BEND, Ore. — Fall means many things in Central Oregon: the return of football, back to school, and an increasing chill in the air reminding that winter is not far off.
But let’s not close the door on summer just yet.
For many anglers, fall is all about summer steelhead — and the Lower Deschutes is one of the best rivers in the West to fish for the elusive, aggressive, oceangoing rainbow trout. Landing just one of the lunkers on their journey back to their spawning grounds can make a fisherman’s fall.
Fishing for steelhead reportedly has been good on the Lower Deschutes from the mouth downstream to Sherars Falls. The river has cleared since intense rainstorms a couple of weeks ago muddied the water and made fishing difficult, according to Rod French, a fisheries biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife based in The Dalles.
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“Fishing conditions have certainly improved,” French said recently.
Steelhead began going over Sherars Falls recently, and the numbers of fish near the falls have started to increase. The fish were delayed at The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River, but now they are swimming over the dam in numbers as high as 10,000 per day, according to French.
“It’s typical with weather and water conditions like we’ve had this year, where we have a fairly low-to-average flow Columbia River that warms, and then fish come over Bonneville Dam, and then they don’t ascend over The Dalles Dam for some period of time,” French explained. “We had a huge school of fish in the Bonneville pool. That has ended and now these fish are streaming over The Dalles Dam.”
The ODFW does not make specific fish-run forecasts for the Deschutes. Steelhead and chinook salmon returning to the Deschutes River from the Pacific Ocean must make their way over both Bonneville Dam and The Dalles Dam on the Columbia River before they can turn south into the Deschutes.
French said the steelhead run over Bonneville Dam is slightly larger than last year’s run was at this point. Deschutes steelhead numbers, he said, were somewhat depressed last year, as about 5,000 wild fish and 10,000 hatchery fish were counted at Sherars Falls.
“Deschutes fish are very difficult to predict,” French said. “Basically we just go with Columbia predictions, and we’re slightly over last year’s run. It’s just too early to tell.”
On the Deschutes, steelhead can travel from the mouth all the way upstream to Pelton Dam near Lake Billy Chinook — a distance of some 100 miles. But according to French, the numbers of steelhead are always greater closer to the mouth of the Deschutes, which for anglers from Central Oregon makes a longer trip farther downstream potentially worthwhile.
“The numbers are generally better farther downstream, but as you get up over (Sherars) Falls, the river kind of changes condition and becomes a little bit smaller, a little bit easier to read for anglers,” French said. “You don’t have as many fish, but you’re fishing in a smaller space. Success can certainly be just as good.”
French added that within a week or so, anglers should find “decent numbers” of steelhead near Warm Springs. For now, the hot spots to fish for steelhead — the mouth of the Deschutes upstream to Sherars Falls — are still a bit of a drive from Central Oregon. French said that fishing near the mouth has been “phenomenal.”
Unlike salmon, steelhead make several spawning trips between freshwater and saltwater throughout their lives. The size of a steelhead is based on the age class of the fish. One-salt fish (steelhead that have spent one year in the ocean) range from about 3 to 6 pounds. Two-salt fish range from 7 to 20 pounds.
The Lower Deschutes includes a mix of wild (native) and hatchery steelhead. French said that hatchery steelhead exist in greater numbers, by a ratio of about 4-to-1. But wild steelhead are often more aggressive and more likely to strike at whatever fly or lure an angler is offering.
So far this year, the steelhead catch has been about 85 percent wild fish and 15 percent hatchery fish.
“That is a little bit higher than normal,” French said. “Wild fish usually always dominate the catch for one reason or another that we don’t completely understand, even though they’re usually outnumbered.”
French said that the best places on the Lower Deschutes to find steelhead are at breaks in the current, where the fish may stop to rest. They are not typically found in deep holes.
Many steelhead anglers on the Lower Deschutes fly-fish with a two-hand spey rod, allowing them to cover more water than with a single-hand rod. French estimated that 80 percent of steelhead fly anglers on the Lower Deschutes are employing a spey rod, many of them skating flies on the water’s surface. And, he noted, fly anglers outnumber gear anglers, even though the ODFW creel suggests that gear fishermen have a bit higher success rate for steelhead than fly anglers. French said that spinners, jigs and bobbers can be effective.
“The most popular technique is fly-fishing,” French said. “Not that it’s the most productive technique, but the Deschutes is just a great place to do it. It lends itself so well to fly-fishing. There’s not a lot of other big desert rivers where you can fish under nice conditions like this for summer steelhead.”
According to French, steelhead are not easy to catch anywhere, although at this time of year, for a seasoned angler, hooking five or six fish in a day is entirely possible.
In addition to steelhead, fall chinook salmon are now arriving in the Lower Deschutes, and this fall’s run could be record-setting — potentially the largest ever in the Deschutes, French said.
“Just based on the numbers over Bonneville, it looks like it’s going to be off the charts this year,” the biologist said of the fall chinook run.
Sherars Falls is by far the most popular spot from which to fish for chinook salmon on the Lower Deschutes. Anglers use a variety of bait to land chinook, including spinners, plugs and salmon eggs. Bait is allowed only from Sherars Falls downstream to the upper trestle (about 3 miles).
In Central Oregon — especially on the Lower Deschutes — fishing does not stop with the arrival of fall.