Monday, June 12, 2023

One and Done on the Deschutes

A Story of Highs and Lows Shooting the Deschutes
August 22'

Maupin is a quintessential western river town nestled along the Deschutes River canyon in central Oregon. It is an oasis amongst the surrounding high desert and sage brush, attracting tourists intent on enjoying the river’s bountiful recreational opportunities. The community consists almost entirely of rafting and fishing outfitters, guides, and the small businesses that support tourism. The main drag features bars, a coffee shop, a hardware store, a cafe, the rafting companies, and probably the best fly shop in the United States: Deschutes Angler. I was simply another tourist, of the fish bum variety, intent on catching a wild steelhead on a swung dry line. The ODFW decided on August 15 as the day to reopen steelhead fishing after the brutally low return numbers and high water temperatures of 2021. Stepping out of my van onto Main Street, I could sense that there was a buzz in the air, and that I wasn’t alone in my intended pursuit.

“Do you have a shit bucket?” The question caught me off guard as I was unaware of that specific regulation for floating anglers. Jon and Amy Hazel both let out hearty laughs at my quizzical reaction before proceeding to give me a rundown of a lot of other requirements on what I could, and could not, do within the confines of the canyon. The two are quite the pair and one of fly fishing’s most famous couples. As two of the OG’s of spey fishing in the United States, they are deep sources of knowledge, and two of the friendliest angler’s you’ll ever meet. Simply put, they hooked me up by pointing me in the right direction on the whereabouts of proper “shit buckets,” a shuttle, and put-ins/take-outs. They even sold me a few bags to dispose of waste that met proper regulations so I wouldn’t get a ticket. Thankfully, the local hardware store had one “shit bucket” left, albeit in the large size only. Now properly equipped, I made a run to The Dalles to stock up on some supplies and spend the night at my reserved campsite at Deschutes River State Recreation Area.

My plan was to take my Water Master Kodiak and float almost 50 miles from the Buckhollow BLM Boat Ramp all the way to the confluence with the Columbia River. The trip would last two days, which was a little ambitious, but I planned on using the heavy flow of the river to lazily float for good chunks of the sunny periods when most anglers are taking siestas. The goal was to land my first Deschutes River wild steelhead. Numbers over the Bonneville Dam looked promising, especially when compared to the prior year. With that being said, the task seemed quite daunting for a DIY angler that had no insight into the proper runs and set up locations to find the proverbial “needle in a haystack”. Having never been on the river before, it was a risk, especially for the uninitiated. The Deschutes is well known for its whitewater rafting opportunities and heavy flow. At this time of the year, the water was on the lower side but still burly compared to my east coast routines. The remoteness, and lack of cell-phone service, was also a variable that only calmed me by the fact that there’d be a lot of people on the river.

My alarm went off early, no doubt awaking other campers in the tight quarters of the state park. Having spent the entire evening packing, I hopped into the front seat and glided out of camp. Forty five minutes later, I was driving down a rocky turn off to a bankside put in. It was still dark when Jon Hazel and a client came down to launch their drift boat. I was actively loading the raft and we exchanged silent pleasantries in the dark. I parked the van up on the access road and triple checked that it was all locked up and that my shuttle service would find the key. It was still low light as the Kodiak Watermaster glided down the first run of the Deschutes. My low position in the raft made it difficult for me to scope out approaching holding water. Sometimes I anticipated a spot that turned out to be wadeable, but most of the time, my intuition proved incorrect. The Deschutes size and speed were different from almost all other rivers that I’ve fished previously.

It was still early morning when I settled into a run near Jones Canyon. I parked the water master and walked upriver to fish the head of a long run at the beginning of a bend. By this point in the morning, my casting had settled into a groove. My Burkheimer 7127, 435 gr. Rio Scandi Short, 15 foot leader, and small wet fly on an Alec Jackson iron felt good as I slowly lengthened out on the step down. A boulder broke up the flow on the inside creating a seam that extended down into the run. It looked and felt similar to one of my favorite runs on the Salmon River in New York. At that moment, Jon and his client floated by on the outside. They let me know about a lost fish upriver and asked if I had any luck. I had not. Jon replied, “Don’t worry, it is coming”. The familiarity of the likely holding water, and Jon’s words, gave me a bolt of confidence. As their drift boat disappeared downriver, my mind slowly wandered off to the scenery of the canyon. The Deschutes River and canyon is simply breathtaking. 

As often happens in fishing, the moment comes when you least expect it. My line came tight coming through the seam and I felt the deep head shakes of a steelhead trying to break free of a hook. For a few brief moments the fish hung out in the soft flow unwilling to move from its resting space. As if registering the reality of being hooked, the fish took off into the heavy flow of the river, peeling line off my Loop Classic and bending my Burkheimer to the cork. As for me, it took me half the fight to fully comprehend what had just happened. When I did, I got nervous and my knees began to shake. I tailed the hen, a thick wild specimen, just as the sun peered over the rim of Jones Canyon.  She was my first wild steelhead on the Burkheimer and exhibited all of the features that make this species special. I quickly snapped a few photos on my phone and let her jolt back into the current. The moment was the highpoint of my summer vacation and of my next 36 hours.

As I hung out in Jones Canyon, I contemplated stopping fishing and going entirely “one and done”. For the next few hours, I simply floated down the river and watched the sun rise over the canyon walls. I passed some famous places: Beavertail, Cedar Island, Rattlesnake Canyon, and on down to Mack’s. The tone of the float changed at Mack’s Canyon. Above, I basically had the entire river to myself in almost complete solitude. Here, that was replaced with the sound of jet boats and a steady flotilla of commercial and recreational rafts. The river was crowded. On the Watermaster, I learned pretty quickly what the sound of a jet outboard sounded like coming around the corner because I had to get the hell out of the way as quickly as possible. With wind, a weighted raft, and heavy flows, it wasn’t easy. I also made the decision to start fishing again, but a lot of the prime areas (the obvious ones) were already taken. I settled for the smaller tail outs and holding lies with only a few trout to show for my efforts. I was not complaining.

In the early afternoon, I started looking for a place to camp. Being unfamiliar with the river, I had my work cut out for me. All of the official camping areas were already filled with anglers and other floating recreationalists. Since I wanted to cut the float down to near 20 miles for my second day, I floated by a lot of opportunities thinking that I would find a spot downriver. As the sun began to set, I started to get desperate as I competed for scarce real estate with a host of other anglers. Most of the secondary campsites were also filled. I ended up finding a goat path, barely wide enough to fit my two person tent, tucked along a rock wall on the bank of the river across from an area known as Bull Run Canyon. It was barely wide enough to fit my two person tent and I set up over some rocks and cacti. I cooked a meal, dried myself out, and read a book. Rather than skate a fly through the boulder strewn run ten feet away, I was content to watch the canyon walls and daydream about the steelhead I landed. I even checked my phone a few times just to look at her again. I did not sleep well…

It didn’t take long for the second day of the float to start going awry. It seemed that every prime run on the river was already occupied by guides, clients, and DIY anglers. This was to be expected and I only found a few areas to try and swing my line through so I floated on. As I approached Harris Canyon, the sun was coming up over the Deschutes in a manner that required a photograph. I reached for my IPhone and was recording a video with my left hand. The oar of the water master swung up in the current and hit my arm. In slow motion, my phone tumbled through the air as I simultaneously lunged to grab it. For a brief millisecond, the phone was in my hand before tumbling a second time into the green water of the river. I lunged again with my whole arm going into the water and my phone literally sliding between my fingers and down into the depths. I was incredulous. My maps and notes on the lower river were now gone. My ability to navigate and about a month of images and video were gone (I wasn’t on wifi to back it up). My ability to contact two friends that I was scheduled to meet up with the following day was now gone.  It didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to float the rest of the river out.

Disaster struck several river miles later. I was approaching a loud rapid named “Washout,” when I overheard the sound of a jet boat ripping around the corner. At lower levels, this particular rapid has a defined channel and the jet boat has the right of way. I paddled out of the area, but found myself suddenly out of position. I paddled like a mad man to reposition the water master to head down the channel and avoid the holes on either side. I dropped into the first hydraulic sideways with the intent of having one last dig of the oars to straighten me out. When I did, my left oar clipped the rock on the lip, twisted under the raft, and immediately ripped out of the oar lock. It sounded like a gunshot. I hit the first wave sideways before using the right oar to straighten out. Of all the things on the raft, my first thought was “not the Burkheimer!!!” At this moment, I had my Burkheimer in my left hand above my head like I was a rodeo cowboy trying to survive seven seconds on Bodacious. I was using a combination of forward and back strokes with the remaining oar to keep the raft steady on the wave train. The current was pushing me towards another small rapid and I realized I had no way to maneuver. I unscrewed the remaining oar from the lock and had to paddle the water master, canoe style, to the bank. I spent an hour looking for my paddle up and down the sketchy river bank to no avail. The Sawyer Watermaster oars sink and the nature of the rapid would ensure that the paddle wouldn't go far. At the bank, the reality of the situation started to set in.

As I sat by my raft, I contemplated my options for floating the remaining 8 river miles and some of the river’s most notorious rapids. For one, I could float out and completely roll the dice with my ability to navigate unfamiliar rapids, holes, and those crazy side currents with a loaded raft and a shit canoe paddle. Two, I could pack up my raft and gear, hike up to the rail trail, and walk out to the mouth. With everything, I’d have over 100 lbs. on my back stuffed into an uncomfortable dry bag with the 100+ degree desert heat. Three, I could flag down a jet or drift boat, and ask for help. I had an internal debate in my head for a long time on whether or not to swallow my pride. I even had multiple opportunities to do so. Jeff Hickman flew by on his jet boat with a huge grin on his face waving to me. A maintenance truck passed down the rail trail and numerous drift boats were going down the river. In the end, I packed up all of my gear, strapped it down nice and tight, cinched my life jacket, and decided to go for it. After about 15 minutes, I became less worried about the rapids and blitzing jet boats than I was about the increasingly intense upriver wind. It was a slog.

If you know the Lower Deschutes River, some of those rapids are intense. With names like Gordon Ridge, Colorado, Knock Knock, Rattlesnake, and Moody, I definitely had my work cut out for me. The holes and swirling side pockets aren’t the best place for a pack raft to get swept into. The width of the Kodiak Watermaster, the shortness of the oar paddle, the weight of the rig, and the upstream wind didn’t do me any favors. I had a general idea of what to expect from watching a few Youtube videos, but when you are sitting in an inner tube at water level dropping into those hydraulics, you feel a degree of helplessness, especially when your maneuverability is non-existent. It was unnerving with the added degree of losing some really expensive gear. I think my favorite part was watching the eyes on me from the guides and fellow fisherman. There were a lot of laughs and jeers. Interestingly, no one offered their services or help except for two guys who gave me some directions of left, right, and left, through one of the sections. I think my favorite part was pulling up to Heritage Landing where I overheard a teenager sarcastically tell his parents, “that guy looks like he’s having fun”. I simply shot him a glare and a smile. As I limped up the bank to the parking lot, I was fully expecting my van to not be there. Thankfully, it was…

After packing up my van, I found some shade and drank about a gallon of cold water. I needed to find a Verizon store, get a replacement phone, and contact my buddy Austin. I ended up at the Dalles McDonalds for some free wifi in order to connect with him and set a time and place to meet the following morning. Then, I went shopping. It felt odd, almost like traveling back in time, to ask someone where the alarm clocks were so that I could not be late the following morning. Priorities. As for my new phone, it ended up being overnighted to the only place I could think of: Deschutes Angler. Amy did not let me leave the shop without a retelling of my experience running down the Deschutes. She was as incredulous as I was in those moments.

The next two days on the Deschutes embodied everything I learned about the canyon since I started fly fishing almost 25 years ago. Camping alongside the river with friends, and taking turns stepping down those glorious runs, is something every practitioner of a two handed rod should experience at some point in their lifetime. Alone, the river's scenic beauty is more than enough to warrant traveling to Maupin, but the bounty hiding underneath is the icing on the cake. On my last session, I was working the boulder strewn run of Beavertail with the sun shining brightly in my face. A small size 8 Fiddle D steelhead iron was swinging its way through a seam when the line jolted forward, signaling life. I prematurely set the hook, got two stout head shakes, and the moment was gone. As gone as my phone nestled on the bottom of Jones Canyon. As lost as the evidence of the wild hen I landed three days prior. As sunk as my oar somewhere underneath the Washout rapid. What will never be gone are the memories of the experience. The image of that wild hen will always be seared into my consciousness and recalled on demand. The thrill, and fear, of floating the last eight miles of the river in an inner tube with one oar won't be forgotten. That's what counts. That is what will be remembered. As I said my goodbyes to Austin and Phil, I hopped in the van and put my destination into my new phone: Delaware. Maupin to Wilmington. It was a Thursday afternoon and I had a faculty meeting Monday morning at 7:35 a.m. for the first day of school.

I wasn’t late.

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