NW Chronicles: Chasing Steel

Greetings fellow anglers. It’s a great honor to get to share some of my experiences fishing here in the Northwest with all of you on this fine blog. I thought I’d start with a report from last weekend on the Deschutes, or the “D” as we call it out here.

It all started with a reliable report of multiple steelhead hook-ups from a familiar run. I decided to head out on Sunday and see if I couldn’t try my luck. I hit the river a little later than normal, as steelhead tend to be inactive when there’s sun on the water. As I headed to the run from the parking lot, I stopped at a the first big back eddy to see if I could see any trout holding. A well known secret about the Deschutes this time of year is the great trout fishing afforded by the lack of angling pressure. When the steelhead push up the river in the fall, most anglers abandon their 4-weights and dry fly boxes and head to the long riffle runs to swing big ten foot 8-weights for chrome. The same way fish key-in on a particular hatch, the fishermen seem to key-in on particular fish.

Looking down at the eddy, I had to rub my eyes as I saw ten to fifteen large redsides holding in the swirling water, slurping at caddis in the foam lines. I have fished the river at least once a month for the past two years and never seen such sizable fish in such quantity and so exposed. Too good to pass up, I tied on an x-caddis and a dropper and snuck down the bank. I put two or three fish down on approach, but managed to get some nice casts out into the eddy and soon had a beautiful 16 inch redside brought to hand. Figuring I put down the hole, I moved upstream, spotted another fish, and managed a hook-up/shake off or “Long Line Release” as we call it out here. I went back to the eddy and quickly had a nice sized smolt on the line.

Knowing that I had a steelhead waiting for me upstream, I continued to work my way up. I stopped at all the little eddies under trees and had two more beautiful fish on that shook off. In general, I don’t mind fish shaking off and I generally fish barbless. All in all, this was shaping up to be a pretty amazing trout day. Perhaps the lack of pressure in the traditional trout lays has gotten the fish cocky? Or maybe, the big, aggressive steelhead moving and holding the riffles has pushed all the trout out in the open? Hard to say, but I pushed on myself, dreaming of bright, chrome steelhead.

Well, I got to the top of the steelhead run just as the clouds were brewing and the sun was dropping below the canyon. Perfect conditions. By every indication, this was to be THE run of the day. I snipped off my caddis and started to tie on my nymphing rig. Right then, not a foot off the bank I spotted an absolutely huge trout holding in about a foot of water, plucking flies off the float line. Dilemma: Do I retie my caddis? Or chase the enigmatic, sea-run beast?

If you’ve ever nymphed for steelhead, you know it’s about one of the most boring forms of fishing known to man. Basically, you lob a tool fly/dropper upstream under an indicator, mend, mend again, and let the fly swing below you. Repeat. Take a step down stream. Repeat. Etc. You do this for hours. Days. Weeks. Months. Meanwhile the days get shorter, air all around you begins to freeze, you can’t feel your fingers, eyes get bloodshot, and your spouse starts to worry about you. The reason why anyone would ever do this is because somewhere around the 2348th cast, you feel a labrador shaking the end of your rod as line begins to pour out and a ten pound fish jumps out of the water to get a look at you and let you know how pissed it is! For the next twenty minutes you battle a fish that has swum thousands of miles and is ready to swim a few more if only get away from you.

Or so they tell me. For my hundreds (and I mean HUNDREDS) of hours fishing for steel, I have only had four hook-ups and have never brought one to hand. This is becoming a bit of a serious problem for me. Since I have invested so much time, I am reluctant to give it up all together. Each fishless trip only adds fuel to my irk and frustration.

Standing there on the bank, looking at that beautiful redside, I decided to continue the day’s mission. Get the steelhead. Break the curse. I reasoned there were plenty of trout days ahead and behind. Heck, I’d already had a great trout day.

For the next three hours as the light went down it was cast, mend, step. Cast, mend, step. Trout were rising all around me. Mocking me. The by the time the sun went down, I had nothing to show but two measly whitefish. Not a pluck, wiggle, roll, or a sign of any big fish. Yet again, the beast eludes me. More fuel on the fire.

Did I make the right decision? Hard to say. As you know, the grass is always greener on the other side river, the fishing always better.

See you down the bank.

Fish were holding in these big back eddies.

And even in the smaller ones.

A Deschutes "redside" from a couple weeks ago.

Steelhead smolt.

Light fades on a chrome-less day.


  1. PDX Drifter, Great Post!!! Good writing. Felt like I was there beside you. Welcome to the club.

  2. Welcome PDX Drifter. As I was getting ready to become more seriously “into” steelhead this winter, this was good for me to read. It resets my expectations on the “getting into” part, that I may not be taking that champion photo shot the first day out … like you, I have to wonder if to continue down this road of no return (but my mind is already made up even as I write). So here’s an early cheers to that fine day, when some of us hold that steelhead for the first time in our lives… Cheers!

  3. Thanks guys. Great to be here.
    The steelhead season is just heating up, so I'll keep you posted on my progress through the winter.
    I look forward to sharing my first "brought to hand" with you all (and hero shot!). Until then...
    ...tight lines.