I love October on the Deschutes River, especially when banks of dark clouds roll over the rimrock and a gentle rain drizzles all day long.
The Deschutes flows through a deep desert canyon, and the long, dry summer had drained the landscape into a mix of olive-green sage and brown, crackling grass -- except the narrow, lush strip of green next to the big, clear river. As the rain misted down, the clean, spicy, sharp scent of wet sagebrush filled the air. I love the scent of wet sage in October, as it usually means the Deschutes' wild redsides rainbow are in the backeddies scarfing down on crippled caddis, midges and blue wing olive mayflies.
October is also steelhead time on the Lower Deschutes, but I wanted to see my favorite sight in fishing, which is nice trout sharking around an eddy and porpoising in achingly long rises that first bring the head out of the water, then the back and dorsal fin -- and finally -- the tail. These rises make a 15-inch-long trout look 24 inches long.
Other anglers flexed long spey and switch rods and fired long casts into tailouts and the bucket water of long, rolling runs. I guess I'm just kind of a small-time angler, as I can't ignore scads of rising trout -- some of the best fly fishing of the year -- in hopes of hooking some steel.
All this means that I had most of the prime eddies and bank water to my own greedy, trout-addled self.
Just as I was rigging up -- 4-weight rod, floating line and 9-foot leader with about 24 inches of 5X tippet -- a mighty whooshing and chugging racket drowned out the ever-present rustle of water moving over rock. A steam engine pulling passenger cars barreled around a sweeping corner on the other side of the river and muscled up the modest grade in billows of black and white smoke.
It was the old Southern Pacific 4449 Locomotive hauling one of its special passenger trains to Bend.
I grabbed my camera and started shooting. The western bank of the Deschutes has a rail line -- the eastern bank once had rails as well -- and it's common to see several freight trains each day. But seeing an old-school steam locomotive pulling passengers was like traveling back in time 60 or 70 years, when almost all the trains ran on steam. Back in those days, affluent anglers from Portland, Oregon would board a special car in the city and ride in comfort to a special siding, where the car -- complete with beds -- was left for a weekend's fishing. Another train would pick up the car on Sunday evening and get the anglers back in the city in time for work on Monday.
Trains are part of the Deschutes, and much of the east bank's trail system feeds off the old, trackless railroad grade.
After SP 4449 vanished -- it's hard to believe it was built in 1941 -- I started inching down the back to a favorite eddy, where wild rainbow trout rode the gently swirling current and rose with the steady calm of cows chewing their cuds. These fish hadn't been bothered in a while, and I watched them rise for a few minutes. I always assume that October rains will bring up blanket hatches of blue wing olive mayflies in size 18 to a very dinky 22, but a lot of caddis were fluttering over the water, and I didn't see one mayfly.
I bent over and almost put my nose into the water, so I could peer along the surface. No mayflies at all, but lots of caddis pupa and crippled adults were awash in the surface film. Most were a size 16, and some were olive, some brown and some gray.
I tied on an X-Caddis and made reach casts -- downstream at a angle with a little bit of slack -- toward the fish rising on the edge of the swirling eddy. Fishing an eddy is tough, as the currents move the fish around all the time, and those same currents instantly drag a tight leader and turn your fly into a fish-spooking motorboat.
Sometimes it helps to put on a longer tippet and get a few wiggly coils onto the water at the end of the cast. In this kind of fishing, one or two more inches of drift can mean a lot, and I don't mind cinching on up to four feet of 5X -- or even 6X if I'm using a size 18 or smaller fly. Yeah, landing a good trout on 6X is tough if the fish rolls out of the eddy into the fast current, but it's better to hook and lose fish than to never hook fish. Besides, many trout will stubbornly stay in the eddy. All this said, I use 5X whenever I can, as I like to play trout quickly and get them back on their way.
The downcurrent reach cast lets me feed line into the drift, which gives the fly more time to interest a trout. It usually takes me a few casts to catch the pattern of the eddy. On this day, I probably made more than 15 casts before my fly rode the currents into a trout's mouth.
That first fish ran all the way across the eddy and launched into the air. Just one wild rainbow trout like this pours light into the day --even when rain drips off the bill of my cap.
Every bankside eddy seemed to have some rising fish, and I slowly worked my way up the bank and crept into position in each eddy. The trout were waiting.
Not all the fish were big, and I managed to bungle quite a few rises, but each fish was perfect and beautiful. Sometimes, you'll hook a 15-inch redsides, and it will roll into a current seam and line will just ripple off the reel. The fish and current feel like 20 inches of trout, and I'm always amazed to see 14 or 15 inches of spotted, shining perfection finning at my feet.
It rained all afternoon, and the trout rose until dusk. I hiked back to the Subaru and felt rainwater run from my soaked cap through my scalp and down my back. I stopped at a huge sagebrush and rubbed my hands on the fragrant leaves.
I smelled the wet, spicy scent of the Deschutes in October all the way home to Hood River.