seconds Toby and I were over lip and into the shit. We dropped in over the main seam and with a few strokes managed to evade a pair of rocks that give most boaters trouble, a tandem known as the unsettlingly titled "can opener" rock and a second rock about the size of a Harley Davidson, dubbed simply "oh shit" rock. By the time we spun around, John and Jo Boo were just entering the top of Whitehorse, a little far left it looked. Within a blink the bow of the boat was pointed inthe wrong direction. It was obvious Jo Boo wouldn't have enough time to spin the boat and ferry around Can Opener. More trouble waited below left and he was running out of room. Rowing furiously, Jo Boo slid the boat underneath Can Opener and pulled hard at the sticks. Toby and I glanced at each other. It was the proverbial train wreck before our eyes. The water was pushing their boat too fast toward Oh Shit. Rather than take the rock broadside, which surely would have capsized the boat, Jo Boo spun the aluminum drifter and took the hit straight on. We could hear the thud 200 yards downstream, reverberating like the blow of a sledgehammer over the churn of the whitewater. Rather than flip, the boat seemed to bounce back into the current, catching the main seam and drifting away from trouble. Not exactly textbook, but good enough today. The toll: one lost beer cozey and a damaged dry box, which came loose after the force of the impact sheared the bolts holding it in place off the frame.
We spent the next two and half days working though the rest of our beer, that bottle of bitters, a fifth of bourbon and another fifth of vodka. We pulled more drinks from the cooler than we put fish into it. Still we had good food and great company. Not to mention a great story, even if it wasn't a fish tale, per se.
I'm pretty sure that John has a mild case of PTSD and Jo Boo is already shopping for a raft that assures will perform better in whitewater. Me, I'm just glad that I never had to explain the whole thing to John's kids.
Oh yeah, the final fish count: Jo Boo: 2,
The rest of the crew: 0
Proving that there is more than one way to tame a river.