Most folks who live or spend a significant amount of time in Central Oregon don't make it long here before finding their way to the lower Deschutes, that 90-plus-mile stretch of desert canyon river that flows out of the Pelton-Round Butte dam outside Madras to the Columbia River near Biggs. Pam DiDente is the exception. A nurse who has been in Central Oregon for three decades, DiDente's experience with the lower Deschutes was limited to crossing the bridge at Warm Springs while shuttling back and forth from Portland. That's a shame, of course, given that famed and acclaimed stretch of water is at once a blue-ribbon trout fishery, steelheading mecca and premier white water river.
But after years of procrastinating, DiDente decided to change that last fall when she plunked down the winning bid in our annual charity auction to fish the lower Deschutes with myself and Les Stiles, the former Deschutes County sheriff and an accomplished river guide.
This was to be DiDente's maiden voyage on the fabled day section, an eight-mile float from Warm Springs to the Trout Creek campground north of Madras. It was also her first time pulling on a pair of waders and stringing up a fly rod, another Central Oregon milestone that DiDente had for years been hankering to check off her bucket list.
As far as I'm concerned, any excuse to get out on the river is legitimate, particularly in early June when the salmonflies are thick along the bank-side brush and the redside rainbows are feeding with abandon. But in this case, we were doing it for a good cause, the Family Access Network, which provides low-income families and children a link to critical health and social services, received 100 percent of the funds that we raised in last year's auction.
DiDente had been waiting for more than six months to cash in on her winning bid. As luck would have it, we were afforded one of the rare perfect days weather-wise this spring to do it. The second Friday in June was one of those quintessential early summer days with a few slow-drifting clouds overhead in an otherwise azure sky and just a touch of wind to keep things interesting.
Over the course of the last decade, I've done a lot of floats on the lower Deschutes river, from chasing early season trout to battling snow and freezing lines in an often futile attempt at one last December steelhead. It never gets old, but it's a special privilege to introduce someone like DiDente to the river. She had hoped to bring her son along, but circumstances conspired against us. Luckily, friend Dave Bourke, a local business owner and former board president of the Cascade School of Music was willing to fill in. Bourke, an experienced angler, was looking forward to getting back out on the Deschutes River during the salmonfly hatch.
For the uninitiated, the salmonfly is a freak of nature, a giant insect that spends the majority of its life crawling around and under rocks on the river bottom, invisible and largely irrelevant to most anglers who are focused on the water's surface. But for a few weeks each year, the stonefly becomes the focus of every fly angler within 100 miles of the Deschutes, where the insect's annual hatch approaches legendary proportions. It starts in mid-May when stonefly nymphs, driven by a biological imperative as old as the river itself, inch their way out of the current and crawl up the banks. Within a matter of days, the bugs, which can measure up to two inches long and more closely resemble a small bird than a delicate mayfly, begin to take clumsily to the skies. When the hatch begins, usually around the last week of May, the word spreads far and fast. By Memorial Day, salmonflies, which are characterized by their long, segmented bodies and distinctive orange thorax, and their smaller cousin, the golden stoneflies, can be found in good numbers from Maupin to Warm Springs.
While the bite can be unpredictable, ranging from non-existent to epic, the crowds are not. True to form, we got our first taste of the crowds to come in Madras where pick-ups towing drift boats jockeyed for position at the Safeway gas pumps. By the time we got to Warm Springs, there were half a dozen boats queuing up for the boat launch.
Longtime guide and Fly and Field Store Manager Dave Merrick said the crowds came a little later this year than usual, even though the bugs arrived a bit earlier thanks to a new dam release protocol that's been implemented by PG&E in concert with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Despite weather that was at times less than spring like, Merrick said the shops' guides and clients experienced some good fishing over the past few weeks.
"We're preaching and telling folks earlier is better, especially the local folks," Merrick said.
Even so, the fish will continue to look up and take large dry flies well into June.
While we saw the large bugs tapering off as we got closer to Trout Creek, we experienced moments of solid dry fly fishing, including one pool where we hooked and lost three large fish before Dave landed one. But the real coup was the chance to see Pam break in her waders by landing her first Deschutes rainbow, which she did after teasing the rest of us by fooling half a dozen fish in an inside seam only to loose them due to inexperienced hook setting. By the time we reached the boat ramp at Trout Creek, we had all hooked at least one fish to remember and made some new friends on the way, which, by the way, is what fishing is all about.