Winter Reflections

By Nate Taylor

The early morning rides to rivers are part of the routine now. The alarm goes off at five-thirty. I get up, put on coffee, pack a bag, jump in the van and go pick up Eric or Randal or both on the other side of town.

Eric is always ready the second I pull in the driveway. He hurriedly loads the car with his gear and we are off. Randal is a bartender and works late, so sometimes he is harder to get rolling. Coffee and a Cuban seem to do the trick.

The drive always starts off slow and drowsy-quiet but the juice finally starts to flow once we make that decent off Mt Hood and into the desert, when the surreal landscape of the high plain comes into view. The alpine trees thin out and then vanish all together but for patches in the distance that follow streambeds. Then we are on Indian land.

The Warm Springs Reservation lies just to the southwest of Mt. Hood, bordered on one side by the Cascades and the other side by the Deschutes River. On blue bird days the river canyon is clearly visible from way up here. When the snow isn't flying and the clouds are high you can see the surrounding land gently sloping toward the ancient canyon carved by the annual mighty flows of water off the Cascade Mountains. I've always thought that the ridges look like the backs of sleeping dinosaurs.

As we drove through the village of Warm Springs, my mind began to wander off the road and up into the hills surrounding the town. There are ghosts in these hills, you can almost feel them looking out from the bluffs.

I am suddenly slapped back into reality as we see the first glimpse of water from above. Soon we are driving alongside the mighty Deschutes. The river is high and as swollen as a diabetic's ankles but still clear. We would not be fishing here today because the water is too cold, but in a matter of months it will be teeming with life. The giant salmonflies will start hatching and trout and fisherman alike will be whipped into a frenzy of activity in what is locally known as the Salmonfly Carnival.

As we drove along the river I craned my neck to watch for rises in the eddy on the other side even though I know I will not see them. I looked over and then back and both my passengers also had their glossy-eyed gazes fixed upon that same back eddy. I wonder how many accidents have been the results of people like us, taking their eyes off the road for the remote chance that you might catch a glimpse of a fish poking its snout through the surface of the water to take a bug. We decided that at least five accidents have been caused by gazing fisherman along this stretch of road.

Soon we were rising up out of the canyon and onto the high plateau again. Our destination today is upstream, past the dam and beyond Lake Billy Chinook to the same river, though much more diminutive in size, to fish the tiny eeewinter stonefly hatch that we hope is in full swing on the stretch north of Bend known as the Middle Deschutes. Every winter this hatch comes off like clockwork, the last week of January and continuing into February. And here we are in the first week of February with the winter rearing its ugly head and two months to go until good trout fishing begins on the lower river again.

It is the time of year when cabin fever is at its worst, when weeks of casting sink tip lines into swollen coastal streams for steelhead has not yielded a single fish. This is the time of year when I need to see a fish rising. There is something magical about seeing a trout take a bug on the surface. I see the images in my dreams at night. First one snout barely visible, in slow motion breaks the surface. Then slowly and dolphin-like it rolls over exposing its back. In this particular daydream it's a brown so I see its bright red spots. Then it's down, and the ring left by its rise slowly floats downstream and then disappears. Then more noses follow suit, creating little rings all over the smooth surface. These images haunt me in the winter and it is what I crave the most, just to see those noses.

That is why we make this drive, three hours from Portland. We always roll the dice because the water levels fluctuate greatly on this stretch of water. If they release water from the irrigation canals the day is shot, and we'll have driven six hours round trip for nothing.

Soon we're passing thru the high desert town of Madras. It is nine o'clock in the morning and Madras is going to work. An old guy with a potbelly loads pipes into his car outside the hardware store. An Indian kid shivers in his parka at the gas station waiting for the next fill up. I'm here too, chain-smoking in anticipation of elusive mid-winter brown trout. At the edge of town we stop for some quick truckstop breakfast, and then move on.

We finally get to the river at about nine thirty to find it unsettlingly high. The water was over the banks and into the cattails that line the river. It's the gamble you take when you drive three hours for an afternoon of fishing.

Still hopeful, we began to rig up. I have followed the same steps to "rigging up" hundreds if not thousands of times, but every single time the anticipation of what lays ahead makes my hands tremble so badly that it becomes a difficult chore to string my rod and tie on flies.

We hiked up along the river for about half a mile until the trail grew rugged. To me this means fewer fishermen frequent the area, and in turn, is always a good sign. The less fisherman tormenting the trout, the less careful they will be about inspecting their food before they eat it.

We stopped at a huge and seemingly very deep pool with cliffs on the opposite side and swirling back eddies along the banks. A nice riffle poured into the pool at the head. I watch the seam between the fast water of the riffle and the slow water of the pool for signs of life.

I make it a point to sit and observe my surroundings every time before I begin casting. Taking the time to slow down and settle my nerves helps me establish some sort of stasis, and the rhythm of the river becomes more apparent.

After some careful gazing I began to see insects fluttering on the surface of the backeddy across the river. Looking along my shoreline I spotted some of the same fluttering insects, which I assumed were the aforementioned stoneflies. I singled out a fly and watched it drift. It didn't rest on the surface of the water like golden stoneflies or salmonflies , but it fluttered its wings and skittered around on the surface creating a wake.

I looked upstream and saw Eric flogging the water at the tail of the riffle with a Woolly Bugger. Randal had taken off upstream to prospect. I decided I would keep an eye on the water for another couple of minutes and if I didn't see any surface activity I'd tie on a streamer. I kept an eye on a drifting bug as I peeled line from my reel. It drifted forever, sending out vibrations in every direction saying "eat me", yet nothing did.

I tied on a gray Zonker. As I began casting I felt a bug on the back of my neck. I let my cast fall upstream of the pool and reach back to pull a tiny black stonefly off of my skin. It was an absolutely full-scale model of the huge three-inchers that hatch in June, minus the orange belly. This one was about half an inch long. I looked around the shoreline and there are bugs everywhere now, but still no fish rising.

"This is starting to get aggravating. I know there are fish in here cause I have caught 'em before. And look at all these nice little morsels floating by. Aren't you guys hungry?" I said to myself without speaking. My inner dialog is pretty active when I'm fishing, always asking myself rhetorical questions and then answering them like I just figured something out. Well there is no answer today; there are bugs everywhere and no fish rising. What is going on?

"This is killing me dude. These bugs are all over the place." I said to Eric.

"Yeah," he replied. "I'm gonna hike up stream some more and see what's up there." He disappeared around the canyon corner and I sat back and lit one up, blowing smoke at the sky. It is snowing. A stonefly lands on my face and I flick it off. I thought of the Indians down here in this canyon during the winter two hundred years ago, staying down by the water until spring. It would have been a tough couple of months. I realize that I will never get the chance to see if I could have survived. I think I could have.

I came to and realized I had been fishing for an hour without as much as a bump. I clipped the Zonker off the end of my line and tied on some 6x tippet with a surgeon's knot. At the end of the line I tied a #18 black Elk Hair Caddis --not a perfect imitation, but high floating. I hit it with some floatant and punched it through the wind and up toward an overhanging bush along the bank. It drifted perfectly along the bank for fifteen feet. Nothing struck.

Eric rounded the corner of the trail. "Man, nothing upstream but fast pocket water, "he said. "It's too cold for them to be in there." He says.

"I haven't seen a damn fish rise all day. Let's go hit the Metolius." I suggested.

We hiked back down stream through the brush with the wind suddenly picking up and blowing cold snow right into our faces. As we neared the car we stopped to see Randal out in a seam created by a little mid stream island. He had flanked us on the top of the Canyon and had come back around behind.

"They're rising." He said calmly with a grin.

In the slack water created by the island I saw a nose. It was systematically poking through the surface of the tailout near a rock on the opposite bank, gulping the stoneflies as they fluttered by.

"They're eating." I said, trying to hide the excitement in my voice.

Eric and I looked at each other as if to say, "Who deserves this more?" It was a serious dilemma, but I was already rigged with a long leader and a dry so I wasted no time and positioned myself slightly downstream and across from the fish. He was coming to the surface for each bug that came within about a three-foot radius. I made a cast and without a pause or even a slight hesitation he came to the surface and ate my bug.

"He ate it!" Eric yelled.

I set the hook with a slow lift of the rod and felt the throbbing of a nice fish connected to the end of my line. This is what we came for. The hatch was on. Eric was rigged now and casting upstream from me. Randal had moved up along the close bank and I could see that he was also working a fish.

"Yeah!" Eric's telltale hookup phrase signaled that he too had hooked into a fish. After a short battle I brought to hand a beautiful wild brown trout and carefully removed the fly from the corner of his mouth. Holding him in the water I quickly revived and released him back into the cold flow in time to see Eric land his fish. They are almost identical specimens, beautiful yellow-gray with red and brown spots and a brilliant blue spot on the gill plate.

For the next two hours we caught and released brown trout. Then, just as suddenly as it had started it was over. By the end of it all we had each landed about ten fish and two inches of snow had fallen, coating the canyon in a beautiful white glow.

We walked back to the car as the sun started to set, smiling from ear to ear and ready for the long drive back to Portland. The drive home was just as dangerous and scary as the drive to the river, but we were all much more relaxed this time around. We put on the chains at the pass and crept over the cascade divide until the hazy pink glow of the city welcomed us back to real life.

Winter would not lift its soggy hand for another month at least, but these soul-saving journeys to the desert are always a mission worth the drive. This one just happened to work out for the better and I would be wearing a smile all week.

Nate Taylor spends summers as a fly fishing guide in Colorado.