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A good way to get it right, I found, was to change the words of the old folk tune just a tad. So, "Freight Train, Freight Train, going so slow" is what I sang as I stumbled downstream, chest deep in the manic currents of the Lower Deschutes River. Softly, of course. I didn't want Johnson suspecting that what he liked to call "aggressive wading" was scaring me sideways.
I cast again, a long double haul, 85 feet crosscurrent and a bit up, then flipped the rod tip hard to throw a big loop upstream, which would slow up the fly. "Mending the line," as the fly-fishing fraternity says. And as the fly swung across and down, I kept mending, just as Johnson had told me to when we started into the water from our beached drift boat. "Hands off the throttle, engineer," I told myself. "Don't let that fly start highballing along too quickly in the current. Travel slow. Give those steelhead a chance to see what you're offering them."
Still I wondered, and not for the first time, how a steelhead could possibly miss seeing that extravaganza of a fly, known in these parts as a Freight Train. Its body ("Always tied on a number-6 hook, never a number-4 Atlantic salmon fly hook," Johnson had said, a little pedantically I thought) was comparatively modest, being wound of black chenille and then overlaid with silver ribbing. But its wings were a Las Vegas purple, and the tail was in two sections—cherry red and fluorescent orange-purple. I could see how this combination of violent colors could evoke memories of the fiery tenders on the steam locomotives of the past and might have given the fly its name.
As I let the Freight Train chug slowly through the current, however, there was no interception. Once the line straightened out downstream, I let the fly hang still in the water for a count of ten, as Johnson had instructed, then hauled in for a new cast. There were going to be plenty of those on this Deschutes trip.
"We're going to be floating 37 miles of river," Jim Johnson had said. "Which means, roughly, 46.7 million square feet of water. So you have a management problem unless you want to spend the next six years fishing every day to get your steelhead. So you keep moving, you wade aggressively, you cast long only to good water."
That was fine by me. I didn't want my first steelhead—which is what the sea-run version of the rainbow trout is called—the easy way. It is not that difficult, in point of fact, to catch a steelhead, if that's all you want to do—catch a fish. If you want one to stick up on the den wall like right now, this very minute, before the shops shut, so to speak, all you have to do is empty your bank account, head to British Columbia and dunk some salmon eggs in a river like the Kispiox. Bam! A steelhead is almost sure to gobble your bait, and then you just have to crank him in.
At the other end of the scale of difficulty, though, you can do as I did and take a fly rod to the Lower Deschutes, which slices through the petrified lava desert of Central Oregon, east of the Cascades. On the average, the Deschutes drops around 13 feet in every mile. That number really doesn't tell the story; just let me say that having waded the Deschutes, I'll have second thoughts about any similar adventure into a river with a steeper gradient.
But I'd made a good start, I reckoned, by linking up with Johnson of Corvallis, Ore., who is not your ordinary sort of guide. He is a bearded, solid, carefully spoken Vietnam veteran who had originally come to Oregon from his home state of California to work on his doctorate in political science at the University of Oregon in Eugene. That was in 1967, a vintage year for disenchantment with politics, and Johnson eventually dropped out of school to start a consulting business with a partner. It was a successful, if laid-back, operation, but he got disenchanted again, this time with chasing contracts and "keeping up with the martini circuit," he says. He opened up an outfitting company and became one of his own full-time guides. "In the last 10 years I haven't aged at all," he said when we first met. "I've become a part of one of the better service industries."
The sun had not come up when we launched at Jones Canyon, just downstream of the town of Maupin (pop. 505, and pronounced to rhyme with hoppin'), as part of a small flotilla of wooden McKenzie drift boats backed up by two inflatables to haul the logistical necessities of a four-day float trip. Johnson tossed me a serious-looking life jacket. "But don't worry," he said. "We won't be hitting any 3's or 4's until almost the end of the trip."
I'd read the Handbook to the Deschutes River Canyon, so I knew what 3's and 4's were—classifications of the degrees of difficulty of rapids. Type 3 was merely "Dangerous. Swamping or overturning is common." But Type 4 really sounded like it was going to be fun: "Very dangerous.... High standing waves and midstream obstructions force maneuvering in powerful hydraulics. Suckholes are capable of capsizing the most stable craft...." I later noticed what I considered to be a serious omission in the handbook's Sample Gear List. There was no mention of the silk blindfold I was going to need a quarter of a mile before Johnson hit a Type 4.