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Clive Gammon
May 14, 1990
Fishing the Deschutes calls for grit and good footing
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May 14, 1990

With Steely Resolve

Fishing the Deschutes calls for grit and good footing

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I put all that resolutely out of my mind, something easily done as we floated downriver and the dawn backlighted the towering cliffs of the canyon with its precipices and giant organ-pipe formations of dun basalt streaked green with lichen. So steep and unforgiving were the canyon walls that I recalled reading that when the U.S. Army Topographic Engineers surveyed it in 1855 with a view to building a railroad, the project was dismissed as being impossible.

At which point, on cue, came the rackety roar of a Burlington Northern freight train pushing its way up a railbed that had been carved out of the west bank. As the boxcars clanked by, Johnson said, "All the time you fish this river, you're aware of the railroad. The Deschutes is full of railroad names. We got the Green Light Hole, a terrific fishing hole right beside a signal light. There's Wreck Rapids, which speaks for itself, and Boxcar Rapids, which is where Engine No. 857 hit a rock-fall in 1954 and the locomotive went right into that Type 4 white water. They found the engineer right away, but they had to go dragging for the fireman with sturgeon hooks."

We were about to make our first shore-fall—it's illegal to fish the Lower Deschutes from a boat—and I was about to get acquainted with what Johnson called "aggressive wading." With chest waders on, you don't just step out of a high-prowed McKenzie drift boat, not on the Deschutes you don't. Instead you do a kind of Fosbury Flop so that your felt-soled boots hit the boulders on the bottom together and you have a moderate chance of remaining upright.

"O.K.," said Johnson after I'd made my first successful touchdown, "it's still early in the morning, so fish may be holding here, close in. You've got a relatively easy current and moderate boulders, three or four feet in diameter."

Easy? Moderate? I was barely holding my own, thigh deep, with the help of a wading staff. So I took my time working the inshore lies, while Johnson explained the importance of keeping that Freight Train moving as slowly as possible. As a matter of fact, I was a little ahead of him on this technique. The fishing method he was describing, the constant mending of a floating line so that the fly comes down slowly at the speed of the current, had been invented roughly 4,000 miles away and more than a half century earlier in Scotland by a Mr. Arthur Wood, who was addressing himself to the problem of catching Atlantic salmon in clear, low-water conditions. Since plastic lines were unheard of then, he had to grease his silk line to make it float. Hence I wasn't surprised to hear Johnson speak of "greased-line fishing," though he had probably never had to actually grease a line in his life.

The records show that Wood averaged 159 Atlantics a season, a prodigious number. But that didn't guarantee that by using his method I would decimate the Deschutes's steelhead population, even by combining it with wading that got progressively more aggressive as the day went on. Far from it. No steelhead hit. Or were even seen. I was prevented from concluding that we were fishing barren water by spotting another Deschutes specialty, known locally as redsides. They are native rainbow trout with a cutthroatlike slash of red beneath their gills, and the ones I could see finning in the water were about 16-inchers.

Hey, why not drop down a couple of fly sizes, perhaps something a little less gaudy than the Freight Train, and brighten the day with a few redsides, whispered a small, evil voice inside my head. I shut it out. When the going got tough, would old Arthur over there in Scotland have gone for brown trout? No chance. Steelhead anglers, like salmon anglers, have to be brave, hang in, keep the fly working. Neither salmon nor steelhead feed much in fresh water. Both of them can let a fly swing past a dozen times and unaccountably hit it on the 13th drift. Which means you cast, and cast again, and wage a constant battle to keep your confidence from flagging.

Meantime, it was a small satisfaction that none of the other anglers I saw on the river had found any steelhead. And there were plenty of other anglers. Naively, maybe, when I had arranged this trip with Johnson, I had been thinking in terms of solitude and quiet. Sure, I knew that parts of the Lower Deschutes were publicly owned and that there was road access to much of it. But I hadn't even heard of jet sleds.

I had now, though. Every few minutes one of them would come howling down the canyon. They were big, semi-V-hulled craft that employed, instead of props, high-capacity pumps squirting water for propulsion. It seemed extraordinary that they could rampage at will up and down a river designated wild and scenic by the federal government.

Johnson remained calm as the wakes of the jet boats sloshed around us. "It's our culture," he said. "Give people access to a craft that can travel upriver fast and easily, and you end up with operators with the same profile as freeway drivers, a statistical sampling ranging from the macho idiot to the merely discourteous to the thoughtful, considerate guys." He said that public debate had been going on for a long time over the jet boats and that the responsible authorities were split on the issue.

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