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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Going East

My good friend Adrian Cortes had hatched a plan to visit a famous eastern Oregon steelhead river after driving by it's lower section with our mutual friend Steve Turner this past August.  Adrian was taken by the beauty of the place and vowed to put a plan into place to make a fall trip a reality.

I had previously visited this river in October 2008 and fished it's lower section with my father in law Jim Jones, his brother Mel and his friend Toby.  Reportedly, the fishing had been good before our arrival, which happened to coincide with a sudden cold snap, which of course put off the fishing.  None of us landed a single steelhead that trip and I only manged to raise one steelhead to the surface.  Not even Mel and Toby dredging with Teeny lines did the trick.

Adrian's and my plan came together in early October with Adrain showing up a day before me.  I used Google directions and got put on a long gravel road.  I'm surprised that the Steelhead Taxi's suspension didn't fall off going through the wash boards, but I managed to make it to the bottom of the grade in one piece and met up with Adrian by 8am.  I was running about an hour behind schedule due to the unexpected gravel delay.  I figured I'd find Adrian to be on the river fishing when I arrived and in fact Adrian was near the top of a nice run when I pulled in.  I waved over to Adrian and he quickly came over to greet me.

Adrian had actually been waiting in his rig since daylight in anticipation of my arrival and while waiting, he got some tying done.  He tied a beautiful Thompson river caddis in hand which he gifted to me shortly after I arrived.  Adrian had only stepped into the run a few minutes before I pulled in when it became apparent that I was delayed longer than expected.

When we greeted each other I told him that I  felt badly for rushing him, but he mentioned that he was happy to wait for my arrival until seriously hitting the water.  After our greetings, Adrian calmly told me about the incredible evening session he had the day before.  The events that unfolded involved 7 to 8 rises, 3 hookups, and two nice wild steelhead landed!  I was tired, but ready to fish!!  Adrian tells the story in words and pictures below:

"First fish on this particular river. Spent all day skating dries with nary a rise. After a beer, I find a run that is tough to wade in...and then it becomes magical...numerically magical."

"The second steelhead on this river was memorable. Big surface crash...and nothing. Dangle...recast...nothing. Shortened up, recast progressively to the zone...Kaboosh! Then nothing. #@$%&*! That fish missed the fly again! Dangle...single the zone...Kaboosh! ZZZZZZzzzzzzzz......I put the glass to it in a spectacular battle of jumps and runs. Beautifully wild, big, and full of vinegar and piss. Bent out my dryfly hook"

Lemire's Thompson River Caddis tied in hand by Adrian Cortes.  Adrian Cortes photo

Greaselined.  Adrian Cortes photo

Wild and Free.  A hefty buck that ate Adrian's Greaseliner.  Adrian Cortes photo

The result of Adrian's battle with a wild and hefty buck.  Adrian Cortes photo

Wild and Free of another type.  Four legged critters seem drawn to Adrian's presence on rivers.  Adrian Cortes photo

After getting the skinny on Adrian's encounter with the loaded run, I quickly wadered up and we fished the nearby water.  This was a big run and we spread out as I re-fished the choppy head and Adrian went to the lower section of the run.  A couple gear guys ended up between us so I ended up moving towards Adrian in the tailout.  We examined the fish holding possibilities of this water, but with sun directly on it, we decided to move on after fishing it just briefly.

We then headed to camp where I quickly set up my tent so I wouldn't have to worry about it after our day's fishing.  We then hurriedly packed into Adrian's Land Rover and hit some water that Adrian fished the day before.

Adrian and I were blessed to have gotten some intel on spots to fish from our good friend and steelheading icon Bill McMillan.  Bill had lived on and fished this river a good deal back in the early 90's.  Bill was excited to hear of our trip to this special place, a location that has much spiritual meaning to him.  As we drove along we sought out some of the spots Bill described for us.

We hit a spot with three distinct runs strung together.  The short run directly out from the trail called out to me so I waded to mid river to hit the slot on the far side.  In the meantime, Adrian walked upstream to the uppermost of the three runs, leaving the middle one for me to hit after I got through with run I was fishing first.

I quickly fished through this short riffly run with no result and looked upstream to see Adrian fishing the upper run, but with a raft and three guys right by him also fishing the run.  I figured that the raft must have been carrying a guide and two clients and Adrian gave them water to fish.

Rather than heading up towards Adrian, I decided to just re-fish the little run again to kill time.  With all the October Caddis fluttering about, I figured to change to an October Caddis version of my foam skater.  As I got into the lower section, I made a cross stream cast in front of an exposed bankside boulder.  The main current caught my line and leader, causing a belly and pulling my skater briskly down and across the face of boulder.  A small steelhead of maybe 24" launched across the top after my skater.  This little fella missed his target, but I was pleasantly surprised by it's sudden and aggressive response to the surface.  Of course I went through my comeback dance, but no followup  rise came about.

I ended up fishing the middle run and it swung my skater really nicely, but no foam eating steelhead appeared.  Adrian and I caught up with each other shortly thereafter and Adrian reported that indeed, the folks in the raft was a well known PNW steelhead guide with a couple sports.  Apparently said guide liked the run Adrian was fishing well enough to have been willing to park and wait until Adrian fished through.  Rather than looking over his shoulder while the guide and sports waited on him,  Adrian let them have the water and then fished through behind them.

Adrian then took me to another spot he fished the day before.  This was one of the spots that Bill had described to us.  Adrian reported that he had raised a steelhead low in this run but did not hookup.  I started at the head of the run and Adrian walked further up and fished the run above me.  As I got about a third of the way down, a steelhead came up with an aggressive rise to my skater.  Again, this steelhead responded to a fast swing facilitated by a cross stream cast bellied by the main current.  I made the same cast and this steelie actually came up a second time but the hook point didn't find purchase in steelhead matter.

At the next run, I started at the riffly top end and worked my skater along the broadening seam as I got into the heart of  this fishy looking piece of water.  About a third of the way down, a steelhead came up and charged up after my skater as it came out of the chop into the seam.  I shorted up and started back in with my foam skater hoping for a come back and just then, the famous guide we saw earlier came through the top of the run with his two sports and politely rowed his raft quietly behind me as Adrian had been able to alert him that I had just raised a fish.

As I went back with my October Caddis Wang, the guide and sports also watched the bright "indicator post" of my skater as it came through the choppy main flow.  After a couple casts, no return appearance of steel appeared.  As the guide and sports were getting past my position, the guide remarked to Adrian with a wink "steelhead on this river think foam is gay".

I changed over to a riffle hitched greaseliner and gave it a go.  On the first cast with the greaseliner, the steelhead returned with a bulge at the fly as it came into the soft seam.  Unfortunately, further comeback attempts were unsuccessful.  I continued down the remainder of this beautiful run with no other feedback to my surface presentations.

We concluded our day at Adrian's "loaded run".  Being the gracious friend that he is, Adrian insisted that I go through first.  Adrian grabbed an IPA and took a seat on an exposed boulder as I started up high in the run.  I decided to give my Fenwick 8.5' 6wt glass rod and 6wt Ambush line some air time.  I was getting back into the rhythm of single hand spey casting as I chatted with Adrian about the potential of this juicy run.  We noted current seams created by the bouldery structure and commented on how all that structure provides great cover for steelhead while also providing for the difficult wading I was experiencing.  These characteristics probably attributed to Adrian finding multiple steelhead holding in it the evening before.

The upper section of the run called for short, controlled casts in the conflicting currents.  I was casting the Ambush head with maybe six strips of running line and was just starting to step down the run.  Adrian and I were both watching my baby blue foam skater coming across the current when a steelhead made a broadside launch across the surface and solidly grabbed the skater.  I simply did nothing and the steelhead came tight on the line and began making some short powerful bursts on runs that made my cheapo ebay special (battered Shakespeare Beaulite 3.5") create a joyful blue collar racket.

Fish on!  Adrian Cortes photo

Taking a load off while Ms. Surface Steelhead bores down stream.  Adrian Cortes photo

The hook held and I eventually got this beautiful little hen to shore.  Adrian and I high fived and Adrian got some photos of a happy Asian holding a steelhead.  We were delighted that both of us had the blessing of witnessing a beautiful surface steelhead grab and I thanked Adrian for his generosity in putting me through his new found loaded run.

Chunky hatchery hen that obliged to a "baby blue" wang.  Adrian Cortes photo

Baby Blue Wang does the trick.  My angry hen chewed hard enough to open up the stinger hook a bit.  Adrian Cortes photo

I was quite surprised to find that this perfect steelhead was of hatchery origin.   It just happened that an ODFW creel checker was driving by when I had the fish on so she stopped to check in.  I decided to harvest this steelhead so she took down data that she needed and returned my fish in a tidy plastic bag.  When Adrian and I commented that we were impressed with this steelhead even considering it was a hatchery steelhead the creel checker responded "of course, they're all from native stock", reminding me that the hatchery program there comes from wild brood stock.

ODFW creel checker taking stats on my steelhead.  Adrian Cortes photo.

We went through the remainder of the loaded run and we were surprised to find no one home as we fished in to evening's darkness.  We then headed back to camp where stories were shared and a few more foam skaters tied as two crazed surface steelheaders ruminated over the wonder of steelhead that come to the surface for our chosen patterns.  Gourmet dinners that came out of cans and packages were prepared and eaten before we turned in for the evening.

We spent the next morning fishing some of the same runs and we also walked into another run described to us by Bill McMillan.  We had an enjoyable morning expoloring new water and I bid Adrian farwell by mid day.  I fished the evening session and a quick morning session the following day and continued to find surface steelhead elusive.  Such is the surface steelheading game, you may not get into topwater steel on every outing, but the journey is always satisfying.

Unwinding after a memorable day of surface steelheading.  Adrian Cortes photo

The Steelhead Taxi parked along a morning steelhead run


  1. As eloquent a story as could be told by a fisherman I have known all my life. His passion started in the ocean surrounding our childhood home of Kauai, Hawaii.
    Todd, continue to cast as fluid as the waters you fish, well done my friend!!

    1. Thanks Greg! I think you need to come to OR for a visit! I would gladly get you out on some beautiful steelhead water.

  2. That was so fun, my friend. Thanks for putting the time in to meet me out there, for sharing the passion, and for recording it in "pen" and organizing the photos. Many times, I reread your blog for the memories as I don't want those to fade from my ever forgetful mind.

    1. I agree, it was a fun trip! Makes for scheming a repeat next fall. Glad you like my penning of our adventures. This blog's main objective is to chronicle my fishing life to be able to relive those memories, nice to hear it does the same for you. It's so true that memories fade over time and I strive to capture the spirit and excitement that surface steelheading blesses us with. I am fortunate to have a like minded brother to experience these special times with and for the re-living through words and pics afterwards.

  3. How I cherish reading your stories my friend !!
    Some fabulous photos as well .... thank you !!

    1. Thanks Mike, glad that you like my ramblings! I'm happy that there are folks who follow along with my "surface steelhead chronicles".