Fishing the Deschutes With Chris O'Donnell

By Scott Richmond

As Chris O'Donnell maneuvered his Willie driftboat under the Highway 26 bridge where it crosses the Deschutes River, I asked him a question. "So, Chris, after three years of full-time guiding on the Deschutes, what have you learned?"

"The first thing I learned was how to anchor my drift boat at an island," he said.

"And you learned this the hard way?" I asked.

"Yup. Left the anchor rope too short. The wind pushed the boat out to where the anchor wouldn't reach bottom and the boat drifted away. Since then I've always let out extra anchor rope."

Being stranded on an island would not have been a good thing today. When Chris and I met in Madras at 6:30 a.m., it was a bone-chilling 6 degrees. Since then it had warmed up some, but was still in the low teens. It was not a day to take a swim after your boat.

We were doing a one-day float from Warm Springs to Trout Creek. It was the second week of December and Oregon was experiencing a streak of cold days, especially on the east side of the Cascades. Although Chris is a full-time guide, the guiding season was over and this was just two guys going fishing--no matter what the weather. Tracks from animals and an occasional angler dimpled the snow that lined the riverbanks. As we drifted to the first run, mist swirled above the water. Interestingly, a few trout were rising.

I measured the water temperature. "Forty-three degrees," I announced. It was marginal for swinging flies, but my spey rod was already rigged with a Type III sink-tip and a Steelhead Bunny . Chris opted for a nymph and indicator tactics on a single-handed rod.

"How do you decide whether to nymph or swing flies?" I asked him.

"I prefer to swing flies. Traditional tactics," he said. "But about mid-October, as the water begins to cool, I start nymphing more. Especially in this section where nearly all the steelhead came from the hatchery."

I knew what he meant. Most wild fish leave the Deschutes to spawn in Trout Creek, at the end of today's drift. Wild steelhead are more aggressive to the fly than hatchery fish, and the combination of stocked steelhead and cold water meant that dead-drifting a nymph would be more productive in this stretch.

" I've never caught a wild fish above Trout Creek," I said. "Have you or your clients ever caught one here?"

"Twice," Chris said. "Twice in three years, guiding nearly every day." He pulled his wool hat down to cover more of his ears. Steam rose in the cold air with every breath. "Whether I nymph or swing flies also depends on the run," he said. "If it's a broad run, where the fish could be anywhere, swinging flies covers the water better. But if it's a narrow run that's close to the bank, nymphing is more efficient."

Chris was using a large indicator above a two-fly rig. A size 4 black-and-burgundy Rubber Legs was about nine feet below the indicator (less for shallower runs) and a size 12 green caddis larva (green rock worm) was on a trailing leader tied to the hookbend. The rock worm was tied on a stout hook so it would hold up to steelhead without straightening.

"I like the green rock worm here," said Chris. "There's a lot of them in the river, and the summer-run steelhead are used to seeing them."

At the first run, I leadoff with my Type III head and swung flies as slowly as I could make them move. Chris followed behind with the nymph rig. I was near the end of the run when Chris hooked a steelhead in water I'd already been through. As he brought it near the bank we could see that it took his trailing fly, the green rock worm. It was a hatchery steelhead, and he bonked it for the BBQ.

I figure you should always listen to what the fish are telling you, and switched to a nymph-and-indicator rig, too.

The next run was one I wasn't familiar with. I used to fish this stretch frequently, but had only been through it a handful of times since the '96 flood; things change.

"See the two seams here?" Chris said, pointing his rod to where current went from faster to slower and then faster again. "And the backeddy above it? This is a short run. The steelhead come up from the rapids below here . . . " he pointed downstream ". . . and pull into the quieter water. They nose up until they hit the backeddy. They won't hold in the backeddy, so they drop back a few feet and rest alongside those seams."

We took turns working the water, trying to get just the right drift. In this run, it was essential to put slack in the right place, with a downstream mend and extra line piled near the indicator. That way the flies could get a dead drift; drag could be a killer. No fish took our flies, though, and we moved on to a longer run where we could both fish at the same time.

My indicator soon went down, and a fish was pulling against my rod. But not strongly enough. It was a sucker, snagged in the belly. I let it go. Soon, I had another grab. Again, it was weak. This time I'd snagged a whitefish in the tail. Ten minutes later, I fair-hooked a whitefish. "That's an improvement," I said to Chris, who had finished his stretch and was watching me. "At least it's hooked in the mouth."

Chris started fishing behind me, about 100 feet upstream while I answered a call of nature--quickly in consideration of the cold.

"You'll find fish farther out here," Chris said. "I look at the point upstream, and follow the current down. I draw a mental line downstream from the point. Steelhead will hold anywhere between the bank and that line. I'm just going about ten feet farther out than you were fishing."

Missing the Forecast

The day never warmed up. It was supposed to hit the mid-forties in Bend, where Chris lives, but here on the Deschutes it never got above 25. It was an ice-in-the-guides, keep-the-reel-unfrozen kind of day--the kind of day that made me think about my upcoming bonefishing trip to Christmas Island. Eight-three degrees, trade winds ruffling my shirt, blue-green tropical water washing around my ankles. . . my reverie was interrupted by my indicator going down. I tightened on another whitefish.

For lunch, Chris heated some turkey and tortillas, and fashioned a wrap filled with turkey, cheese, avocado, chopped peppers, and lettuce. "These wraps make a good lunch," I said, grateful for the warm food in my stomach.

"Yeah," said Chris, "I used to cook up steaks for my clients, but that made them sleepy. After eating one of those, probably two out of three clients asked if I'd brought a cot so they could take a nap. I started doing wraps so we'd have more fishing time."

"Hits my spot," said. I looked up. The fog was taking on a bluish tint. "It might actually clear up," I said.

"But it's not going to hit forty, like the forecast said."

"Nope. I doubt it will get above freezing all day." And it didn't. The highest the thermometer reached was 25.

One More for the BBQ

At the next stop, Chris pointed out the features of the run. "Again, riffles downstream," he said. "And fast water upstream. There's a big backeddy on the other side, and a small backeddy just below the upstream riffle. Steelhead come up through the first riffle and into the quiet water. Then they hit that upstream backeddy and drop back into this pocket. They won't go across river because of the big backeddy there. This is perfect holding water, even though it's a short run. Also, it's a pea-gravel bottom. I find a lot of steelhead holding over pea-gravel, especially late in the year."

"Yeah, could be they're thinking about the upcoming spawn." I crunched some ice out of my beard. "When you evaluate a run, do you pay much attention to where the sun is?"

"Oh, yes! Especially if I'm swinging flies on a floating line. They aren't going to come up if the sun is straight in their eyes. I look upstream and pretend I'm a fish. If my nose is in the current and the sun is in my eyes, I won't fish the run. Some runs I'll fish from the west bank, but not from the east bank in the afternoon. The difference is whether the sun will be in the steelhead's eyes when it turns to follow a fly. But when I'm nymphing, it doesn't matter much where the sun is. The fish are deeper, and they don't have to move up the water column to where it's brighter."

Chris's indicator went down one more time, and another hatchery steelhead was destined for the BBQ. By 4:00, we were off the river and headed home.

There were two other boats on the river that day, for a total of three boats, six anglers, and three dogs. The count at the boatramp was six steelhead landed, all on nymphs.

Not a bad tally for a cold day and a mediocre steelhead run.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).