Not so long ago when I had youth, money, time, and the sense to not waste it, I used to regularly ski Mt. Hood during the summer on long weekends. My friend Craig’s birthday is over Memorial Day so he would head down to the Deschutes and camp out for the salmon fly hatch. There is something ridiculously fun about throwing three-inch dry flies fifteen feet for monster redbands, so he would let me tag along.
I would ski until noon and then race across the desert to Maupin where we would meet at the fly shop. Maupin is so trout-centric that even the high school teams are the Maupin Redbands. Everything is this town is to support the fishing industry. Craig would’ve been on the river all day and have the flies, location and techniques all dialed in for me. I would buy what he told me and we would head out.It was as good as having a guide.
The Deschutes is a fast water that has cut through the desert like a plow share. There are few places at all were you can even step into it without going over your waders and getting swept away. But since you are not allowed to fish it by boat, there are something like 7000 fish per mile there, if only you can figure out how to get to them.
On one of my first trips there we had fished some heavy water and finally returned to town to finish up the day. There is a nice run by an old train depot there and you can stand on chair-sized boulders while you work the water. After skiing hard all day and fighting to stand in four-foot water and wind, this was a nice relief even if it did mean bushwhacking through grass over your head to get to it. Down there you have to worry about snakes, so it’s always nice to get out of the deep grass into the water.
I had been working it for a while and had discovered that the trout had switched up from the adult flies and were taking stone nymphs. I was pretty proud of myself for figuring this out. Somewhere along the way I’d lost Craig so I’d have to share that with him later. I worked out in into the run and was standing in water mid-thigh. It was at that point of the day where you are only going to be able to tie on one more fly before it got too dark to thread the eye. There is an urgency to those last casts before the day ends and you will only have the long soft night to dream of the fish you could’ve had.
My vision hadn’t gone then, and I could still tie on the small flies, although sometimes I would have to hold them up against the sky to do it. Still, in the fading light I was glad to have the relatively large nymph because from exhaustion from skiing or whatever, I was having a particularly hard time tying my Lefty Loop knot. I had the overhand knot tied and pinched between my forefinger and thumb so I could thread the fly when I looked down between my legs to note that in the few inches between my crotch and the water and there was a diamond back rattler swimming upstream. I want to say he was six feet, so he was probably four, and what really struck me was how beautiful the subtle brown shades were.
- Stonefly nymph
I realized, however, that if I dwelled on the snake, I would not get the fly on, so I went back to my knot and finished up. Besides, there was nothing I could do about it, and if you are going to die, you might as well have a fly in the water. I cast it into the darkness, and when I thought to look again he was gone. I hooked one more fat sixteen inch trout, and gingerly stepped through the grass lest I trod upon my new friend. Fifteen minutes later Craig and I were drinking beer up the hill at the Rainbow Tavern and recounting the day before I set off across the desert back to the mountain blasting fire-and-brimstone preachers on the FM because that’s all there was to blast.