Finding Fun and Fish on the Rails along the Wallowa River
I hear that train a comin’
It’s coming round the bend
If I’m a little lucky
There’s a steelhead at the end…
Well, that’s not exactly how the Johnny Cash song goes, but as I rode the Fish Train through the Wallowa River Canyon on a chilly March morning, I couldn’t help but think what Mr. Cash would have made of this fusion of angling and engines…and would he have fished flies or bait?
The Fish Train is the brainchild of the late Chuck Fleser, the proprietor of the Minam Motel & Market, and is operated in conjunction with the Wallowa Union Railroad that runs the popular Eagle Cap Excursion Train in more clement months. The Fish Train gives anglers seeking steelhead (an ocean going form of rainbow trout that can reach sizes of up to 12 pounds in these parts) access to sections of the Wallowa River that would otherwise be out of reach for all but the hardiest hikers. It also gives anyone who enjoys the outdoors a great excuse to visit lovely Northeastern Oregon in what has traditionally been a quiet season.
Twenty-odd passengers—most in waders, some simply along for the ride—ambled onto the Fish Train at 7 a.m., significantly more cheerful than the Manhattan-bound commuters I remember from my Connecticut youth. After all, our only “job” is to catch fish. The train includes a Pullman passenger car, retrofitted with tables, chairs and a makeshift kitchen; a freight car, which holds the cooler for take-home fish; and the engine.
As the train pulled away from the Minam Motel, our guide laid out the ground rules: “There are six good fishing holes along the seven-and-a-half miles we travel. When you want to fish, let me know, and the engineer will stop,” he says. “When you want to be picked up, wave your hands over your head; don’t just wave, or we’ll wave back and keep going!” He tells us we can keep up to three hatchery fish, which are marked by a clipped adipose fin. And if we’re fishing at the end of the line near Kimmel, we have to be on the train by 3:30, “‘cause that’s when the train is heading home.”
A few inches of snow had fallen the previous evening, giving the canyon a frosty iridescence as we rolled north. In the summer, many rafters float this lovely stretch of the Wallowa to savor the scenery, take a swim and otherwise enjoy the unspoiled canyon (this section of the Wallowa was designated a “Wild and Scenic River” in 1996, and is the primary gateway to longer floats on the Grande Ronde). Once we were a few miles down the tracks, I got off the train with my buddy Geoff to fish the “43” hole, which was recommended for fly fishers. I went upstream. Geoff went down. We agreed we’d reconnect at lunchtime.
Winter steelhead fishing has its inherent challenges, not the least of which is cold. Cold air that freezes the line in the guides of your rod, and cold water that relieves you of feeling below your waist. The Fish Train goes to great lengths to cancel cold from the equation. After fishing the “43” hole with no success, I scrambled up the banks of the river to walk the tracks. A few minutes later, I heard the whistle, flagged the engine, and was soon sitting in a warm car, sipping hot coffee, watching my fellow fishers make their casts…and congratulating myself on the good judgment to jump aboard. Hot coffee gave way to a lunch of hot beef stew. Then the sun poked out as the Fish Train made its last run down the canyon, and I was back out on the river.
At a pool around the bend from Kimmel, my line tightened, then tore from the reel. A few minutes later I had a small native steelhead on the bank. As I eased it back into the Wallowa, the whistle blew.
The Fish Train would soon be heading out. And though I figured another fish or two might be lurking in the lower reaches of the pool, I didn’t want to be left behind.
AND WHAT’S MORE…
THE FISH TRAIN runs on Saturdays and Sundays in February and March. Full-day fishing trips, including a hot lunch, are $65 for adults and $15 for children under 14. Half-day trips (without lunch) are $30 for adults and $10 for kids. (Note: You must provide your own equipment.)
Reservations should be made through the Minam Motel & Market (541.437.4475 or 877.888.8130; www.MinamMotel.com). The motel also offers lodging packages, with rooms beginning at $68 for double occupancy. More lodging is available at the nearby Stampede Inn (541.437.2441, www.StampedeInn.com) or the Mingo Motel (541.886.2021, MingoMotel.com)
Prices subject to change.
EAGLE CAP EXCURSION TRAIN
The same train also offers a number of non-fishing
excursions throughout the year.
We enjoyed one of the best steaks in recent memory at Ten Depot Street (541.963.8766) in La Grande. Also in La Grande, we stopped for a wholesome brunch at Foley Station (541.963.7473).
We visited Four Seasons Fly Shoppe (541.963.8420, www.4SeasonsFly.com)
in La Grande to buy flies. The Minam Motel & Market has a decent selection of tackle for anglers using conventional gear.
Editor’s Note: Chris Santella is a freelance writer and marketing consultant based in Portland, Oregon, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Travel & Leisure, and Fly Rod & Reel, among other publications. He is also the author of Fifty Places to Fly Fish Before You Die.
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