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Warm Springs Steelhead - Don Roberts

Skookum Steelhead
The Art of Getting Down and Whooping It Up at Warm Springs

deschutes river steelhead trout fishing fly fish warm springs

There are no secrets. The era of search engines has seen to that. Secrets nowadays survive for about a nanosecond. Even before that, even before PCs and smart phones and digital devices up the yang, there were no secrets. Not really.

At least not among us Joe Schmos in the civilian world.

Okay, that said, let me back up a little. There are now and always have been plenty of fuzzy secrets, half-veiled secrets—the “sorta kinda” secrets that have become part of the lexicon, the gab if you will, of today’s Millennials.

Among ardent anglers, the caliber of fishing procurable on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation is one of those sorta kinda secrets. Procurable, as in pay for, being the operant word here. Of course, most serious steelhead fishermen in Oregon (and elsewhere in the Northwest) have at least a vague notion of the enticement factor at Warm Springs.

But with so much public water available, why crack open one’s check book?

The simple answer is: because you’ll get way more than you pay for when you reserve a day of fly fishing for steelhead at Warm Springs. Al Bagley established River Bend Guide Service (RBGS) over two decades ago with the sole purpose of introducing anglers to the rare charm of fishing the only unpeopled and untrammeled stretch of the Deschutes (and, yes, scratch out a living doing it).

Along the way Bagley, and his grandson/partner Matt Mendes, have learned a thing or two about the intricacies—some would call them secrets—of steelhead fly fishing on the Deschutes.

deschutes river steelhead trout fishing fly fish warm springs

Just getting to the river is an adventure in itself. The reservation encompasses over a thousand square miles, much of it still as wild as when bands of the Tygh tribe roamed this canyon centuries past. After leaving the blacktop a few miles east of Kahneeta, the road (if you can call it that) plunges down into the basalt strewn ravines and arroyos leading to the river. The RBGS truck, a high-clearance, four-wheel drive with a molar-rattling suspension, chugs across the hardscrabble terrain at a speed that’ll get you there without jeopardizing axle, oil pan, or sacroiliac. All the better for increasing the likelihood of spotting an abundance of wildlife along the way, including raptors, feral horses, mule deer, wild turkeys and black bears.

While negotiating boulder rubble and chuck holes the size of bathtubs, Bagley held forth about what is was like in the so-called good old days. It wasn’t always easy convincing the general public that the west bank of the river was “closed water.”

Bagley often had to patrol the area on his own and confront trespassers, some of whom would get bristly. He’d respond by informing intruders that they had better damn well (this is the sanitized version) get their arses back to the other side of the river or be prepared to duke it out. No doubt owing to Bagley’s imposing demeanor and oak-stump build, it never came to that.

To add a tinge of irony, Dave Kilhefner, my angling partner on this excursion, confided that 12 or so years ago he had been one of those trespassers Bagley had booted off. Naturally, there were extenuating circumstances—“it wasn’t my idea”…“the guy I was with”…blah blah blah—but as Kilhefner labored to explain Bagley shook his head and waved him off with an expression that can only be described as merriment mixed with practiced skepticism.

While Bagley is content these days to do shuttles and much of the office work, with occasional stints on the river, Mendes has taken the reins—or, more precisely, the oars—for the bulk of the guiding duties.

Young, energetic and brimming with an enthusiasm that’s infectious, Mendes also possesses a laser like aptitude for detecting the presence of steelhead. That said, his get-er-done determination is leavened with an easy going, relaxed air and a sunny disposition. To enlist dogs as an analogy, Mendes would be half bulldog [strong, stubborn, tenacious] and half lab [always eager and agreeable, with a nose for the quarry].

deschutes river steelhead trout fishing fly fish warm springs

The typical RBGS steelhead trip entails cherry picking approximately 13 miles of river over a 12 hour day. Yes, you read that right: 12 hours. Better eat your Wheaties because an outing with Mendes (even when relying on only the truck to access the runs) can be expected to be a sunrise to sunset campaign.

The drift starts near Trout Creek, passes South Junction, proceeds on to Kaskela Flat, then Skookum Creek, and finally wraps up at Whiskey Dick Riffle. Of course, it’s all about finding holding water and crossing paths with moving fish. Over the course of the day and over boggling expanses of river, you end up fishing a tremendous variation of water types from classic seams, to stair-step riffles, to slicks under overhanging willows.

As a matter of geology and hydrology the Warm Springs side of the Deschutes is blessed with seemingly endless sweeps of uniform holding water [right speed/right depth], many of which are so extensive a particularly methodical angler could spend the day on a single run. But there’s also an abundance of short, intimate, non-descript hidey-holes. The non-descript is where an interpreter like Mendes comes in—he understands the language of the river… and of steelhead.

deschutes river steelhead trout fishing fly fish warm springs

deschutes river steelhead trout fishing fly fish warm springs

deschutes river steelhead trout fishing fly fish warm springs

Mendes is especially skilled at showing clients how to present flies in the colder flows of late fall on the Deschutes (and, by extension, for winter run steelhead in rivers on the other side of the Cascades).

He’s keenly versed in the methodology of drilling down—acutely reading the character of a run and deftly switching between different densities of sink tips and types of flies (bright, dark, weighted or un-weighted, sparse, webby, etc.) “It’s better to hang up, or even lose flies occasionally, than not hook fish,” said Mendes.

Though fish arrive in healthy numbers in September and October, November is the primary month, perhaps the peak, for summer steelhead in the Warm Springs section of the Deschutes. Which, in effect, extends the season, given that by then farther downriver the ballgame is in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and nobody on base. “If we don’t get severe cold, we keep fishing clear into February,” said Mendes. “It’s great because there’s no one else around [on either side], no other boats, nothing but us and lots of quiet.”

deschutes river steelhead trout fishing fly fish warm springs

Swinging flies in February…like any other extreme sport, it’s so fun it’s grueling. “It’s not for everybody,” laughed Mendes.

The beauty of an RBGS trip is not only the exceptional value (where else can you get as much bang for the buck?) but also indulge in the rare luxury of fishing on your own terms.

No hordes. No jostling. No lapses of angling etiquette.

[When stuck with fishing crowded sections on the public side, it’s as if everyone feels entitled to wring as much out of a bad situation as possible]. Simply put: fishing the reservation is a liberating experience. Or as Kilhefner wryly observed: “No camping on a good steelhead run at 3:00 a.m. No racing other boats to the next run. No strangers bursting out of the brush clapping their hands for pulling into “their” spot.”

deschutes river steelhead trout fishing fly fish warm springs

At the end of a day—a satisfyingly long day—of fishing with Bagley and/or Mendes you get a free hat. Above the brim it says, “Let’s Fish the Deschutes!” Well, hell yes. No argument there.

- written by Don Roberts


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