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Original Issue


Fishing the Deschutes calls for grit and good footing

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.

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.

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."



Finding a quiet spot to cast for steelhead is not that easy on the wild-running Deschutes.



The railbeds bordering the river provide access and a historical perspective on Oregon.



As this array shows, steelhead flies are about as gaudy as they get.



A steelhead fresh from the sea has only a faint side stripe to show its rainbow-trout heritage.