Steelhead, the iconic fish that once proliferated in rivers from the Oregon coast to the interior of Idaho, are becoming fewer and fewer every year. Even as groups like the Deschutes Basin Land Trust and Confederated Tribes work to restore salmon and steelhead runs on the Upper Deschutes Basin, populations of native fish across the region are falling and in some cases dwindling to the brink of extinction. While hatcheries continue to churn out fish for sport and commercial fisherman, recent studies have confirmed what anybody who has felt the arm-jolting take of a wild fish on a swung fly already knew - hatchery fish are a sub-par species that make a poor substitute for their wild brethren.
Thankfully, conservationists and wild fish advocates have recognized and are publicizing the plight of these majestic fish whose fate is closely intertwined with the preservation of the last and best of our wild places in the Northwest and beyond. In hopes of raising awareness of wild steelhead, several local conservation groups in conjunction with the Bend Orvis store are hosting a Steelhead Festival this Saturday at the Orvis store in the Old Mill.
The festival includes a presentation from prominent steelhead researcher and writer Dylan Tomine and a screening of several steelhead related films includ- ing local filmmaker Michele Alvarado's short film "Steelhead Yawning" which she shot several years ago on the legendary Umpqua River's prolific spawning grounds in Steamboat Creek.
The five-minute film that Alvarado initially produced for Tom Bye of the Drake Magazine has made its way around the fishing and conservation film scene because of its unprecedented glimpse of these elusive wild fish.
"It's funny I rushed it together for the Drake and I wished I knew it was going to get so much exposure," Alvarado said.
It took her about a month to get the shot she was after which she captured after donning full scuba gear and swimming upriver like a migrating fish behind the steelhead as they collected below a waterfall.
More recently Alvarado filmed several segments for the feature film Raising The Ghost, a movie that melds adventure footage (a.k.a. fish porn) with a conservation message. And it was Alvarado who initially suggested that Bend Orvis consider hosting a wild steelhead festival based on a similar event that the film's producers put on last November in Montana. That event drew more than 1,000 fisherman, conservationists and industry representatives.
Bend Orvis Fly Fishing Director and organizer Kevney Dugan said they are shooting for a more modest turn out in Bend - despite the region's proximity to world-class steelhead fisheries like the Umpqua, Sandy and Lower Deschutes rivers. Dugan said the staff will be rearranging the store to accommodate as many as 200 people for the event, which will also include beer and appetizers.
While the underlying message is certainly one of alarm for people who care about the fate of wild fish, the goal isn't to solicit a bunch of donations. The store is, however, hosting a fundraising raffle (with proceeds going to river restoration projects) that will include prizes from Orvis as well as a guided float trip and two-night stay at Sunriver.
"The thought is you pay $10, you get a pretty good chance of winning something, but you're not going to be asked to give $500 because there's enough of that already," Dugan said.
Rather, Dugan said the aim is to bring fishermen together for an event to share stories and learn. Besides, it's impossible to put more than half a dozen steelheaders in a room with free beer and not expect a few laughs. After all, this is a bunch of guys (and a few girls) who get their kicks standing in ice cold rivers in the pre-dawn hours and characterize any day when they don't have to fight wind-blown casts or crowds in their favorite hole as productive, regardless of whether they even feel a fish on the end of the line. In other words, they're optimists.
In addition to the serious science and politics, the event will include the aforementioned film Raising the Ghost, which was filmed by a group of young Montana fishermen in British Columbia on the Valhalla of steelhead river systems, the Skeena Drainage and includes a you-gotta-see-it-to-believe-it section of the group casting to and repeatedly catching steelhead out of a pool on dry flies during a rare Green Drake hatch.
While an after party was originally slated next door to Orvis at the Old Mill Martini Bar, the bar/restaurant's recent closure means the party will be moving to a yet-to-be-determined venue for additional extrapolation on just how far that fish ran into your backing, and just how big that fish was that came unbuttoned before you could land it.
Save Wild Steelhead Festival
5 p.m. April 25, Orvis Bend 320 SW Powerhouse Dr. 318-8200, All ages. Free.