Al James is a musician and avid fly fisher based in Portland, Oregon. Al has carefully combed the banks of the Deschutes River for over 10 years, and offers 5 hard-earned lessons for fishing this beautiful waterway.
Drop everything and fish the salmon fly hatch
It’s estimated that there are more than 3,500 Wild Redside Rainbow Trout per mile on the Lower Deschutes River in Central Oregon which stretches for 100 miles from Pelton Dam down to its confluence at the Columbia River. That’s a helluva lot of football-shaped, blood-red trout that –pound for pound– might be some of the strongest fighters in the salmonidae family. Mid-May through early June is a special time on this glorious river with the yearly explosion of gigantic salmon flies that hatch and provide a non-stop old country buffet style feeding frenzy for these aggressive lunkers.
This year will be no different and most guides and shops that service the river are predicting a mid-May hatch which means there’s a 2-3 week window to head over to the Deschutes and experience one of the most epic trout fishing experiences on the West Coast. If you haven’t tried it, make the trip. There is plenty of river, tons of access, and like I stated before, lots and lots of hungry fish. I’ve fished this hatch on and off for a decade and here are some basics I’ve learned over the years:
Fish the banks. I’m serious about this one. If you are wading up to your knees (unless you’re fishing toward the bank) you probably spooked all the fish in the area. I wear waders, but try to step in the water as little as possible. The fish on the Deschutes hold right up against the bank. This is good news because it’s a big river. It’s not about long casts here. It’s about breaking the river into manageable pieces and working the banks with short, careful casts.
Keep moving. Work a section of river and then move on to the next one. If you hook and lose a fish, give it a rest and come back in a half hour. Head up or downstream and then revisit spots where you’ve seen or hooked fish. The more you move, the more fish you’ll find. Last year a monster Redside broke me off three times under the same overhanging branches in the course of one weekend. I’d visit the spot in the morning, the afternoon and in the evening every day I was there. I’ll be back this year to the same exact spot with heavier tippet.
Come early or late. Often hitting the Deschutes just before or after the hatch by a week or two can yield incredible fishing. During the peak of the hatch the Redsides are often too full to feed. You don’t have to hit it perfectly. Check with online reports from Central Oregon fly shops for current details.
Spring has arrived here. This means you’ll likely see an awesome array of critters and wildlife: wild turkeys, river otters, mallard ducklings, mergansers, osprey, mountain goats, and on the downside, poison oak and rattlesnakes. For all the cool stuff pack a camera and binoculars, for the other two bring Technu skin treatment and a cautious step when you’re hiking around the riverbanks.
Check in with the experts. Fly shops in Eugene, Maupin, Portland and Welches start posting up-to-the-day reports on the hatch starting in May. They’re on the river every day and are monitoring it as it develops. They’ll post when and where the salmon flies are starting to show up. They’ll also steer you in the right direction for fly selection, but then again, that’s the beauty of this hatch. The flies are big and simple and in most cases, foolproof.