Destination Fly Fishing Guide: Lower Deschutes River, Oregon

The mighty Deschutes River is a must fish for every angler, located in the Eastern Cascades of Central Oregon. The “lower” river flows south to north from Pelton Dam near the town of Madras, Oregon. Where it passes through the arid and rugged high desert continuing through steep canyon walls with large white water rapids where it meets the mighty Columbia River outside of The Dalles, Oregon. The oasis of paradise is home to the Columbia River Redband Trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss gairdneri) or “Redsides,” which are some of the hardest fighting native trout in the lower 48. The river is also known for its historic late summer and fall runs of anadromous steelhead and salmon. Spey Fishermen take to the river every year to try their hand at catching one of these elusive fish on a swung fly.

The river is a special place, indescribable for many. The spirit of the river will be felt through your soul every time you step foot into the canyon. The towering walls, basalt pillars, caldera ridges, archetypal high desert terrain, diverse wildlife and of course the fishing is unforgettable. So what should you know before planning a trip out the Lower Deschutes?

History:

Rivière des Chutes or Rivière aux Chutes is French for River of the Falls, it is the cultural heart of central Oregon, it has supported civilization for centuries dating back 10,000 years. There is a rich history of Native American tribes migrating to harvest the great salmon and steelhead runs every fall. Lewis and Clark discovered the river in the early 1800’s and then in the 1900’s the river became quite the obstacle for the pioneers on the Oregon Trail. This was followed by a competitive race where two railroad companies attempted to complete a railroad from the mouth of the river to Bend. Today the river supports water for many Central Oregon farmers and is a recreational playground for many. The land is mainly public managed by the Bureau of Land Management or BLM and is federally designated as a “Wild and Scenic” river.

Fishing Seasons:

As of 2016, the river is open to trout fishing all year long. Meaning you can fish the Deschutes for trout 365 days out of the year, while the winter months can be cold the river does not freeze over as it is a tailwater river. The best fishing in the colder months is up near the dam. As spring comes around the temps warm up and the trout fishing begins to produce with prolific Baetis and March Brown hatches.

Next comes the famous Salmon Fly Hatch on the Deschutes. Timing is based on water temperatures but it is typically around Mid-May. What is cool about the Deschutes River Salmon Fly Hatch is it typically will last for about a month or longer. Unlike many western rivers, where Salmon Fly Hatches only last a couple of days with active feeding trout on the surface. So annually from Mid-May-Late June is go time on the Deschutes for trout fishing as the fish are extremely aggressive taking big dries on the surface along the banks. This hatch is followed by the Golden Stones, Caddis, PMDs, and the typical summer bugs.

In late July, the anadromous Steelhead and Salmon begin to make their migrations from the ocean through the Columbia River and then into the Deschutes. Where they then refuge in the cold clear water. From Late-August through the end of October is prime time for steelhead and salmon fishing on the Deschutes. Most years the fishing can remain good through November and December if you can brave the elements and roll the dice. The trout fishing remains consistent throughout the fall with a large October Caddis hatch.

The Fishing:

The fishing on the D is unique as the fish are all wild excluding some hatchery steelhead. But, from a trout aspect, the wild rainbows are undisturbed by cutthroats, brown or other populations of fish that may interbreed and deplete the wild strain of the fish. When you catch a Deschutes River Fish you will see the “wild” in it, each fish is different than one another whether its the way it looks or the way it fights. While rainbow trout, steelhead, and salmon are the primary targets on the Deschutes, white fish and suckerfish are also present.

One very important regulation to note is that anglers cannot fish from a boat, your feet have to be touching the river bottom in order to fish. At first, this can be a challenging regulation to abide by for anglers used to fishing from a boat. But, it adds an element of learning how to use the boat as a method of transport to get to the fishable water. The regulation has without a doubt protected the lower river from overfishing and overcrowding like many other steelhead and salmon rivers in the Pacific Northwest.

Rainbow Trout Fishing:

The year round trout fishing is some of the most productive in the state of Oregon. With trout populations running over 3,500 trout per mile, in the first 50 miles below Pelton Dam and over 1,700 fish per mile below this. The average fish size is from 7-14 inches, but due to the sheer size and power of the river these fish can hold their own, they sure put a feisty battle. It is not uncommon to find trout in the 15-20 inch range and very wide as well.

Standard trout fishing tactics work well, all the core aquatic insects are present. Midges, mayflies, large stoneflies, and caddis. Due to the larger size and faster speed of the river, heavier weighted bead head nymphs like Eurostyle nymphs and tungsten beaded flies can be all very effective. Dry fly fishing is somewhat dependent on the hatches going on. When stoneflies and terrestrials are present the trout will practically be on the bank so make your casts tight to the bank. Streamer fishing can also be very effective, weighted sculpin patterns are a go to for many anglers.

In recent years, euro style nymphing has taken the river by storm due to its effectiveness to catch fish in fast deep riffles, which is the most common holding water for trout on the Deschutes. Trout Spey is also a good tactic as these rainbows key in on smaller baitfish or sculpin, so swinging a sculpin pattern on a sink tip through a run can be very effective.

Standard trout fishing gear is recommended 4, 5, and 6 weight rods with 3x, 4x, 5x tippet based on what kind of flies you are using. Stop by the nearest fly shop or check reports online for recommended flies.

Steelhead Fishing:

The Lower Deschutes has been a long time pioneer in destination steelhead fly fishing. It might be due to the fact that the steelhead on the Deschutes River will often eat a fly on the surface. There are not many things as exhilarating than having a 15 pound sea run steelhead grab your swinging dry fly on the surface. The steelhead on the D are considered summer steelhead meaning they enter the river in the summer/fall and spend the fall/winter spawning in the system. Being summer steelhead these fish are very aggressive eager to take a swung fly.

The steelhead fishing usually starts in July and goes through the end of the year with September being the peak of the season. Since steelhead are an anadromous fish coming from the ocean some years can have more steelhead than others. In the past ten years, the steelhead populations have plummeted due to many external factors like habitat degradation, ocean warming, dams, and over fishing. So finding steelhead on the Deschutes is a rare occurrence for many but when it happens it is truly special.

The tactics for steelhead fly fishing on the Deschutes varies but the most common method is using a spey rod using a floating line and classic fly. Recommended spey rod size would be a 13’ 7 weight rod with a scandi style head, poly leader, 8-12 pound tippet and a classic steelhead fly pattern like a Muddler, Green Butt Skunk or Macks Canyon. Anglers will often fish first light and last light, as the low light is the most productive time to catch a fish on a floating line setup like this. Your fly is either on the surface or just below the surface, so with a bright sun, the steelhead can have trouble seeing the small fly in the river. During the brighter part of the day, sink tips and heavier weight fly’s like bunny leeches can be effective on the Deschutes. Some anglers will also nymph fish some bigger stoneflies and egg imitations for steelhead.

The lower 30 miles of the river below Maupin and Macks Canyon are the most popular areas to target steelhead, as these fish come in from the Columbia River. The float from Mack’s Canyon down to the mouth of the Columbia is a favorite multi day float trip for steelhead anglers. You can also use a jet boat to reach fishing area on this lower section, which can be a very efficient way to fish for steelhead.

Salmon Fishing:

Chinook and Coho salmon return to the Deschutes every year along with the steelhead. These salmon are a bit more challenging to target on the fly rod as they typically hold in deeper water. But they will often be a by-catch when swinging for steelhead and a traveling chinook or coho will take your fly. Many anglers target the salmon with traditional gear rod.

Different Sections of the River:

The last 100 miles of the Deschutes River from Pelton Dam to the mouth of the Columbia is considered the Lower part of the Deschutes. It was designated an Oregon Scenic Waterway in 1970 and a Federal Wild and Scenic River in 1988. The lower river is managed by the Prineville District, Bureau of Land Management; the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs; and Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. The river elevation drops from 1,393 feet at Pelton Dam to 160 feet at its confluence with the Columbia River, meaning fast turbulent white water throughout the river. The BLM divides the river into 4 different sections, below you can see the different sections, access points, and some of the popular floats you can do.

Segment 1: Warm Springs to Locked Gate (MM 100-59)

This segment is a popular section for trout fishing, most of the river left access is prohibited as it is the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, you must obtain a tribal permit to fish this left side.

Warm Springs to Mecca Flat, 2 mile float, good wading access for trout, no technical rapids.

Mecca Flat to Trout Creek, 8 mile float, good wading access for trout fishing, no technical rapids, many camps.

Trout Creek to Harpham Flat, 32 mile float, good wading access for trout fishing less pressure than above, more technical rowing on this section Whitehorse Rapid is a Class III+ and there are a couple other Class III rapids. Many campsites here, quite a few hike in fishing access points.

Segment 2: Locked Gate to Sherar’s Falls (MM 59-44)

This is a shorter segment of the river, popular for white water floats and trout fishing, it flows close to the town of Maupin, Oregon. Sherar Falls is un-passable by watercraft all boats must take out at Sandy Beach.

Harpham Flat to Maupin City Park, 4 mile float, a couple Class III rapids Wapinitia and Boxcar Rapids, popular day trip float.

Maupin City Park to Sandy Beach, 7 mile float, Class IV rapid Oak Springs Rapid. All boats must takeout at Sandy Beach take out.

Segment 3: Sherar’s Falls to Macks Canyon (MM 44-24)

Sherar’s falls has a vertical drop of 15 feet and is a popular spot for Native Americans to practice dip netting salmon and steelhead at the falls. This section is still popular and productive for trout fishing but begins to get into some famous steelhead water.

Buckhollow to Pine Tree, 4 mile float, shorter float, Wreck Rapids Class III

Pine Tree to Beavertail, 8 mile float, Class II rapids no super technical rowing, plenty of campsites, good swing water.

Beavertail to Macks Canyon, 7 mile float, Class II rapids no super technical rowing, plenty of campsites, god swing water.

Segment 4 Macks Canyon to Heritage Landing/Mouth of Columbia River (MM 24-0)

This is the most famous salmon and steelhead float of the river because ultimately there is one way in and one way out. This is a desolate section of the river, with a handful of technical Class III Rapids. This section of the river is open to motorized boats. Jet boats put in and take out at both access points. The BLM does manage for specific days where no motorized boats are allowed on the river.

Macks Cayon to Heritage Landing, 24 mile float, popular camp and float with multiple campsites. Takeout is right above the mouth of the Columbia River.

Guides, Shuttles, Permits:

If you plan to float the Lower Deschutes a Boater Pass is required for both day and overnight use. You can check out this link to purchase a boater pass. Be sure to have your Oregon fishing license and be up to date on all regulations as these can change day-to-day. To purchase your fishing license click this link. For a complete guide to the regulations, maps, and other useful information on the river visit the BLM website or this PDF.

Fly Shops and Guides:

Deschutes Angler, 504 Deschutes Ave, Maupin, OR 97037 (541) 395-0995.

  • Closest fly shop to fishing areas, great fishing reports, most experienced guides in the area. Drift boat only trips trout and steelhead.

Deep Canyon Outfitters, 375 SW Powerhouse Dr, Bend, OR 97702 (541) 323-3007

  • Orvis endorsed fly shop and outfitter in Bend. Best trout fishing guides around.

Fly and Field Outfitters, 35 SW Century Dr, Bend, OR 97702 (541) 318-1616

  • Fly Shop in Bend, Oregon. Up to date fishing reports, Trout and steelhead trips.

Renton River Adventures, 644 NE Marshall Ave, Bend, OR 97701 (541) 385-4947

  • Multi-day camp Steelhead Trips on the lower section is their specialty

Fish the Swing, PO Box 1565, Hood River, Oregon 97031, (971) 275-2269

  • Jetboat steelhead fly fishing trips and multi-day camp near the mouth of the Deschutes

Shuttles:

  • Henrys Deli, (541) 414-3679
  • Deschutes River Shuttles, 541-395-2649
  • LINDA’S RIVER SHUTTLES, 541-395-2488

The Deschutes River is a river system every angler should check out at some point, from the towering basalt cliffs to the migratory wild summer steelhead. For gearing up on your next trip to the Deschutes be sure to give us a call 1-800-926-0900 or email us at info@vailvalleyanglers.com for all your gear needs.

Patrick Perry, Former Guide and Content Contributor, @patperry

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