The peak of the Deschutes River Salmonfly Madness was long gone when I hiked along the Warm Springs to Trout Creek stretch on June 2.
I had fished the water a week before -- and found dense, seething swarms of golden stoneflies and salmonflies in the bankside alders, canary grass and wild roses. I also found dense, seething swarms of eager fly anglers, but that's how it is when the big stonefly nymphs lumber from the water, split their backs and emerge into giant, winged insects the size of my thumb.
And, yes, the wonderful Deschutes River redsides trout notice all that juicy food flopping all over the place. They also notice all the anglers flopping all over the place. All this makes the trout act kind of funny -- and how we don't expect them to behave.
We expect them to line up in soft current seams and gobble down all the dumb protein flopping and splashing downstream. After all, that would be the most efficient way to do this, and that's how these very same trout often behave during an evening caddis hatch in July.
But salmonflies and golden stoneflies freak out the fish. Lots of good anglers are on the river, and many of these fish -- especially the big ones -- have bad memories connected to big flies in late May and early June. Those memories are all about scarfing down a juicy-looking bug that suddenly bites back and then drags them around the river before some weird, clammy hand lets them go.
Some people will tell you that fish are dumb, but those tiny, pea-sized brains are paranoid, and the trout change their behavoir when the big bugs arrive.
Sure, you'll find big redsides acting silly and reckless during this hatch, but we don't usually see it, as these fish are under the water's surface and scarfing down on the giant nymphs lumbering along on the migration towards shore. Fishing a big stonefly nymph along the bank seams before the big hatch starts is the easiest route to Salmonfly Trout-O-Rama.
I have seen all-out blitzes on the surface, but they don't last long -- and they never seem to happen at the same place the next day.
But we all really want to catch these big trout, and especially see a big head poke out of the water and hoover down our big battleship of a dry fly. Salmonfly time -- along with October Caddis in the fall -- is when the really big redsides rainbow trout come out of the deep seams and eat dry flies. But these fish are cagy, paranoid and picky.
They're also not usually out in open spots where it is easy to wade and easy to cast. These fish find spots where most fly anglers will not go. The big, smart trout are usually close to the bank, but they're also often under trees, in little buckets along rocky banks, near snaggy logs or anyplace that has deep water nearby and tough wading along the bank.
So, when I got to the Deschutes, I immediately headed away from the clumps and clusters of other anglers and looked for the painful water. I found a spot where the bank had caved away during high water. Young willow and alder trees were sprouting along the bank. I watched two anglers walk along this mini cliff and flip casts down into the water -- but they didn't bother to find a way down to the edge -- where they could sneak upstream and poke casts right along the bank -- or into the slot between an overhanging willow tree and a bleached-out log sticking out of the current.
So, I walked downstream and found a way to get to the water -- and then I started slowly, slowly, slowly wading upstream and firing my Chubby Chernobyl -- this year's hot dry fly for salmonflies and golden stonefiles -- along the bank and right under the overhanging willow branches. My favorite pattern for Deschutes redsides during salmonflies is the fabulous Norm Woods Special, but it really pays to carry two or three different patterns -- just to give the fish a choice. This is important.
So, this year I'm carrying the fashionable Chubby Chernobyl, the Norm Woods and the classic Clark's Stone, which often works when the trout reject the other two flies. If you're fishing on the Deschutes and a trout comes up -- but does not eat your fly -- change to a different fly right away. If you show that picky fish the same fly again, it will probably just ease away and vanish into that nearby deep water.
Amy Hazel, longtime river guide and co-owner, along with John Hazel, of the terrific Deschutes Angler fly shop in Maupin, Oregon, tells anglers this all year. Amy and John fish the river all of the time, and they know what they're talking about.
I also carry these flies in larger, orangish versions for the bigger salmonflies and slightly smaller, more golden versions for the small golden stoneflies. Sometimes the fish decide they like golden stones more than salmonflies.
I didn't get any strikes for the first 100 feet or so on this bank, and it felt dicey to wade along the shallow ledge right next to deep, fast water. But I knew the fish were around, and I really wanted to drop some casts into that slot between the bank and the bleached-out log. So, I slowly worked my way up to the spot in a cast, cast, step rhythm.
I got within casting distance of that little slot, and I managed to hit the spot on the first cast -- probably because I got about 50 practice casts before that money cast.
I got lucky, and the trout walloped the fly as it bobbed on the surface between the steep willow bank and the log. My heart jacked into high gear.
The fish vaulted out of the water, but he was too portly to jump very high. Then he slid into the fast water and burned downstream into my backing. I have a time-tested system for coping with big fish. Here's how it works:
First, I tell myself that it's great to hook the fish -- especially if it is a nice fish from a tough spot.
Then I tell myself I just want to get a good look at the fish before it gets off the hook.
Then, in the rare case when things are going pretty well and I've gotten a good look at the fish, I tell myself to stay calm and just enjoy the excitement.
So, even if the fish slips the hook, my knot fails or some other catastrophe happens, I feel pretty good about the whole deal.
Trouble is, I really wanted to land this fish and take a photo or two. This kind of greed is a part of being human, but I sometimes get disappointed with myself.
Anyway, the hook held, and I worked the fish back to me -- only to see it rip downstream again. I like to land my trout as fast as possible, as the best moment is the actual hookup and I don't want to stress the fish too much. I use 1X and 2X tippet during salmonfly time, but I was worried that the barbless hook would work free. Luckily for me, Paul Di Napoli arrived on the scene and deftly netted the fish. Paul, who is a cool guy, also grabbed my camera and took a few photos.
"Nice fish!" Paul said, and I basked in glow of catching a big trout in front of other anglers. Why is it that I try to avoid other anglers on the river, but I'm so glad to have them nearby when I catch a nice fish? I think this trait lives in the same section of my brain as the greedy part.
We talked for a bit after the fish darted away into deeper water, and I gave Paul a few flies. I hope to fish an evening caddis hatch or two with him in July or August.
Then it was back to creeping upstream and poking casts into rugged spots along the bank. I kept a wary eye out for poison oak and rattlesnakes, which are both abundant on the Deschutes, but I mostly savored some solitude. Every now and then, a fish would rise to one of my flies, but I got more rejections than hookups. That's how it is late in the yearly Deschutes Salmonfly Madness, as the fish have gotten a lot of pressure from a lot of very good fly anglers. I also bungled a couple of fish. Sometimes I get excited and set the hook too fast.
You know, this kind of fishing is a lot like fishing grasshopper flies in summer. You slowly, quietly work your way along the bank and drop big flies into tight spots. Every now and then you snag the fly on a tree branch, grass or shrub, and you spook a fish as you creep upstream to free the fly. The fishing is rarely fast, but you're happy with a nice trout every 45 minutes or so. There are slower patches when nothing much happens for more than an hour, but you keep casting, mostly because it's fun -- and you know the fish are there, and it's all about finding another biter.
The last fish of the day was a little bit of a surprise. I stumbled, crawled and waded through a very rugged stretch of overhanging trees, thickets of bankside roses and blackberry vines and lots of downed logs. Yet, I'm pretty sure a few other jungle-exploring anglers had been through the maze, as fish after fish rejected my flies in flashes, short strikes and boils
Jungle water is full of pain, but it also is full of pleasure
I found a slot between two trees, and there wasn't room for a backcast. When this happens, I use a little trick my friend Jeff Perin showed me more than 20 years ago. You flip the fly out into the current and mend line downstream until the fly floats under the branches of the downstream tree. One of two things can happen: A fish will strike or the fly will drag and go underwater.
If a fish doesn't strike, quickly strip the line until it is tight and then use a sidearm lob to tuck the fly under the branches of the upstream tree. This is just like the water haul nymph anglers sometimes use to flip their flies back upstream. You have to be quick, as you don't want the dry fly to get waterlogged under the downstream tree.
This method, along with creative mending, allows the careful angler to fish under both trees, even if there is no room for conventional casting.
It took about five of these lob-and-drift casts to finally tuck my Chubby Chernobyl into the sweet spot -- a bubble line coming off a little seam under the upstream tree. A nice redsides porpoised on the fly in a head-and-tail rise that you'd expect to see during a mayfly hatch.
A few minutes and one run into the backing later, the last fish of the day came to my hand. I didn't set the river on fire during the long afternoon, and more trout rejected my flies than ate my flies. But I got a little bit of Deschutes Salmonfly Madness out of the day.
The big flies hang out in the trees and bankside brush through the first week or two of June, and a few nice fish keep looking for them. Looking for those fish is a lot of fun, but don't forget to also carry Yellow Sally stoneflies, Pale Morning Dun dries and spinners -- and lots of different caddis patterns, as you'll often find fish rising to these hatches as the salmonflies fade into the memory of the trout -- and the anglers -- for another year.