Fishing the Upper Deschutes

By Damien Nurre

There are many things fly fishers can learn, plenty of new places to cast a fly, and a multitude of discoveries to make. That's what keeps us stomping through the pucker brush to get to that hole just upstream, around the bend, and over those big boulders.

It's the unknown that fuels our desire for the freshness a new discovery provides--even after we've had several unsuccessful outings.

Last July I made a discovery. It was the middle of the month, and I had my first day off after 12 straight days of guiding. As a fishing guide, I'm often asked the question, "What do you do on your day off?" To which the standard response is, "I go fishing." So I headed to an unfamiliar section of an old familiar friend.

Best Discovery of the Summer

Joined by my friend, and fellow guide, Matt, we traveled to a section of the Upper Deschutes near La Pine. Naively unaware at the time, we were on our way to our greatest discovery of the summer.

We were both jumpy, fueled by the excitement of the unknown. We had conducted some research about this section of the Upper D, mostly talking to locals. When a fellow angler tells you a story of about catching dozens of 8-10 inch trout on dry flies, you probably think "cool". The story and the place are then dumped deep into a reservoir of fishing spots to check out once you no longer feel the desire to catch the big, bigger, biggest trout. But when he tells you, he's caught fish measured in pounds, not inches, you owe it to yourself to investigate.

Yes, You Can Fish from a Boat

After traveling a seldom-used road, I launched the boat and pushed it into the current as Matt stretched out his 5-weight. A little known fact about the Upper Deschutes is that you can fish from the boat. Many anglers assume that because boat fishing is illegal on the lower river, the same rule applies up above. Not true!

As I clumsily got the hang of keeping the boat the perfect distance from the bank, I was struck with a new respect for my brother guides on the rivers of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and Colorado.

The sky was blue and the air was hot. Deep grey clouds where assembling over the Cascades, threatening to moisten our adventure and electrify the afternoon. As Matt tossed a size 12 Humpy along the cutbanks of the meandering river, I was overwhelmed by a sense of freshness. I was happy to be in a new place, on a beautiful day, with a good friend.

Wild flowers adorned the steep banks. Fallen trees reached into the river, conjuring thoughts of "there has to be a big brown lying under there". Two juvenile bald eagles were playfully dog-fighting overhead as their parents watched from atop the tallest ponderosa. The day was getting better and better. All that was missing were some hungry fish.

The fishing started slow. We hadn't cracked the code yet. We spotted a few small fish rising to mayfly spinners in the drift, but they wanted nothing to do with our attractors, and we wanted nothing to do with those tiny flies. With the classic dead drift failing, Matt experimented by twitching the fly, skittering it across the surface. Within moments the first fish charged to the surface. Fish on!

Big Fish, Big Fly

Once my turn in the front of the boat came, the thought, "Big fish, big fly" rumbled through my head. I tied on a Muddler Minnow and started slamming it as close to the bank as I could. Many times I tested my luck, bouncing the fly off of deadfalls and pulling it free of vegetation.

Luck was on my side. I placed the fly inches from some thick foam, trapped in place by two logs sinking deep into the river. I stripped once. I stripped twice. On the third strip, like a bolt of lightening from the clouds that were now overhead, a great gold flash exploded at the end of my line.

My surprise was met instantly by my conditioned response to let the reel scream. The tugging at the other end pulled deeper and deeper into the river. Matt dropped the anchor after following my disappearing line down river. The battle that ensued humbled my fish-fighting skills. I pulled. Then he pulled. Then I pulled harder, and he pulled back. Once near the boat, the fish did its best impression of an alligator, rolling over and over on the surface. He wasn't finished yet.

Eventually I won. The prize, a picture perfect brown trout, lay in the belly of my net. Another discovery had been made. We had the answer to the question for which we had come. Big brown trout still live the Upper Deschutes.

Is the Good Fishing in the Past?

Day grew late into the evening, and we reached the takeout. As we loaded the boat onto the trailer, the clouds above couldn't hold back any longer. Rain showered down. Wet and tired, I remember thinking how foolish I was to have turned my back on this fishery for so long. Most of the stories we were told ended with the disclaimer ". . . but, that was five years ago. It doesn't fish that well anymore". Shamefully, I dreamt of how well it must have fished back then. What I didn't know at that wet moment was I would soon make yet another discovery.

In 1949 Wickiup Reservoir was created with completion of Wickiup dam. With a total capacity of 200,000 acre-feet of reserved water, the reservoir provides a large amount of water for communities and for agriculture in the Deschutes basin.

At one time, the Upper Deschutes River from Wickiup dam to Lake Billy Chinook was touted as one of the top brown trout fisheries in Oregon. Many of the anglers we spoke with hyped the fable of large brown trout. That's why I was shocked to discover that according to recent ODFW surveys, there is an average of only 4 trout per mile between Wickiup and Bend. Something didn't add up.

The last few years, winter flows out of Wickiup have been regulated to a minimum, averaging between 20 and 30 cubic feet per second (average summer flows are between 1200 and 1500 cfs). The consequences have been significant. Winter kills of whitefish, rainbow trout, and some brown trout have been widespread.

Perhaps the most detrimental problem for the fishery's long-term health is the impact on aquatic vegetation. Reduction in flows during the winter leaves weedbeds and other vegetation high and dry, isolating and killing populations of mayflies , caddis , midges , and other aquatic insects that nourish fry, smolt, and adult fish. This could explain the perceived decline in the fishery by long time local fisherman.

Historically though, flows during the winter have been low for many years, so winterkills are nothing new. One explanation suggests that back-to-back years of heavy precipitation equaled greater flows during the winter, increasing survival rates for sequential years. Perhaps they were the years the fables began.

Looking for Improvement

Still I find myself wondering about the seeming decline in the fishery. To this day I still search for the answer. That search has led me to organizations focused on the health of the Deschutes River.

The Upper Deschutes Watershed Council is one such organization. Their directive is to enhance and protect the Upper Deschutes River watershed through collaborative projects in watershed stewardship, habitat enhancement, and community awareness. It has been reassuring to connect with people who share a passion for the outdoors, and specifically the Deschutes River.

Damien Nurre is a fly fishing guide with Fly and Field Outfitters in Bend, Oregon.