Best Fishing in Oregon

Deschutes River (Lower)

Fly Fishing the Salmonfly and Stonefly Hatch

Photo courtesy of Ethan Nickel Outfitters
Photo courtesy of Ethan Nickel Outfitters

Source: John Hazel

The lower 100 free-flowing miles of the Deschutes River is indisputably Oregon’s best-known fly-fishing destination. Not only is the rich lower river a full-time home for an incredible number of strapping redsides, it also hosts a spectacular run of the resident rainbows’ ocean-going kin, the rod-threatening summer steelhead.

While the Deschutes is truly a year-round fishery, at no time do fly anglers show their love for this great stream more than the late spring. That’s when two varieties of large stoneflies emerge, crawl across the rocky bottoms and up the banks, where they take flight and quickly create one of the best dry-fly fishing opportunities anywhere.

These are enormous bugs. What’s commonly called the giant salmonfly, the giant orange stonefly (Pteronarcys californica), measures in at a whopping 3 inches. Its cousin, the golden stonefly (Hesperoperla pacifica), is still an impressive 2½ inches long and is a hearty part of the trout diet. The only ones more excited than fly anglers by the arrival of these big insects are the trout themselves.

The Lower Deschutes begins below Round Butte and Pelton Regulating dams (forming Lake Billy Chinook and Lake Simtustus) near Highway 26, close to the cities of Warm Springs and Madras. It enters the Columbia River just east of The Dalles.

Bend residents can drive north about one hour to the waters just below the dams. The popular Maupin area is within two hours of Bend, and the drive there is only slightly longer for much of the Portland area.

By the Book – Lower Deschutes River Angling Regulations
The section of the Lower Deschutes from the northern boundary of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation downstream to the Interstate 84 bridge at the mouth is open all year for trout and steelhead fishing. The exception is a seasonal closure (April 1-July 31) on about one mile of the river from Sherars Falls downstream to Buck Hollow Creek.

The section from the northern (downstream) border of the reservation upstream to the ODFW markers about 600 feet below the Pelton Regulating Dam is open from the fourth Saturday in April through Oct. 31. It is closed to fishing immediately below the dam.

Throughout the Lower Deschutes River, the daily limit is two trout between 10 and 13 inches. However, many Lower Deschutes anglers frown on anyone keeping these prized native rainbows, and nearly everyone practices catch-and-release.

Only artificial flies and lures may be used on the Lower Deschutes, except that bait may be used from Sherars Falls downstream to the upper trestle (about three miles), an area fished for chinook salmon.

There is no angling from a floating device, but guides and other boaters often use a boat to reach prime water and then step out to fish.

Know Before You Go – Daily Boater Pass and Tribal Permit
Boaters of all kinds on the Lower Deschutes need a Daily Boater Pass, which are available online or at authorized dealers. For regulatory purposes, the lower river is divided into four sections, starting with Segment 1 below Pelton and going down to Segment 4 through Macks Canyon.

Go to boaterpass.com for details.

Also, anglers will need a tribal permit to fish anywhere in the western half of the river where it borders the reservation in much of the upper reach of the Lower Deschutes. While you won’t need the permit if you stick to the east side only, you can cover twice the water with the modest-priced permit.

For details, go to tribalpermit.com.

Also, Hazel said boaters really should have a copy of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Lower Deschutes River Boater Guide, available for purchase at many sporting goods stores or through BLM.

There is a good supply of BLM-designated camping spots along the lower river.

Timing Your Trip – Salmonfly Hatch Begins in May
Until recently, the first big stoneflies could be counted on to emerge and take flight in the northern (lowest) reaches of the Lower Deschutes River very close to May 15 each year. But with a new water release regimen at hydroelectric dams upstream that started in 2010, expect the hatches below Sherars Falls here to begin a week earlier – figure May 8 – and peak during the middle two weeks of May.

The lowest 40 or so mile has relatively few of the bigger salmonflies, and Macks Canyon in general has fewer stoneflies overall but does have a fair golden stone hatch. The advantage of fishing the canyon – a two- to three-day float with stops for fishing – during this time of year is that you’ll have less competition from fellow fly fishers.

More late spring anglers take to the river above Sherars Falls, where the stonefly hatch is most intense. Those giant salmonflies, in particular, are increasingly numerous as anglers get closer to Pelton.

The golden stones are plentiful throughout the river above Sherars Falls. The hatch here now begins during the last 10 days to two weeks of May and likely will continue through Memorial Day weekend and probably into the first few days of June.

Once on the river, the best hours to fish an active hatch are on warmer days between 10 a.m. through 3 p.m. The fishing can also be quite good from 5:30 p.m. until dark.

Also, for 10 days to two weeks before the stoneflies actually hatch, the insects in the larval stage make their way toward the banks, setting up some excellent nymph-fishing opportunities before the surface fireworks begin.

Fish Finder – Stay Near Overhanging Brush Along Bank
Bank anglers will find plenty of access from roads along the river in an area stretching seven miles upstream from Maupin to 30 miles downstream, with smaller access points elsewhere. There also is some trail access, including miles of good foot or bicycle access upriver from the mouth.

The uppermost sections, including much of the reservation boundary, have more boat than bank access. Boaters should figure on fishing about 10 miles of river on a one-day float. Much of the Lower Deschutes requires good boating skills and river knowledge, as it contains Class 3 and 4 rapids.

One of the easier floats for newer boaters through prime salmonfly territory on the upper part of the Lower Deschutes is from Warm Springs to Trout Creek. For more experienced anglers looking for a longer trip during this hatch, try Trout Creek to Maupin (two or three days).

For day trips below Sherars Falls, boaters use launches at Buck Hollow, Pine Tree and Beavertail and take out at or before Macks Canyon.

Once you choose your river section, finding the fish there is straight-forward: If there is an active hatch, look for water that is between 2 and 4 feet deep, has a rocky bottom, and is moving about the speed of a normal walk. The best fishing is along the railroad riprap bank and close to grasses and other vegetation right on the bank, because the insects cling to these and sometimes fall into the water.

Hazel, who fishes within inches of the bank and usually no farther out than three feet, can’t emphasize that point enough because too many fly anglers are fishing the wrong locations during the active hatches.

“If you’re fishing 10 feet off the bank,” he said, “you’re fishing in Kentucky.”

Secrets to Success – How to Fish the Deschutes Salmonfly Hatch
Always fish with an upstream presentation in the water described above. You’ll probably need to stand in water that is deeper than your target area and make casts of 15 to 20 feet toward the bank. If you look only for places where it’s easy to stand and cast, you most likely will miss much of the better fishing water.

Also, cover plenty of water. If you make 10 or 15 good casts to prime water without attracting a fish, it’s time to move on.

There are too many good stonefly patterns to mention them all, and local shops will carry plenty of imitations that work, including the newer foam-bodied flies. Hazel said one longtime pattern worth noting is the Norm Woods Special. Use sizes 5 to 8 for stonefly patterns.

Hazel’s other advice is to come to the river well-stocked with flies. Fishing close to vegetation has its perils.

“This is not a hatch where guys should get skimpy on flies,” he said. “They’re going to go through ammo.”

Try a 7½-foot leader tapering to a 4x tippet while fishing adult stonefly imitations along the banks of the Deschutes.

Before the Hatch – Salmonfly Larvae are in the Water
In early May, you may not find an active stonefly hatch, but fly fishing for resident redsides can be excellent because they are keying in on big stonefly nymphs crawling on the bottom.

At this time, you won’t be so focused on the bank. Look for water that is still 2- to 4-feet deep, but concentrate on somewhat faster riffled water, especially with a boulder-strewn bottom where the immature stoneflies spend most of their life cycle.

The key here is to fish right along the bottom. Try two to four BB-sized split shot about 12 inches above your nymph to keep it down.

“You want to feel it ticking on the bottom with every presentation,” he said.“That’s the difference between great success and failure.”

Use a bit longer leader for this type of fishing: Try 8 to 9 feet in length, tapering to 3x or 4x.

Fish any of the many stonefly nymph imitations available, sticking to sizes 4 through 8, especially in browns and blacks. “It’s not rocket science. Just get a good silhouette out there.”

If All Else Fails
You might show up at just the right time of the year only to find a lull in the hatch, probably due to cooler and cloudy weather.

“Every day’s a little bit different,” Hazel said. “Weather’s really a dominating factor.”

Fortunately, on those days the pale morning and pale evening duns are likely to be hatching. Bring a reasonable selection of these smaller imitations as a backup to the stonefly hatch.

John Hazel has been guiding anglers on the Deschutes River since 1978. Today he and his wife Amy operate the Deschutes Angler in Maupin, where they offer year-round guide services and one of the West’s best selections of flies and other fly-fishing equipment. Besides the Deschutes, the shop has a lease to take clients fishing on trout-filled private lakes in the area.

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Photo courtesy of Ethan Nickel OutfittersPhoto courtesy of Ethan Nickel Outfitters