I began doing solo hiking trips into wilderness areas not because I hate people or find them a nuisance, although there are those. Rather, I began doing solo hiking trips because I loved hiking, exploring, and fishing in the Wenaha. I began exploring the Wenaha with close friends and it was not until they either could not go or did not feel the need to go when I began exploring the canyons, woods, and rivers by myself. And so also have my many solo rafting trips down the Grande Ronde progressed.
I am not fearless, nor am I just dumb to the risk involved in solo floats through wilderness sections of rivers. I almost always ask close friends and family if they would like to join me before I go on a solo float. If I had the choice, I would always have a good friend along on a float to enjoy the company. Like I said, I do not do solo trips so often because I hate people, I sincerely enjoy their company and that is probably why I am writing this blog rather than hording every secret place I have ever found. If you are reading my blog, well . . . you are probably the kind of person I wouldn’t mind meeting on the river and sharing my fishing hole with. If you are a garbage leaving, law breaking, no good SOB then quit reading or change your ways! Otherwise, read on.
I have been lucky enough to share the river with good friends all summer and early fall. I have in fact not done a solo rafting trip on the Grande Ronde since I began our spring river clean up trip in April to clean up the garbage that floats down the river from roads and towns and the rare garbage that those garbage leaving bastards leave on my river. “My river” you say? Sure it is public ground, but I am part of the public and therefore consider all rivers I frequent “my river” and do my best to keep my rivers clean and protected.
Grande Ronde Steelhead Report I said in the title right? Well I am offering guided trips this year and to be absolutely sure I can offer the best fishing guidance on our section of river from Minam to Troy I have again been fishing the 39 mile roadless section of the Grande Ronde religiously this fall. It is a tough job learning this river so well, but somebody had to do it.
My first trip was with my wife in late September where Lottie and I both hooked and landed many early steelhead as well as a bunch of big, fat, and feisty resident rainbows. I couldn’t help but take a full weekend to camp, hike, and steelhead fish on the lower Imnaha given my family roots there and my love for that canyon. But the dirty work always has to be done by somebody and the next weekend I was back on the Grande Ronde for a four day float with my good friend Cody Shreve. I actually met Cody on the Imnaha 3 years ago and he won me over the first day I met him by being an excellent fly tier, an adamant fly caster, and by being good company all while feeding me hamburgers and beer at his camp when I had only a freeze dried dinner and water waiting me for me at my camp.
Back to the present, my other low water floats this year have been in the 500-600 cfs range which is quite low. It frankly can be a lot of work if you pack your raft too heavy and don’t pay attention. However, a light raft and diligence can keep you floating down the river most of the time. There are those shallow gravel bars and rock gardens at low water that can be challenging. We finally received some rain and the Grande Ronde at the Troy gauge peeked at 1,000 cfs. Perfect, just enough water to move more steelhead up the river and make floating easy. By the time I put in on Saturday around noon, the river was in the 850 cfs range, but man it felt easy. I am sure if you are familiar with the Grande Ronde at 1,500 cfs and up, 800 to 1,000 cfs would feel challenging. But when your last three trips down the river have been in the 500-600 cfs range, 850 cfs feels like a cake walk.
Since I did not get a real early start, I rowed the 10 miles past the Wallowa without stopping to fish any of the prime holes. I was happy to see that it only took me 2 hours and 20 minutes (better than 4 mph) to get to Rondowa versus the 3+ hours (less than 3 mph) it took me just last week.
I fished a good run just above sheep creek rapids and had a good heavy fish on that did not stay on. I next had a nice 16” leaping rainbow on at the bottom of sheep creek rapids, but this fish also came off during one of his leaps into the air. The next run below sheep creek rapids, a run I had never even fished before this year, again produced a beautifully colored steelhead. Last weekend I hooked but did not land a steelhead in this run and Cody landed a beauty of a rainbow that was a legal steelhead (over 20”) but was probably just a brilliant, big resident rainbow. The steelhead I landed today again took my flashback stonefly. No surprise, but I thought I would point out that it was the middle of a three fly rig. At top I had a double bunny, next the flashback stonefly, and as my third fly a prince nymph. This scenario has played out so many times now that it has become a pattern, GRANDE RONDE STEELHEAD PREFER FLASHBACK STONEFLIES MOST OF THE TIME. Just thought you might like to know that. That is top secret information that may get the steelhead mafia coming after me.
Now I sit beside the run that produced the steelhead. Silently in the dark from the glimmer of my fire I am writing this and I have to ask myself, “Does it get any better than this?” I am here in a beautiful canyon with a fire to light and warm the night. Peace . . . that is what this is. The only way I can see it better is if I landed multiple steelhead at each of the spots I stopped. But I will live with only one beautiful fish landed and several hooked.
I am now sitting on my Henggeler. What is that you say, you have never heard of a Henggeler. Well . . . that is because I just coined the word. Yes, Henggeler now means: any object used while camping that you place in your chair to add insulation to keep your posterior end from getting cold in the fall or winter while steelhead fishing. If you are not familiar with your posterior end, it is what you sit on each day. The Henggeler is inspired by Will Henggeler, who is always sure to pack something with him to keep his rear end warm so he can fall asleep by the fire while you try to carry on a conversation with him. Tonight my Henggeler is my lifejacket, but it can be anything you have that will act as insulation; a pillow, sleeping bag, or even a type IV throwable rescue device that the government requires you to carry in all watercraft over 16’ long in Oregon waters. And Will, had you joined me for this trip rather than having to “work” I probably would have been too busy laughing at you falling asleep in your insulated cover-alls sitting atop your type IV throwable rescue device to write this. But since it is just me and the dog here in the wilderness tonight, I get to write whatever comes to mind and I don’t want to hear excuses about breaking your arm this past winter and having to make up for lost time. There are some things more important than work and it usually involves steelhead fishing.
Steelhead fishing was still a bit slow but steady today. I was able to battle two steelhead but did not get either of them landed. It is still a little early for this section of river. You can always find some steelhead starting in late September, but the primetime can begin anywhere from mid-October to the beginning of November depending on the year. This year it looks like it will be closer to November than mid-October.
What has been really surprising is that I have not seen a soul since putting in at Minam on Saturday (2 full days of not seeing a single other person on the most well known steelhead fishery in eastern Oregon). I had heard other reports of floaters encountering a lot of people on the river. I have been on the river every weekend but one since late September and seen very few floaters, so I am not sure where the crowds are hiding out. Usually I will see a few people fishing the Wallowa near the Minam State Park and a few miles downstream. Next I will see a couple people in the vicinity of Rondowa fishing, but this weekend not a soul. I have not even seen another group of boaters. Last weekend I only saw two other groups on the river, but it is very surprising to be in the middle of steelhead season and not even see one other group of fisherman. I am not complaining, you all are leaving all the peace and serenity of this gorgeous canyon to myself while I search out and catch steelhead. It is not a bad gig at all. I personally would prefer to be nowhere else.
I get a lot of questions about the best times to fish down here so I will lay out a breakdown of the fall season with its advantages and disadvantages. Late September brings low water, but warm days and nights. Frankly the weather is about as good as it gets, not too hot nor too cold. The disadvantage is that the Grande Ronde is at its lowest flow of the year typically. The advantage besides the great weather is that you get to catch the earliest steelhead of the year. You probably wont catch big numbers, usually 1-3 per day, but the resident rainbow fishing can be downright hot with lots of rainbows from 12” up past 20”. I honestly have not found any better big rainbow water than the Grande Ronde in late summer and early fall, it is simply fantastic.
How to catch big resident rainbows in the fall? By swimphing double bunnies with a flashback stonefly trailer. If you rollcast well and are good at not getting your flies tangled, you can add a third smaller nymph of whatever sort you like. And I did say “swimphing”. Cody has been giving me hell about the way I fish for the past three years and this year we gave my style of fishing the name “Swimphing”.
I have evolved to fish this way from sight fishing to big bull trout on the Wenaha, but it works for me on every river I fish whether or not I am sight casting to big fish. And how do you swimph your flies? My method is to begin at the top of the runs, right where the white water is just beginning to die down. I cast into the whitewater allowing my flies to dead drift, giving them time to sink. As they enter into the prime water I often mend my line slightly to create a small amount of tension between my rod and my flies. It is basically trying to keep a tight line while still trying to allow the flies to do a natural drift. I also begin twitching my double bunny through drifts and then either let my fly swing towards shore or break out into an all out strip through spots where I think a big fish might like to chase down a smaller fish. The big advantage to having an almost tight line is that you can feel everything that happens to your flies. You can feel them slide across a big rock, tick tick tick across a pebble bottom, and hopefully feel the WOMP! when that big fish grabs ahold. So to recap the swimphing technique: a dead drift, followed by a tight line drift, followed by twitches, followed by either all out stripping of your fly or a gentle swing towards shore.
My fly fishing technique comes down to one goal, trying to be a good fisherman. No two pieces of water you fish are the same and so I rarely simply dead drift or simply swing my flies. I try to read each new piece of water and fish my flies in the most effective way possible given the circumstances. One small piece of water may be best fished on the swing at the top and a dead drift at the bottom and the next spot may be full of big boulders that will snatch your flies and your best bet is to actively swim your flies between the boulders. Again, my goal is always to be the best fisherman possible for each new opportunity the river gives me. I personally would grow bored if I were always dead drifting or always swinging my flies although I know many people enjoy the rhythm of a single technique. I personally like to compare it to driving a car. If I only drove straight or only drove my car in a curve, would I be a good driver? No, I would drive my car off the road. Fishing is the same except you are driving your flies through the river as close to the mouth of a steelhead or trout as possible. The more competently you drive your flies, the more fish you will catch.
Back to an overview of the Grande Ronde: As Octboer progresses the steelhead fishing on average gets better the later in the month you go. On the other hand, the days get shorter, the weather turns colder, it could rain or even snow, and the big rainbow fishing tends to slow down. By late October and early November the steelhead fishing is usually quite good, but your days are short and the nights are probably going to be cold. For me, I like to be on the river at all those times, but if you have to choose just one time you should choose based on your appetite for weather versus big fish numbers.
It was rather chilly on the river this morning. My boots and waders were frozen and there was a thin layer of ice on everything from the dew freezing. But as I walked out of my tent and took a look around I was struck anew with the beauty of this canyon. I have fished and floated this canyon perhaps 12-16 times already this year and spent almost every other weekend hiking some other beautiful remote canyon, but I was seriously taken back this morning with just how special this place is. Fog was lifting off the river revealing the layers of basalt going several thousand feet above the river. The birch, alder, and larch are turning varying shades of yellow. The hawthorne is turning pink and red. There are many other bushes that I don’t know the names of turning colors. It is simply beautiful. And while you get to sit back and enjoy this scenery a flock of mergansers fly by, their wings hissing through the frosty morning air. Next a bald eagle circles and eventually a second bald eagle takes flight and the pair glides out of sight down the next bend in the river.
I took my time at camp this morning. I had roughly 17 miles to go to the takeout and I had hoped to get some fishing in, but I made a second batch of coffee and took it all in extra long. Does it get any better than this? I don’t think so.
Eventually I made myself pack camp and begin rowing the raft downstream. I kept the raft faced upstream and put my back into it to make up time. It was a beautiful canyon and a beautiful cold morning, but I had to make it to the take-out 17 miles downstream and hopefully get some fishing in on the way. I only fished a few spots on the way out. I again was privileged enough to battle two steelhead, which I was quite happy with given my short fishing time available.
Take a trip down the Grande Ronde. Take 4 or 5 days and appreciate it. Enjoy the frosty mornings that are a clear mark that winter is coming. Be taken back by the impressiveness of the basalt. Yes, rocks are cool. They can also be awe inspiring. Watch the mergansers fly by and listen to the sound of their wings as they cut through the air. Watch the eagles floating, gliding, or simply sitting atop an old dead snag and be happy there are still places out there we can go to enjoy these things. Count yourself blessed for seeing it all and if you catch 1 or 10 steelhead, you are doubly blessed.