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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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The jet boats disgorged mostly fishermen equipped with spinning rods. Some of them seemed so disdainful of effort that they used side-planers, which keep spoons and plugs fluttering in midstream without the angler's having to do anything but simply hang on to the rod. "Don't worry," Johnson said. "Most of them will be gone by the morning." When the weekend was over, in other words.

"O.K.," I said, launching Freight Train with cast number 278, Johnson having calculated that a steelhead fisherman delivered, on average, 300 casts per day. "I'll wait till then."

Indeed, that evening, as we set up camp, most of the jet sleds seemed to be slamming back home. And by suppertime the only sound to rip the fabric of the star-shot night was the wailing and clanking of another real freight train.

As its rattle died away, Johnson said, "The jet boats are one thing, but the real big battle in this valley was back at the start of the century." He meant, he said, the last of the great baronial railroad battles fought in the U.S. When construction began on the west bank of the river, in 1909, there were 3,000 to 4,000 laborers working for James J. Hill, chairman of the Great Northern Railway. On the east bank was an equal force representing Edward H. Harriman's Union Pacific. The prize was access to central Oregon and its billions of square feet of pine planking and grazing land. By the time, two years later, that Hill triumphantly drove the symbolic gold spike to mark the conquest of the Deschutes Gorge at Bend, Ore., Harriman was dead, but the "impossible" gorge now had two railways, one on each side of the river. There had been mysterious landslides, cattle stampedes and shootouts between the rival construction gangs, and the thought of men working with pick and shovel for 20 cents an hour in such conditions and terrain was strong stuff to sleep on. At dawn Johnson shook me out of muddled dreams of both kinds of freight trains. And now, though the valley had almost emptied of anglers, it was full of ghosts. I snapped to. The Deschutes owed me my first steelhead, and my time was dwindling.

Johnson led the way down the bank to a spot he called the Tail Out of Number 3 Hole. "That's an unromantic name, I know," Johnson said. "Maybe we should change it to Leary's Hole, on account of a man called Leary who once caught six steelhead there in a single evening." I could see why Leary had done so well. Below the hole the water boiled white, but here at the tail was a triangle of easy water between shallow riffles. It was plain that any steelhead that battled its way through that current would want to rest right there. I sent the Freight Train on its way to curl slowly across the lie. "Just 299 casts to go," I told myself.

The fish took the fly on the third or fourth mend. I remembered not to hit him, to let him hook himself, just as you let an Atlantic salmon turn in the current when it takes a fly in low water, so that the river itself sets the iron. It works with steelhead, too, I found.

And then my fish was heading across river, taking out the full 90 feet of fly line and working well into the backing. I knew that if he turned downstream, into the white water, he was gone. I swung my rod left, to the downstream side, hoping that the side strain would fool him into thinking he was being pulled downriver. Once again an ancient ruse worked. My steelhead, in his contrariness, turned upstream, and after that it was only a matter of time—and of backing out of the waist-deep current without falling.

I beached my fish gently, a rosy-sided, rosy-cheeked cock fish. It was not a hatchery-bred fish—they are marked by being fin-clipped—but a wild Deschutes fish that had returned from out in the Pacific to spawn. And I had caught him on a fly. On a Freight Train. Silently I dedicated the fish to all those laborers who had built the railroad. Gently I put him back into the water and held him facing upstream until his gills started to move well and new oxygen started into his blood. And then with a swish of his tail he was gone.

There would be more nights on the river and more Deschutes steelhead to come before Johnson and I would shoot Gordon Ridge and Rattlesnake rapids—and by then I would be so toughened that I wouldn't call out for a silk blindfold when we hit the big white standing waves. But not one of those fish would I remember like that first beauty out of Leary's Hole. And what's more, if I ever get to the Kispiox or any of those other fabled rivers in British Columbia, there's one thing I know for sure. That the bait fishermen will have nothing over me as long as I sing "Freight Train, Freight Train, going so s-l-o-w."

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