The Deschutes begins her journey at Little Lava Lake, some 150 miles South of it’s final destination; the Columbia River. The River is a tail water, impeded by two dams which Steelhead cannot ascend. Flowing from south to north, the river cuts it’s way through an immense basalt canyon. Wildlife is abundant. It’s not uncommon to see bighorn sheep, black tail deer, otter, & mink during a day of fishing. Golden eagles sore on the rising thermals, while a wide variety of birds can be seen and heard closer to the river. Make no mistake, this is rattlesnake country. While Deschutes rattlers are docile, they too are part of the experience. The river’s flora changes depending on where you’re at in the system. On the upper river near Warms Springs you’ll see Ponderosa Pine and Cedar. As you move down river, White Alder and Blackberry command the river banks. There is a feeling the Deschutes gives you. It’s a river that can be totally inviting, and yet completely intimidating at the same time. The high desert country is so barren, when you’re on the "D", it feels as though you’ve stopped the clock, and stepped back in time.
A Place For Everyone
The biggest element that separates the river from most is no angler can fish from a water craft. Yep, that’s right... No plug pulling or side drifting. Everyone is on an equal playing field. While the river is not fly fishing only, the use of bait or scent is prohibited. Consequently, the majority of fisherman are casting Spey rods. Another unique aspect of the river is how it is managed. Depending on your mode of transportation, there’s a place for everyone.
In the lower canyon from Mack’s Canyon to Heritage Landing at the Mouth is 23 miles of the most seductive water you’ve ever laid your greedy steelhead eyes on. This is a big, brawling river, averaging 00000CFS. in the lower river during the steelhead season. Wading staffs and studded boots help negociate the boulder filled runs and swift current. Steelies start showing up in the beginning of July and continue entering the river into January some years. This stretch has no road access other than a death trap single track called the road to Kloan.(If you like your car, don’t even think about it.) Consequently, the best way to access the lower river is via jet sled. This stretch is also a great three day float trip in a drift boat or raft. The river is closed to motorized vehicles every other weekend from Thursday to Sunday to give floaters a chance to fish without sleds. However, boaters take caution. The lower river is guarded by five major rapids and numerous small but tricky pieces of white water. This is not a place to cut your teeth on the oars or to learn how to run a sled. Boats sink on a regular basis. Boaters are not allowed to fish the water from rattlesnake rapids down to Heritage Landing. This gives those on foot three miles to fish without competition from boats. What makes the lower river so unique is that it attracts many fish destined for other Columbia River tributaries. As the steelhead ascend the warm Columbia, the cooler Deschutes invites them in for a break from 70 degree water. Many of these "strays" will go 15 miles up the Deschutes. This can drastically inflate the number of fish in the lower river.
From Mack’s upriver to the locked gate is considered the Maupin stretch. Maupin is a small town roughly 50 river miles up from the mouth. This stretch offers the best walk-in access.
The Deschutes River Access Road parallels the river for more than 35 miles. Outside of the water between the White River to just below Shear’s Falls, the Maupin area offers some beautiful steelhead water. A number of great day floats exist in this stretch. While the water from Wapinitia boat ramp to Sandy Beach boat ramp is legitimate class III/IV white water, most of the other floats are class II. Don’t be fooled by the rating though, this is still big water! For those looking to car camp, the lower access road has some great spots to pitch a tent. Be prepared to fight the crowds during the peak season of August through October. Etiquette is a must for everyone to get along. Luckily, most Deschutes junkies follow the code like religion: Start at the head of the pool, step down river between casts, relinquish your spot if you hook a fish, and never, EVER, take two steps downstream of someone in a piece of water. Even if it’s 200yrds long. Period.
From Nina Creek boat ramp up to Trout Creek is considered the upper river. The steelhead don’t start showing up in big numbers until September. When they do show, it makes for a wonderful three day float. However, the west side of the river is mostly the Warm Springs Indian reservation. Because it is closed to angling, most of the fishing pressure is on the east bank. Again, it cannot be stressed enough that this is not a river for beginner rowers. White Horse Rapids is known for taking both boats and lives. Mandatary scouting! With little drive-in access, this stretch is almost exclusively for boaters. Make sure you give yourself time to find a campsite on this float. While many great campsites exist, the prime spots go quick.
From Trout Creek boat ramp up to Warm Springs boat ramp is a great late season day float. There is walk-in access at Mecca flats and South Junction. Fishing in the upper, upper river gets decent by late September and goes thru December.
Built For Spey
The Deschutes is a classic Spey river. Her massive boulder filled runs are often lined with Alder and Blackberry. Back casting is almost always an issue. Because most Deschutes steelhead are one salt fish averaging 5 to 7 pounds, 6 and 7 weight Spey rods are the tool of choice. With that said, remember those stray fish? Twenty pound plus fish are landed in the lower river on a frequent basis. Bring at least a 7 weight if you’re headed to the lower river.
What makes Deschutes fish so unique is there unabashed addiction to surface or near surface flies. Floating lines are standard operating proceeders when the shade is on the water or during heavy overcast days. Once the Sun is high above the canyon’s rim, you can still get fish on floating lines provided you can get a good angle to the sun. This can be tough considering the river runs from the south to the north. With that said, fish can be found during the mid day using sink-tips and big flies.
If you like catching chrome bright rockets on dry flies in a beautiful setting, you owe it to yourself to fish the Deschutes this year.
The best guides: For the lower river, take a jet boat trip with Larimer Outfitters. If you’re headed to the Maupin Area, float the river with Matt McCrary.
Season: Early July through December.
Best Accommodations: If you’re fishing the lower river, the Biggs Junction Travel Lodge is the only close option. There is additional lodging 15 to 35 minutes away in The Dalles or Hood River. In the Maupin Area, the Imperial River Company is a great place to rest your weary head.
Camping: Yes. For the lower river, the Deschutes River State Park offers RV Hook-ups, bathrooms and showers. In the Maupin Area, there are many primitive campgrounds along the Deschutes River Access Road. However, the Maupin City Park is the only campground with RV hook-ups and modern bathrooms.
Best place to get a burger and beer: If you’re fishing the lower river and are heading back to Portland, Oregon, stop in at 6th Street Bistro in Hood River, Oregon. Hood River is about 40 minutes west of Heritage Landing. In Maupin, a steelhead trip just wouldn’t be complete without stopping at the Rainbow Tavern.
Fishing License Vendor: The Gorge Fly Shop in Hood River, Oregon. 541.386.6977
Road accessible water: 35%