The Tug is the Drug.
This bit of steelheading gospel is plastered on the rear bumper of the Ford Ranger hell-bent on passing every car driving less than 75 mph on Hwy. 97 between Bend and Maupin. Through the canopy's dust-covered back window, just visible in the grey light, is a rod holder filled with thick-barreled, cork-handled seven and eight weight rods that are half-broken-down to accommodate their length. Mounds of waders and insulating layers peak above the tailgate. In the cab, two grizzled faces - with eyes looking not at the road, but at the rapidly lightening sky - hover over coffee cups. It's 24 degrees outside, early winter, and a steelhead mission is in the making.
"At this time of year, we're seeing a fair amount of nasty, snowy, rainy, funky weather in Bend, but down on the lower Deschutes it's still absolutely beautiful," says Damien Nurre, a veteran Deschutes River guide and owner of Central Oregon's Deep Canyon Outfitters. "It's offering some of the best fishing of the season, especially for steelhead," Nurre adds.
Summer steelhead begin migrating from the Pacific Ocean into the Columbia system in July. They find their way into the Deschutes River in late summer, where the lower river run has become famous for the number and strength of fish. By September, from Maupin to the mouth of the river, the fishery begins to see large amounts of pressure from anglers skating dry flies, swinging sink tip lines and throwing traditional hardware. All looking to hook-up.
Despite a fair amount of consternation from experienced anglers about declining catches, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) summer creel surveys and counts from the live trap at Sherar's Falls showed good numbers for steelhead, said Jason Seals, assistant district biologist for the mid-Columbia district. This past October, 795 fish entered the trap at Sherar's compared to 694 in 2010. Annually, ODFW sees 2,000 to 3,000 wild and hatchery steelhead combined through Sherar's, said Seals.
This is also the first year that steelhead fry released as juveniles upriver of the dam have returned to the new fish passage facility as adults. The successful migration is part of the Portland General Electric/Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs project to restore fish passage around the Pelton and Round Butte Dams, allowing steelhead and salmon to reclaim historic spawning habitat in the Upper Deschutes Basin, including Whychus Creek and the Metolius River.
The return of these fish brings the project a step closer to its goal of restoring a naturally producing stock above Round Butte Dam, said Jim Bartlett, a fish passage biologist with PGE.
The successful returns and good numbers don't necessarily translate to huge individual catches, possibly due to the high number of anglers on the water.
The pressure on the lower river has been immense throughout the season, but it's beginning to slow and taper off, said Nurre. Over the last two weeks, he's seen fewer people on the water, and with water temperatures hovering slightly higher than normal fishing is firing up.
Throughout November and into December, steelhead migration throughout the river is at its peak. Anglers willing to incorporate different fishing tactics and brave colder temperatures are likely going to realize big rewards that include swift takes, reels emptied down to the backing, bent rods, violent jumps and tail walks that make the surface of the water look solid.
There's always a host of variables to consider on the water when fishing for steelhead. External changes in water temperature and flows, coupled with internal physiological changes result in behavioral changes in the fish. Understanding these changes can mean the difference between success and failure.
Like most species of Pacific Salmon, steelhead cease to feed once they enter freshwater streams. That means matching the hatch isn't a requirement, as it often is when fishing for non-anadromous trout. When fishing flies, presentation and technique largely carry more weight than pattern choice. The fish are also on a mission to get to their spawning waters the trick is to intercept them in the process. As temperatures drop in the Deschutes, the fish continue moving through the lower river, and the ODFW reports that fish are widespread over the 100 miles of habitat from the Pelton Dam to the confluence with the Columbia.
"The fish are still on the move, but they're slowing down and concentrating in good holding areas," said Nurre. "By understanding the river and the behavior, we often have some of our best catch rates right now in November."
Holding water is often described as those sections of the river that are three to six feet deep and flowing at a gradual pace, neither fast nor slow. In these areas, fish are lower in the water channel, and anglers may want to consider abandoning surface flies.
"Top-water presentation is likely going to be unsuccessful. Droppers and indicators with a slower presentation will be more likely to result in a grab. In the slower water, you need to use slower tactics," Seals said.