The morning started with a 4:30 am departure from Portland, Oregon to head west to fish for summer steelhead with Matt Mendes, a Native American Fly Fishing Guide located on the Deschutes River. The three-hour drive started with heavy rain in Portland and transitioned into a snowstorm along the Mount Hood corridor. As we reached the Warm Springs Reservation the air was warm, balmy, and no wind. It was late November, any sort of warmer air temperatures might mean that if there were steelhead around they would be more willing to take a swung fly.
Fly fishing for summer steelhead in Oregon is not for the faint of heart, it typically means waking up before the sunrise, fishing hard all morning, taking a nap midday, and then fishing the afternoon until dark. The less time you spend on the water the less chance you have to catch a steelhead. The populations of steelhead in Oregon have been on the decline since the early 1900s when the dams were built on the Columbia River, there was the introduction of hatchery steelhead, and there was an onslaught of commercial harvest of these fish.
Steelhead are a species of pursuit, it’s not at all a numbers game. Fly fishing for steelhead is a way to connect to the outdoors at a greater level. You can spend hours and hours, days upon days without catching one. You can learn more about yourself in this time spent on the water and connect with the environment around you at a whole different level. It is a very intimate experience, to say the least. And when you do finally come in contact with a fish, it is a memory you will cherish forever.
Beams of sunlight began radiating to the East as we pulled up to Matt’s house and I knew that the clock was ticking and we needed to get on the water. Matt was patiently waiting for us with the rods rigged on his gigantic F-250 Truck. He told us to grab our gear and get into the truck and we would wader up down at the river. The day would be spent wade fishing the Warm Springs Reservation side of the Deschutes River. We would be using Matt’s truck to move from spot to spot along the 4-wheel drive road. Matt has exclusive access to guide on 22 miles of the Deschutes River’s west bank, per an 1855 treaty with the United States government.
When I asked Matt about how he got into fishing and guiding he explained, “My grandfather Al Bagley got me into fly fishing when I was 12 years old. He was the first Indian guide on the Deschutes River and owner of Riverbend Guide Service. He started his company in 1997. I started shuttle driving at 12 years old and slowly started getting familiar with the guide business during that time.”
“By my Sophomore year in High school, I was guiding every summer and fall for both trout and steelhead until I graduated. I ended up working 11 years with his outfit. He retired in 2016 and I bought him out and started my own company Spin The Handle.” It became pretty clear through our conservations that Matt has devoted his life to fishing, specifically guiding fly fishing and protecting the native fish and habitat along the Deschutes River.
The road began to wind down the canyon, the mighty Deschutes River came into view. The defined oxbows of water pierced the rugged land and the steep cliffs glistened a red and gold color contrasting the dark blue reflection of the river below. For those who have never stepped foot near the Deschutes River, a picture doesn’t do it justice. The sheer power of the river is astonishing and the land around it looks like you might be walking on some faraway planet. It is a mysterious place, underneath the rugged landscape is a world teeming with life.
We turned onto a burley 4-wheel drive road, Matt put the truck into 4-wheel to climb through the deep mud. Wild horses grazed the hills, the bright sun warmed the cold desert ground.
We approached the first run, Matt stopped the truck and muttered some swear words under his breath, he began banging on the roof of the truck. The noise echoed through the canyon and a flock of geese took flight from the river. Matt mentioned the geese can spook the fish from taking a swung fly. These geese were sitting right on the tailout of the run we were planning to fish. He also mentioned it was probably just his superstition and we should still fish the run. Steelhead anglers are notorious for being superstitious.
Emily waded out to the top of the run, she was accompanied by Matt who helped her find rhythm with her spey cast. She began the two-step spey routine, cast, swing, take two steps downstream and repeat the process. It was the most efficient way to cover water to search out a steelhead that may be lurking below. I followed behind thinking that she had maybe perked up a fish that may take the second fly it had seen. I was wrong this time around.
The gear that we were using for this specific late-November day was 13-foot 7-weight spey rods, a fly reel with a good amount of backing, Airflo Super-Dri Ridge Running Line, a Skagit head (Aiflo Skagit Driver line or Airflo Rage Compact Float) with an Airflo T-10 Flo Tip, 4 feet of 12-pound tippet, and an unweighted black and blue spey fly (Matt had tied some up in the car).
Matt expressed he likes to normally fish “dry lines” for summer steelhead, but the water temperatures were a little too cold to fish the full floating setup. From September through early November is when Matt will typically run a full floating line setup. The steelhead will rise from where they are holding to take the fly on the surface. But with water temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit our chances of getting a fish on floating setup were not as good as using a sink tip like the T-10 Flo Tip.
Emily was fishing the new Aiflo Skagit Driver. A spey line designed by Tom Larimer a retired Deschutes fly fishing guide and line designer. The Driver is an all-purpose Skagit style spey head that can throw heavy tips and flies while still cast lighter-weight setups with accuracy. It is a great all-around spey line for two-handed anglers, especially anglers who might be new to spey casting.
I was fishing the Airflo Rage Compact Float. This specific line is considered a “Scandi Compact” line. Scandi is the style of spey fishing with light lines and light flies. Sort of like the dry fly fishing of spey fishing. The Rage Compact is ultimately a hybrid between a Scandi and Skagit making it perform better in high wind and with a lightweight tip and fly. It is another all-around spey line and commonly used amongst the spey anglers on the Deschutes River. It is a blast to cast as you can accurately control your cast and fly.
We finished fishing the first run, hopped back into the truck to head to the next run. The air temperature was rising and so was the sun. Accessing the water on the Warm Springs Reservation is a very intimate experience, there are no other vehicles, people, or industrial disturbance. The land feels wild and unchanged. Unlike many other public access points along the river.
Matt discussed being a Tribal fly fishing guide as “a very unique opportunity, being able to fish so much sacred trout and steelhead water that our people have utilized for substantial necessities for many years. As guides, we try to persevere the water and land as best we can to keep it as pristine as it has been for hundreds of years.”
“The water along the reservation is very crucial for the life cycle of returning salmon, steelhead, and all aquatic life as a safe sanctuary with limited pressure from anglers. The fish that make it up this far are very special after all they have gone through to get here.”
The river along the reservation is a sanctuary for life. There isn’t pressure from the outside world to disturb the natural being of it. As the morning went on, we began picking up our pace and covering a lot of water. This was in hope of searching out a steelhead. Matt made it pretty clear that the more time you have your flies in the water the better chance you have to catch a steelhead.
At each and every run Matt gave us the confidence that there should be a fish and we were going to catch it. A trait that only true steelhead guides have. It keeps your mental state from getting in the way and keeps you focused on grinding away to find that elusive fish.
I started fishing a run that Matt called the “Pitchers Mound,” where the normal cast, swing, two-step routine was impossible due to deep water, trees, and other obstacles. Instead, I was standing on a tiny rock and trying to control my swing by letting out more line with each cast.
I made an awkward upstream snake roll cast off my right shoulder, and my fly landed 30 feet directly across from me. I didn’t mend the line as the river current was slow. The line straightened out and the fly began to pick up speed as it crossed the current. Near the end of the swing, I felt a small tug. I waited for a second and then lifted my tip out of instinct. “F**k” I yelled as I knew that a steelhead had just grabbed my fly and I had pulled it out of its mouth. You only get so many chances when a steelhead decides to take your fly and I trout set. Bummer….I kept fishing in hopes that fish would still be there and willing to take my fly again, but I was wrong.
We kept fishing and covering a lot of water. Matt demonstrated various spey casts, making the casting looking effortless. He explained, “If I had to give any advice to an angler wanting to swing for steelhead it is to take your time with your casting, relax, and of course be very patient. Your moment will come when your fly swims in front of a fish’s face. Keep stepping and casting with confidence!!” This resonated as you can easily lose confidence when swinging flies.
It was beginning to get late, the sunlight would be gone in about an hour. Emily was eager to find a fish, but her energy levels were fading as we had been up since 3:30 am. We split the next run in half, she took the bottom and I took the top. I fished long and hard, about 20 swings later, I stepped out and started walking back to the truck. Emily stayed put and covered more water, casting the Skagit Driver effortlessly with a nice fluid Snap T cast.
She bombed a 40-foot cast, threw a big mend upstream, and waited for the current to begin to swing the line. As the line came tight in the current, her fly began swinging across the water column. About halfway through the swing, the fly line began ripping out of the reel.
“Fish on!” Matt screamed as Emily held on for dear life. The steelhead ripped downstream with large bursts of reel peeling power. The fish just kept going, Matt instructed Emily to begin walking downstream to try to get control of the fish. As Emily cautiously navigated the riverbed, the water became deeper and Matt picked her up to carry her through the deep water to get closer to the fish.
At last, the fish seemed to have tired out. Emily reeled down and gained on it. She was able to get control of the fish and steered it in the direction of the net. She lifted the 13-foot spey rod, it flexed with the weight of the fish, and Matt scooped the fish into the large net. Success!!
The fish glistened its red, pink, and green scales in the fading sunlight, the large tail protruding from the net. It was a beautiful late-season hen (female) summer steelhead.
Emily was speechless and we could all feel a sense of accomplishment. It was a team effort.
We took a couple of photos, gave praise to the fish, and sent her back to where she came from. Being able to shake hands with a steelhead is always a humbling experience.
We felt fortunate to have been able to come in contact with such an elusive fish. A fish that is born in the desert, lived in the ocean and returned back to the desert where it will either die after spawning or go back to the ocean to only return again to keep the lifecycle going. A resilient fish, with the odds stacked against it.
Matt explained how “Life does not get any better than swinging a spey rod in a river somewhere and being in tune with Mother Earth.” I don’t think anyone could say he is wrong about that.
Article by Patrick Perry @patperry.