Chasing Rainbows on the Deschutes

July 1, 2015 (Updated July 24, 2017)

Rim rock walls rise vertiginously from the river before me, catching the glint of the rising sun, but my eyes are focused closer, on a stretch of water beneath some alder branches. Large orange bugs are fluttering down from the branches and struggling on the surface. Their struggle is brief; within a few feet of setting sail, there’s the telltale swirl and splash of a hungry trout, and the bug, a salmon fly, is history.

“You can get it in there with a sidearm cast,” says my guide, Damien Nurre, the “it” being a Chubby Chernobyl, a fly composed of tan foam with rubber legs that I’m using to entice the trout. After bouncing two casts off the branches, I manage to slide the fly under the alders. One snout comes up and bumps the fly but misses. Another appears and soon inhales the fly, and I’m tight onto what must be the 10th fish of the morning.

Most fly-fishers agree that central Oregon’s Lower Deschutes River — with its native rainbow trout and steelhead — is a world-class fishery. When the annual salmon fly hatch begins in late May, it becomes a see-it-to-believe-it experience. “Late May through June sees some of the best dry fly-fishing of the year,” says Nurre, who is with Bend-based Deep Canyon Outfitters. “With big juicy bugs like salmon flies on the surface, the fish go bonkers.”

Many aquatic insects — and the flies we use to imitate them — are quite small; some are dwarfed by the average pinky nail. Salmon flies are an exception. Ranging from 2 to 3 inches in length and boasting an even longer wingspan, they represent serious protein. When the river temperatures hit the low 50s, big, black salmon fly nymphs crawl from the river bottom to shore and plant themselves on rocks, tree trunks, grass and anyplace else where they can gain purchase. The bright orange creature that leaves the black shuck is a sight to behold. The adults may crawl about for several weeks in search of a mate. During this time, the wind that can foul a fly angler’s cast becomes a friend, blowing the hapless bugs into the water. It’s then — and when the females return to the water to drop their eggs — that the top-water feeding bacchanalia begins.

The Lower Deschutes flows for 100 miles from Pelton Dam south of the town of Warm Springs to its confluence with the Columbia just east of The Dalles. There are a number of places between Warm Springs and Maupin where anglers can access the river on foot, but the best way to approach the Deschutes’ rainbow trout (and to appreciate the river’s rugged beauty) is to float it by drift boat.

A number of outfitters ply the river, departing from the Trout Creek Campground and drifting the 30-odd miles to Maupin over several days. Guides anchor the boats near promising water below overhanging branches, tall grass or where they spy feeding fish, and anglers wade, cast and, with a little luck, catch! (Angling is not permitted from the boats.) The native rainbows in this section of the river can reach over 20 inches, though even more modest fish will leap and pull out plenty of line. For many, the most exciting moment is when the fish take the fly, sometimes gently slurping it under, other times jumping completely out of the water and gobbling the fly on the way down.

You don’t need to be an expert angler to find success. Most guides are excellent teachers and can have novices casting, catching and safely releasing fish in the course of a day.

After a day of fishing and floating through the Mutton Mountains (I watched the hillsides for bighorn sheep and held on tight while the guide navigated the Class III Whitehorse Rapids), we pulled into camp. My tent and cot were set up, with all of my clothing and personal items inside. (This is camping but not roughing it; a portable privy is also provided.)

Following a beverage or two to toast the day’s catch, dinner is served — and there’s not a can of pork and beans in sight. “Our camp manager, Ken Clarke, is a career chef,” Nurre says. “The dinner menu includes Kobe flat iron steaks, brussels sprouts sautéed with bacon, and our most requested item, chipotle mac and cheese. Breakfast favorites are biscuits and gravy, and burritos with fresh salsa and green chilies.”

This evening, the scent of broiling steaks mixes with the crisp, sage-scented air. It is just cool enough to slip on a fleece jacket. As the dessert dishes (marionberry crumble) are cleared away, guide Michael Divita picks up a guitar and plucks out an improvised blues song. After a few verses recounting the day’s events, he falls silent and leans back in his chair to take in the stars and faint moon shadows on the canyon walls. We all follow suit. I expect to hear coyotes howling, but there is only the murmur of the river and the light rustling of the wind through the sagebrush … reassuring sounds to fall asleep by.

Catching big fish on flies is certainly an attraction for anglers who float the Deschutes during the salmon fly hatch. But as it is so often in fly-fishing, the path is the goal. “People love the fact that you’re in the wild, in a beautiful place where cell phones don’t work,” Nurre says. “You’ll catch fish, but the real draw is the chance to experience nature in a different way.”

Know before you go

Season: Deep Canyon Outfitters runs fly-fishing trips from May 1 through mid-November. While temperatures and water conditions influence the salmon fly hatch, anglers can generally count on the big bugs showing up in Maupin toward the middle of May and in Warm Springs by early June. Caddisfly catch follows in early summer, bringing more rainbow trout along with it. Late summer and early fall see continued trout fishing and the start of steelhead season.

Equipment: A five-weight fly rod with floating line will work for most situations. You’ll need cleated boots to go with your waders to help navigate the Deschutes River’s slick bottom. If you don’t have equipment of your own, outfitters can generally arrange loaner/rental equipment. Fishing licenses can be purchased online at

Guides/outfitters: Look for guides and outfitters at the Central Oregon Visitors Association, the Oregon Guides and Packers Association and on our Guides and Outfitters page.

About The

Chris Santella
Chris Santella is a freelance writer and marketing consultant based in Portland. He is the author of 23 books, including the "Fifty Places" series from Abrams Books. The most recent title in the series is Fifty Places To Practice Yoga Before You Die. Santella is a regular contributor to The New York Times, The Washington Post and Trout. When he’s not writing or fly fishing, he plays guitar and sings in Catch & Release.

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