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explore been there
28 Continental.Com/magazine January 2011
Central Oregon’s famed Deschutes River
hooks yet another angler
the reel deal
By andrew eitelBaCh photographs By miChael hanson
onday evening finds me restless and waiting. seated at the bar in the nines
hotel, in portland, ore., i order a glass of the hotel’s artisanal whiskey. the
bartender asks me why i’m in town. “Fishing,” i tell him. he smiles, likely
seeing the trout dancing in my eyes, and slides the whiskey over. i take a sip. the slow,
cool burn of the drink bites nicely; it’s the perfect start to my trip.
January 2011 Continental 29
I’ve come to fly-fish the Deschutes
River in Central Oregon, one of the great
trout rivers of the Pacific Northwest. It is
something I’ve wanted to do all my life,
but I’m nervous. I’ve never gone river fish-
ing before; angling in the fast-moving wa-
ter is entirely new to me. The only fish I’ve
ever gone after live quiet, restful lives in
isolated ponds and can spot a fidgety line
from a long way off. In still water a fisher-
man must remain fairly motionless or risk
spooking the fish, but in rivers everything
is moving — the fish, their food, even the
rocks. While I’m looking forward to the
challenge of catching the Deschutes’
famed rainbow trout, known as redsides,
I’m anxious to see if my experience in
quiet waters translates in the torrents.
The next morning I drive the Mount
Hood Highway to Bend, some three hours
southeast of Portland. I pass through for-
ests of larch and firs so thick they blot out
the daylight, and then through spruce for-
ests overlooking deep ridges of gray stone.
As I get closer to Bend, the overcast alpine
region gives way to the high desert of Cen-
tral Oregon, with its wide-open pasture-
lands, exposed rimrock, and clear skies.
Bend sits among towering ponderosa
pines on the bank of the Deschutes River.
Originally a timber and ranching commu-
nity, the city now relies as much on tourism
as it does on logging and agriculture. Full
of little shops, galleries, restaurants, and
This page, clockwise from top: McMenamins Kennedy School, a complex
bars (Bend has seven microbreweries), the city is a rallying point housing a trendy hotel, pub, movie theater, and soaking pool; casting at
Orvis’ fly-fishing obstacle course; downtown Bend’s Tower movie theater
for outdoor thrill seekers. Snowcapped peaks of the Cascade at night. Facing page: Deep Canyon Outfitters guides Damien Nurre and
Mountains puncture the western skyline, and the largest juniper Matt Shinderman on the banks of the Deschutes River.
forest in the American West encroaches on the town from three
sides. A look at a map reveals there are more than 2 million acres
of public lands within a one-hour radius of Bend, with tiny He pauses, before adding, “I really think we should go for
tangled lines of water roaming through them all. Dominating ev- steelhead.” I tell him I’m in.
erything is the thick blue path of the Deschutes. After we hang up, I walk to Bend’s Old Mill District to visit
I check in to the Oxford Hotel in downtown Bend, an eco- Orvis’ one-of-a-kind casting course, consisting of 18 obstacles,
friendly luxury hotel that opened last year. (I’m here to fish, that challenge an angler’s casting and fly-placement skills. I
not to rough it.) Everything from the bedding to the food is or- practice casting to avoid obstructions, to reach a distant target,
ganic — even the pens are made from recycled cardboard. In and to hit multiple targets in a minimum of tries. It starts rain-
my room, I get the call I’ve been waiting for. ing when I reach the fifth obstacle, but I’m having too much fun
“I want to give you the best possible experience I can,” says to call it quits. I pull a rain jacket from my bag and keep moving.
Damien Nurre, an Orvis-endorsed fishing guide and owner of Two kids riding by on bikes give me funny looks as I try to
Deep Canyon Outfitters, a fly-fishing guide service in Bend. thread my line through an iron hoop and miss. This particular
“We can go after rainbow trout, or we can also go for steelhead.” obstacle sits on a small lawn, not near the water.
30 Continental.Com/magazine January 2011
“Catch anything?” one of the kids asks me, grinning. I The Deschutes River is more than 100 miles long, flowing
jokingly tell her yes. east from its headwaters at Little Lava Lake in the Cascade
“You’re letting the rod drop too far behind you,” she Mountains, then south, and then north to the Columbia River.
informs me. “Keep your wrist tight.” I take her advice, and Locals segment the river into three parts: the Upper, Middle,
the line sails right through the iron hoop. and Lower. The Upper Deschutes stretches from the river’s
headwaters toward Bend, where it becomes the Middle Des-
In Search of Redsides chutes. Here, the river volume drops precipitously due to irri-
I meet Nurre the next morning in Madras, an hour north of gation, but as it moves north the volume returns, fed by
Bend. Wearing a weathered baseball hat and dark Oakley sun- tributaries. By the time it approaches Warm Springs, 20 min-
glasses, the thirtysomething guide is all smiles. His enthusi- utes from Madras, the river is a swift, relentless force cutting
asm and deep respect for fishing — and for the Deschutes low channels and wide canyons through the high desert’s basalt
River — are admirable. “This is going to be fun,” he tells me. rock. This is the Lower Deschutes, the section I’ve come to fish.
A legend among trout streams, the Lower
Deschutes holds 4,000 redsides per mile.
The whOle PaCKage On top of that, there are numerous other
For a good time Call fish, most notably steelhead trout, a mas-
sive sport fish that lures anglers from all
ahead of my trip i received an email from guide damien nurre, owner of Deep
over the world to the Lower Deschutes.
Canyon Outfitters (541.323.3007, deschutesflyfish.com), telling me what to
bring. to say the list was exhaustive wouldn’t do it justice. But the attention In no time we have donned our waders
to detail illustrates the level of service deep Canyon offers. From half-day to and are drifting down the river in an alumi-
full-day to multi-day trips, deep Canyon’s guides have you covered for fishing num drift boat — a specialized rowboat
any time of year. each guide with the outfit is trained in emergency backwoods built to survive river rapids. On our way to-
first aid and is certified by orvis, a leader in fly-fishing equipment, services,
ward the first fishing spot, we pass a small
and expeditions that doesn’t give its endorsement lightly. and while deep
Canyon’s guides know how to keep you safe, they’ll keep you well fed too.
herd of wild horses playing in the desert
lunch included organically grown, grass-fed Kobe beef burgers from nurre’s dust and the occasional cow nibbling grass
own ranch, grilled riverside, with fresh, organic avocado, tomato, and lettuce, at the water’s edge. Nurre points out a great
and chocolate chip cookies for dessert. and i can tell you that — sitting there in a blue heron flying low across the water. It
comfy chair, still in my waders and tired from the day’s fishing — i have had few lands in a dead juniper tree overhanging
meals that match it. it’s this kind of all-around service that makes a good trip a
the riverbank and stares us down as we
great one, and admirable outfitters like deep Canyon simply brilliant. — A.E.
pass. We aren’t the only anglers out here.
“We’re going for rainbows first,”
Nurre tells me. I ask him to explain the
difference between the dazzlingly beau-
tiful rainbow trout and the Deschutes’
redsides. Redsides, he says, are rainbow
trout but genetically unique to the Des-
chutes. They have a fierce disposition. In
fact, pound for pound, these trout fight
harder than rainbows elsewhere and are
more apt to throw the hook, making them
hard to catch and fun to fight.
want to share
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January 2011 Continental 31
I step out of the drift boat, in the shade of leafy alders. A Suddenly the fish jumps, and I see him: green, red-sided, and
small wall of water immediately starts to build behind my legs. darkly speckled, wriggling in midair as he tries to spit the hook.
The river is relentless. As I walk precariously over slippery It doesn’t work. He runs toward me and I reel furiously to keep
rocks and into the current, my hands shake with excitement. the line tight. Nurre scoops him up in a net and takes the hook
“Hit that spot,” Nurre says quietly, pointing 25 feet downriver from his lip in a single motion. I wet my hands before taking him,
to the edge of a small cascade of water where the river smooths to protect his scales from damage. Nurre asks me something
back to an azure blue. I strip enough line from my reel to reach about the fight but I’m not paying attention. I just grin at him
the target and start a roll cast, raising the rod tip straight above dumbly, wondering at the trout I’m holding — a 13-inch rainbow.
me before firing the line forward, which lifts the line out in a My first redside. I hold the fish in the water, pointing him
single loop. The fly lands right where Nurre pointed. upriver so the current can move through his gills and he
“Nope,” Nurre says, and I know what I’ve done wrong. “Cast can recover from our struggle. When he’s ready, he darts away,
out,” he says, pointing perpendicular to the shore. “Not down- disappearing under the water’s glaze. For fear of embarrassing
stream.” I’ve read about this and knew I made the mistake as myself in front of Nurre, I resist the urge to wave goodbye.
soon as I let the line go. The fly should
sweep down current and drift over the tar-
get, not plop directly onto the fish’s head. aBOuT TOwN
I recall my line and recast the dry fly — a
mayfly. It drifts down the small waves with
if you go
the current and sweeps onto the target. STAY
Nurre watches me attentively from be- Portland
hind. Any time he sees a rise — a fish com- in portland’s downtown district, adjacent to pioneer square, the Nines hotel
ing to the surface — he yells, “Set!” That’s sits comfortably in the center of the action. the century-old, 15-story,
terra-cotta-veneered meier & Frank building is an attraction in its own right.
my cue to raise the rod straight up, which
the nines’ 331 rooms, each wrapped in opulent accoutrements, feature 42-
sets the hook in the fish’s mouth. If I set it inch flat-screen televisions, original works by local artists, rainforest showers,
too soon, I will yank the fly from the fish’s and high-thread-count bedding on plush, pillowtop beds, all amid louis
mouth before it can bite hold; if I set it XV–meets–andy warhol style décor. the dining room/bar, urban Farmer,
too slowly, the fish will realize it hasn’t serves locally sourced steaks in a classy but relaxed atmosphere. it also offers
oregon-made spirits in its cocktails — including a whiskey made specifically for
chomped on a juicy fly and will spit it out.
the hotel. it would be a mistake to forgo the urban Farmer’s weekend Bloody
“Set!” Nurre shouts. I bring the rod up mary bar. 877.229.9995, thenines.com
expecting a tug from the other end. Noth-
ing. “I thought I saw one,” he says. “Sorry. Bend
Recast.” I try a few more casts but get no opened in January 2010, the Oxford hotel is a chic, eco-friendly property in
Bend’s tidy downtown. Fifty-nine rooms and suites, ranging in size from 443
bites. I don’t care. The water is crisply cold
to nearly 800 square feet, are cleaned with an electrolyzed salt water, which
and the day much warmer than I antici- leaves no harmful byproducts. the hotel is homey and sophisticated, with
pated — I can feel the tips of my ears burn- an exceptionally helpful and friendly staff. the oxford’s restaurant, 10 Below,
ing in the sun. The way the light hits the keeps many of Bend’s microbrews on tap or in stock and serves up some
water, with the alders and poplar trees of the best buckwheat blueberry pancakes you’re likely to find anywhere.
shaking in the breeze and the beige hills 303.628.5400, theoxfordhotelbend.com — A.E.
behind them baking in the light, I could
not ask for a better scene. I certainly didn’t
realize the river would be this beautiful, or
just how enjoyable fishing this stream
could be. I’m having the time of my life.
“Set!” Nurre yells again. I pull up on
the rod, but this time the line starts strip-
ping from the reel. I’ve got one. “He’s run-
ning!” Nurre says, excitedly. As the rod
slackens I reel in to keep the line taut;
when the fish runs I let him take the line
back off the reel. We’re dancing. Back and
forth, back and forth.
32 Continental.Com/magazine January 2011
drops below the canyon’s basalt cliffs.
We call it a day before anything bites.
Later, on the ride to the Imperial River
Lodge in Maupin, a motel that caters
mostly to anglers, Nurre talks to me about
steelhead, a fish he loves dearly. “Geneti-
cally, steelhead and rainbows are identi-
cal,” he points out. “The only difference
is that steelhead have been to sea and
returned to spawn. They’re hard to
catch,” Nurre warns. “But once you get
one, you’re into them for life.”
When we leave the following morn-
ing for the Deschutes, it’s still dark out.
Nurre navigates through a small set of
rapids mostly by memory, feel, and
sound. The morning is cold, and as I
pull my coat tighter, I finally notice the
air. It’s thick with the scent of desert
earth and sagebrush, so much so that I
think I’m smelling a campfire. I take a
“The sage?” Nurre asks. I nod, for-
getting for a moment that he can’t see
me in the dark.
“Yes,” I say.
The first light of morning splashes
onto the west cliff of the Deschutes and
slowly descends. We pull ashore on a
bend in the river. Handing me the spey
rod, Nurre sends me fishing. Scrambling
over rocks to a spot to fish, I slip and
fall in. I’m soaked. “That’s a Deschutes
baptism,” Nurre laughs. I cast, hoping
for a strike. After a few casts I feel a
strong tug on the line, and the tip of
the rod dips deeply. The silhouette of
This page, clockwise from top: a man fishes from the shore while another
floats in a drift boat on the Deschutes River; a selection of fishing rods at a great head rises, followed by the swish of an enormous tail
the Orvis store in Bend; a fisherman uses a spey rod in hopes of catching
steelhead. Facing page: Bend’s luxurious Oxford hotel.
as the fish lets the hook go and disappears into a shadow in
the river. It’s a steelhead.
It’s as close as I will get to catching one on this trip, but
I’m hooked. The ponds of my home town may be too quiet for
Fish of a Thousand Casts me now. With the adrenaline from the steelhead’s initial jerk
We fish through lunch, periodically moving downstream and on the line running through me, I’m a convert. These fish —
regularly catching redsides. Nurre picks up a spey rod, a hefty, redsides and steelhead alike — haven’t seen the last of me.
two-handed fly rod used for larger fish, and tells me it’s time to
go after some steelhead. He demonstrates how to cast the rod. Andrew Eitelbach, assistant editor of Continental magazine,
It’s the heaviest rod I’ve ever handled, yet strangely easy to wield. is an avid fisherman previously loyal to the kettle ponds of his
The elaborate motions required for properly casting the spey native Cape Cod.
rod feel a lot like tai chi. I continue to practice with the spey rod, getting There: Continental offers nonstop service to Portland,
hugging the bank in a swiftly moving stretch of river as the sun Ore., from its hubs in Houston and New York/Newark.
January 2011 Continental 33
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