Drifting the Deschutes: Trout in a High Mountain Desert
When I think of Oregon and the Pacific Northwest, I usually have in mind more coastal areas. All but one of my previous visits to Washington or Oregon have been to the western side of the Cascade Mountains: to Seattle, Portland, the Willamette Valley, or to some little city along the Oregon coast.
And the thick forests in those areas are among the few places I have visited in the lower forty-eight states that might be even greener than our Green Mountain State. Maybe because they are wetter. Although Portland has only a slight edge over Middlebury in average annual rainfall, with forty inches per year compared to our thirty-six, it far surpasses Vermont in number of rainy days. Portland comes in third among all cities in the United States with an average of one hundred and sixty-four rainy days per year. Seattle comes in sixth with one hundred and forty-nine.
Which is why, this past weekend, when I took a float trip down Oregon’s Deschutes River, I was a little surprised to find myself in the midst of high desert country averaging a mere nine inches per year of rain.
I had departed from Seattle late Friday evening after giving a talk at an education conference, hopped in a rental car, and started driving southeast across the Columbia River and into the small town of Maupin. I arrived at 2:00am at a hotel where three friends were waiting for me. Phil had previously fished with me for a few days in New Mexico and Oregon. He brought along his adult son Paul. Rounding out the trip was Rich Warren, a longtime friend from Starksboro I got to know through the New Haven River Anglers. He’d also been fishing with me in Oregon and Maine. He is a very knowledgeable trout angler. I was also counting on him to provide humor for the trip.
Rich, however, was already asleep when I arrived. That was okay, though. At that point, sleep was more important than humor. Rich had left the key in the door. I stumbled across the room, found the extra bed, and crashed. At 4:30am the alarm went off. We were up and packed and ready to go at 5:00am when our guide arrived to drive us to the river. An hour and a half later, were loaded into two drift boats with guides Gil Muhleman of Watertime Outfitters and Paul Reynolds. Chuck, the bagman, had all our camping gear and dry clothes in a third boat. And then we were off for a thirty-six mile float including White Horse Rapids, one of the most notorious white waters in Oregon.
The landscape was stunning and very different from anything east of the Mississippi. For most of the first day we floated through high rolling hills of dry light brown prairie grasses with rare scattered trees—often no more than a single lone tree dotting the entire hill. I kept thinking of the U2 song “One Tree Hill” with the chorus “You run like a river runs to the sea.”
Wild horses roamed the hills in threes and fours. We saw a few right next to the river, but most we saw only from a distance grazing their way along the slopes. It made me wonder what the hills looked like when they were green. Gil explained that when it rained—even if only a quarter of an inch—the hills greened up beautifully for a few days. In the spring they were strewn with wildflowers. But the land is so dry the rain disappears quickly. It was dry now. The temperatures during the day sored to about eighty degrees
After our guides brought us safely through White Horse Rapids—where once twenty-six boats sank in a single month—the rolling hills steepened into a deep canyon. Cliff walls towered over us. We saw no more horses, but we watched a group of four bighorn sheep graze along the slope of one steep cut. One was a big ram boating impressive curled horns. Deer also wandered the slopes. A young button buck came to the water’s edge to drink.
At night the sky was almost impossibly clear. We were miles form the nearest source of light pollution. Equally importantly was the dry air and elevation of about fifteen hundred feet. The reason it is a desert is that the high peaks of the Cascades block most of the moisture that might come eastward from the coast. Mount Hood stands at 11,249’, and Three Sisters at 10,363’. Even the passes are over 4000’ high. So in the dark, high, dry air we saw stars like I have rarely seen stars before. With a magnifying glass, I might have started a fire from the light reflecting of Venus.
We also caught a good number of trout on thirteen-foot fly rods using a technique known as two-handed spey casting. It was the first time for any of us casting a thirteen-foot rod. Unlike our last trip to Oregon together, Rich failed to provide humor by landing a steelhead after falling out of the raft in the river on his butt. Instead he just managed to land two steelhead the old fashioned way: standing on his feet and wading in the river. One of his steelhead was a wild fish over twelve pounds. Phil also landed a pair, and his son Paul pulled in one good fish.
In fact, only one of the four anglers failed to land a steelhead despite showing great aptitude for the new casting technique (even when casting in fifteen mile-per-hour winds.) However that member of the company made up for the lack of steelhead by landing a large number of “red sides”—a bright red strain of rainbow trout with some cutthroat ancestry unique to the Deschutes River. He also caught the only bull trout of the trip, and indeed the only bull trout his guide had seen all year.
Bull trout are members of the char genus. They thrive in especially cold water—cold even by the standards of trout. It was particular surprising and satisfying to find one in a river flowing through the desert. Ironically, a few weeks earlier, my new book “Trout in the Desert” was published. The book focuses on the states of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas—states I usually think of when I think of deserts. Oregon had not been in my mind when I gave that book its title. But from now on, when I think of “trout in the desert” I will have to imagine Oregon and its red-sided rainbows and bull trout. I’d like to also think of big steelhead. But that will have to wait.