Over the last few decades the decline of anadromous fish throughout the Columbia River drainage has been a major cause for concern. Some stocks are doing better than others, but no doubt all have experienced declines. While the 1990's saw many of these stocks at their breaking point, today some have started to recover and in some instances even stabilize. Over the past weekend Blake and I made our way east of the Cascade Mountains to visit one such high desert fishery.
We made our way out of town on Thursday, but got a bit of a later start than we were hoping for, yet still managed to make it to the river with an hour to spare before dark. So naturally we strung up the rods and hit the water as soon as possible. We decided that with time running short on the day we would just swing flies, so I put on an October Caddis pattern and started fishing. After about 20 minutes of casting and swinging flies my peaceful evening was interrupted by a strong tug on the end of my line nearly ripping my rod out of my hand. I instinctively set on the resistance and was fast into a strong fish. The fish gave me a bit of a dogged fight, doing a bit of the thrashing on the surface, but mostly holding to deeper water and doing its best to test the drag on my reel. However this strategy didn't payoff for this fish and within a few minutes I was sliding her up into the shallows.
My first redband steelhead and my first landed steelhead on the swing
October Caddis.... Yummy...
For the rest of the night we didn't have as much as another bump, but with a steelhead under my belt already things were off to a good start and any pressure there was to catch a fish was long gone.
The next morning we were on the water just as the sun was breaking over the horizon and figured that with conditions right for swinging flies we would start with that. However after a couple of hours of swinging with only a few subtle taps, we decided to switch gears and go with some dead drifted nymphs. Blake went with his switch rod while I went with my 9'6" 6wt and a double stonefly set up.
It didn't take to long for Blake to break the morning skunk, with a little Chinook salmon the decided a small stone fly was looking mighty tasty.
Blake's little Chinook
My turn was next, but this time it was a steelhead on the end of my line. On thing with indicator nymph fishing is that you never quite know what you are going to hook into and I just remember that my first thought upon seeing this 10+lb bruiser jump was "oh great what am I going to do with this!" The fish was more than happy to give me a run for my money too, spending as much time tail walking as in the water and heading straight into my backing. However he also led me straight into Blake's line quicker than he could get it out of the water and using that as ammo broke both of us off. However it was a heck of a ride while it lasted....
After re-rigging I went back up to where I had hooked into the fish, a subtle little seam several feet off of a boulder and within a few casts I had another take and got a solid hook set and it was game on again! When this fish shot out of the water I could have sworn it was the first one's twin and once again I was in for a battle. 10 minutes later and several hundred feet down the bank I finally got the better of the brute, which ended up being a beautiful double redband 30" 10lb hatchery buck.
A good fish to start the day with!
After this fish, Blake decided to head upstream and within a few minutes it was his turn first with another smaller jack Chinook salmon, finally a steelhead found its way to his fly. With the advantage of the switch rod, his battle was much quicker and within a few minutes he brought a beautiful wild buck that was just a hair smaller than my hatchery fish to shore.
Blake's wild fish
We had a good long lull in the fishing after Blake got his fish, but with fish pushing up stream a productive lie isn't going to stay vacant for long, my seam proved its worth again when another steelhead decided my stonefly nymph passed inspection and came rocketing out of the water. This fish was a bit smaller than the first few and my six weight was a bit more evenly match so after a quick battle a bought a beautiful little wild steelhead into the shallows.
My first true wild native Columbia Basin redband steelhead
Shortly after this Blake had a good take and miss, which was followed by good fishless hour leading us to decide it was time for a lunch break and a look at some new water. After a great lunch at a local bakery, we decided that we should see what the water upstream had in store and headed up to a spot that had treated Blake well in the past.
It didn't take long for us to find a fish at this spot and within about 20 minutes Blake, who was twitching a flesh fly across a run good a good grab and a couple minutes later brought a beautiful bull trout to shore. I don't know what it is about bull trout; their rarity, aggressive nature, unique appearance or all of the above, but they have to one of my favorite salmonids and it was an a treat to see Blake catch one of these beautiful char.
With a bull trout in the neighborhood, we had high hopes for this stretch of river, but after covering nearly a mile of river without as much as a bump it was once again time to move on. With the knowledge that the lower part of the river had been producing in the morning, we head back downstream where we met up with a Mike, a customer from the fly shop that would be doing some lake fishing with us on Saturday. Mike was completely new to steelheading, so we started him out with swinging and showed him the ropes before breaking hitting the water. Blake and Mike took the run where I had gotten the fish on Thursday, while I went upstream where Blake got his wild buck in the morning. For the next 45 minutes things were crazy for me as this spot was apparently thick with fish but after five good hook ups I still hadn't landed a single on. I was also preoccupied with trying to get Blake and Mikes attention so we could try to get him into a fish since they were definitely in here but I also didn't want to give the spot up since there was some anglers upstream eyeballing it very closely. After the fifth failed hookup the finally noticed and Mike made his way to the spot. I started to work my way back to shore to me him, dragging my line behind me when fish number 6 decided to grab. This fish set the hook on itself and I traded Mike spots as I chased the fish downstream. A few minutes later I brought the gorgeous 30" wild hen into the shallows and tailed it.
My flawless bright wild hen steelie
As the day wound down, I got myself one more beautiful wild fish, but unfortunately Mike would have to wait to tangle with his first steelie....
Saturday was to be an epic day of lake fishing and a story for another day (post coming soon!), however Sunday we were back on the river once again.
This time we had a bit more company as three of our customers from the shop, Mike, Devin and Ryan joined us on the water for their first steelhead experiences. After a bit of a crash course on steelheading tactics, everyone hit the water and I got things going with another wild steelhead right of the bat on a small stonefly nymph. Ryan ended up having the hot stick for the day and hooked into 6, but as steelhead are all of them ended up getting the better of him... After that first fish I had three others within feet of shore when they popped off, before I finally had one that decided to stick with me. However this fish had a bit of a different fighting style than a typical steelhead and when I got it into the shallows it turned out that the reason was that it was a Chinook. I was easily as excited to catch the hen Chinook as I was a steelhead at that point and to make things better just as I slid it into the shallows I saw Mike land his first steelhead on the fly 100 yards downstream of me.
My Chinook salmon in her somber spawning tones
An underwater shot of the Chinook
With a long drive home and things slowing down not to long after my Chinook experience, we decided that it would best to get on the road after an amazing few days on the river.