Fall 2006 Forward to a Friend

Fall Fly Fishing Across Oregon

By Chris Santella

Photo: Brian O’Keefe
From diverse native trout populations to steelhead trout and salmon that migrate from the Pacific, and from lush rainforest streams on the coast to the high desert rivers east of the Cascades, Oregon offers anglers unparalleled diversity. It would be difficult to get bored here as a fly fisher.

Autumn in Oregon can be an angler’s dream come true. With cooler temperatures, the rainbow trout endemic to many river systems shake off their summer torpor to fatten up for the leaner times ahead. Chinook, coho, and chum salmon return from the Pacific to spawn. And, perhaps of greatest significance to fly anglers, steelhead trout migrate to their natal streams – from the southern coast to the far northeastern corner of the state – to propagate.

Fly Fisherman

Steelhead, a species of ocean-going rainbow trout, range from four to 20 pounds, and they are among the Pacific Northwest’s most prized game fish. Unlike Pacific salmon, steelhead don’t necessarily expire after spawning. Many return to the ocean for another cycle. It’s generally accepted that steelhead don’t actively feed once they arrive in fresh water, and no one can say exactly why they’ll take a fly.

Some steelhead flies mimic the shrimp of the steelhead’s ocean-going diet. Some fly patterns mimic insect life that the fish may recall from their early days in the river. Still others resemble nothing from the natural world. Many believe that the fish strike a fly as a territorial response. Hence, some patterns are meant to provoke them.

The steelheads’ inscrutable nature, combined with their powerful fighting ability and streamlined beauty, lend them a mystique among anglers.

Photo: Brian O’Keefe
But they are strong enough to send an angler scrambling hundreds of yards downstream in their pursuit.

Here are a few favorite Oregon steelhead rivers, along with some fine trout streams to help bolster your confidence. While you’re there, be sure to look up from the river on occasion to take in the scenery!


The Rogue River in the southwestern section of the state was the first Oregon fly-fishing river to come to national prominence, thanks in large part to the pen of western novelist Zane Grey. An avid angler, Grey wrote dispatches about his fishing exploits for the sporting magazines of the 1920s. He became enamored with the Rogue after encountering the river’s “half-pounder” steelhead – immature fish that enter the river after just a few months at sea. Grey’s writings helped draw Hollywood celebrities such as Ginger Rogers and Clark Gable north, which secured the Rogue’s fame.

While angling opportunities abound on the Rogue’s 215-mile path from the Cascades to the Pacific, the lower sections of the river from Grants Pass to Gold Beach attract fly fishers in the fall. Some will take small dories to the river’s tidal stretches to target mammoth chinook (king) salmon. (The world record fly-rod-caught chinook of 71.5 pounds was landed near Gold Beach in 2002 by Oregon angler Grant Martinsen.)

Other fishers will take a few days to float the Rogue’s wild and scenic section in quest of half-pounders. Half-pounders (which actually run closer to two or three pounds) feed aggressively upon entering the river and tend to travel in schools, which means that if you hook one, you’ll likely hook many more. Anglers floating the wild and scenic section don’t have to rough it. They can float from lodge to lodge, enjoying fine food, libations, and comfortable beds before doing it all over again the next day.

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Fly Fishing for Pacific Steelhead – A Brief Primer

Fly fishing for steelhead is not an easy game. Generally speaking, success is not measured in fish per day, but in days per fish – sometimes many days per fish. That being said, the take and fight of a steelhead is truly a great thrill, which is why thousands of anglers are willing to endure the long droughts between fish!

In addition to mustering the patience it takes to be a successful steelheader, here are a few insights that might come in handy since steelhead techniques differ somewhat from standard trout fishing protocol. Mastering these tips will help increase your odds of bringing to hand one of these mighty, sea-going fish.

1. Find the right water. You have the best chance to present your fly to steelhead in water that’s slow, but not too slow. Current should be about walking speed. Depth of three to six feet is about perfect. If there are big rocks in the water to provide cover, all the better. Stretches below rapids or following big bends in the river often provide good holding water.

2. Cover the water. Once you find a likely section of river, you want to do your best to swing your fly over every inch of the water so a steelhead that’s present has a chance to see (and hopefully react to) your fly. Take a few feet of line out and cast downstream at a 45-degree angle. When the fly has swung directly below you, let it dangle a few seconds, then pull out three feet more of line and cast out again. Repeat this until you’ve cast out as much line as you can handle. Then take a few steps downstream, and cast again. This way, you’ll cover all the water.

3. Slow down the fly. For reasons no one can discern, steelhead seem to like a fly that moves slowly through the water. To slow the fly in the current, anglers will throw an upstream mend in their fly line. One or two mends after the fly hits the water generally will suffice. Once you’ve thrown your initial mend, DON’T MOVE THE FLY. Let it swing in the current until it’s below you. Steelheaders needn’t worry much about “matching the hatch.” Instead, the angler will find success by controlling the speed of the fly. If the fly gets in front of a fish at the right speed, odds are decent that the fish will take it.

4. Let the fish hook itself. This is one of the toughest lessons to learn in steelhead angling. If you feel the grab of a trout, you lift the rod to set the hook. If you lift the rod when you feel the take of a steelhead – and believe me, you’ll know it’s a steelhead – you’ll pull the fly out of its mouth. The idea is to DO NOTHING and let the fish take the fly, return to where it was holding in the river, and thus hook itself. Waiting to lift the rod as the fish rockets away with your fly is one of the longest moments in fly fishing, but anglers who can overcome the urge to set the hook will catch many more fish.

5. Let the fish run. Steelhead are renowned for their powerful fighting ability, especially on a fly rod. When you hook up, let the fish run. That’s why you have all that line and backing on your reel. If you try to clamp down on the fish, it likely will pop your tippet, and that will make you cry. Usually the fish will calm down after one or two runs. If it doesn’t, follow it as far downstream as you can to gain line back.

6. If it’s wild, let it go. As the great angler and conservationist Lee Wulff once said, “A good game fish is too valuable to be caught only once.” This certainly applies to steelhead, especially the wild stocks that are fighting for survival in the Pacific Northwest. Hatchery fish are there for your dining pleasure; wild fish have to go back unharmed. It’s responsible, and it’s the law.

A Word About Equipment

For steelhead, a 7- or 8-weight rod with a floating line with 100 yards of backing and a reel with a good drag system will suffice for most situations. More and more steelhead anglers are opting for spey rods – 13' or 14' two-handed fly rods that allow long casts even if there’s not much backcasting room. Favorite fly patterns will vary depending on what river you’re fishing, though sparsely dressed Muddler Minnows in size 4 and 6 are a decent bet on any of the rivers discussed here.

For trout angling on the Deschutes or Donner und Blitzen, a 5-weight rod outfitted with floating line will work fine.

Anglers seeking the big trout on the Wood might do well to outfit themselves with a 6- or 7-weight rod and a sturdy reel equipped with both floating and sink-tip lines.

Though fall days may be warm, mornings and evenings – not to mention the rivers themselves – are cool, so you’ll want some breathable chest waders. Slick riverbeds make wading on the Deschutes, North Umpqua, and Grande Ronde a bit tricky, so take a wading staff and cleated wading shoes.

Rogue guides have developed a special technique called “twitching” for taking half-pounders. The guide will position their drift boat above a likely run, have an angler let out his or her line, and move the boat in the current so the fly twitches. The fish love it.


For seekers of mammoth wild trout who lack the $6,000 to $7,000 it takes to fish in Kamchatka or Tierra del Fuego, there is solace just north of Klamath Falls, Oregon. There, the Williamson and Wood Rivers feed into Upper Klamath Lake and Agency Lake respectively, where rainbows grow to gargantuan proportions on a diet rich in tui chub. When the Upper Klamath Lake warms in the early summer, some fish move into the cool, clear waters of the Williamson. In later August and through the fall, rainbows that can eclipse 15 pounds move into the Wood River to spawn.

Nestled just south of Crater Lake, the Wood River is a lovely little spring creek that flows 18 twisting miles through meadows and ranchland, then bubbles forth north of the tiny town of Fort Klamath. In the summer months, it hosts brown trout that will giddily take large grasshopper patterns slapped against the willows. The rainbows that join the browns are a little less inclined toward surface patterns. Anglers generally rely on wooly buggers and leeches fished on sinking lines through the deeper pools found on the river’s horseshoe bends.


The North Umpqua, an hour or so west of Crater Lake, is widely considered one of the most beautiful and difficult steelhead rivers in the world. The steelhead native to the Umpqua are not particularly large, averaging eight to 10 pounds. But they are strong enough to send an angler scrambling hundreds of yards downstream in their pursuit. Thirty-three miles of the river are set aside for fly fishing only, and while anglers may not have to compete with hardware fishermen for prime spots, the Umpqua provides enough challenge on its own.

Frank Moore, the river’s greatest angler and an ardent protector of its resources, has called the North Umpqua a finishing school for steelhead fly fishers. Notoriously slippery footing, the need to make long, precise casts with little back casting room, and the finicky nature of the North Umpqua’s steelhead all combine to make a day’s fishing a humbling experience. Yet the river’s astonishingly clear waters, the beautiful stands of hardwoods and old-growth Douglas firs that line its banks, and the rewards of a first-class dinner at the renowned Steamboat Inn (located in the middle of the fly-fishing-only section) make most anglers forget any humiliation served up by the Umpqua.

Photo: Brian O’Keefe

The Deschutes River slices through the center of Oregon, flowing some 300 miles north from its humble beginnings at Little Lava Lake in the Cascade Mountains to its terminus at the Columbia River. In the lower 100 miles from Pelton Dam to the Columbia, the Deschutes is a powerful, even imposing, river. The rugged, 2,000-foot-tall basalt canyons and high desert environs that envelop the Deschutes augment its stark beauty. It’s a veritable oasis.

The Deschutes offers anglers a rare double bonanza – wild rainbow trout and strong runs of summer steelhead. While not large by some western river standards, Deschutes rainbows are broad-shouldered and seem to understand how to use the river’s powerful currents to their advantage. Many Deschutes anglers will recount occasions when they’ve hooked a 26" fish, battled it for 15 minutes, and finally brought it to hand to find that they’ve actually been fighting a 15" rainbow. The Deschutes gives steelheaders a particularly long season of fresh incoming fish from early July through November. The powerful pull of a Deschutes steelhead taking Mack’s Canyon or Freight Train fly swung just below the surface rivals that of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe freight trains that run along the river’s western banks.


Tucked into the northeast corner of the region, the Grande Ronde is considered by some to be the best river in the west for taking steelhead on a dry fly. From its headwaters in the Blue Mountains of eastern Oregon, the Grande Ronde flows some 200 miles, mostly in Oregon, before crossing into Washington and joining the Snake River and then draining into the Columbia. The river’s canyons are a remarkably beautiful blend of alpine and high desert environs – a fusion of sorts between the Deschutes and the Rogue or North Umpqua.

Skating a Moose Turd or small Bomber fly across a glassy tailout and watching the wake of an agitated steelhead approaching it while a bull elk bugles in the aspens beyond is about as good as it gets for ardent steelheaders. Despite its great distance from metro centers, the Grande Ronde can attract crowds in the latter part of fall, thanks in part to ample road access and to the return of large numbers of hatchery-bred fish. But if you visit in early October when the native fish have just arrived, the crowds are far thinner. Those able to embark on a multi-day float in the river’s upper canyon reaches will find few, if any, other humans and will likely find some fish.

Photo: Brian O’Keefe
Those able to embark on a multi-day float in the river’s upper canyon reaches will find few, if any, other humans and will likely find some fish.


While the Oregon steelhead’s persnickety nature can drive some anglers mad, the native redband trout of the intimate Donner und Blitzen offer solace in their willingness to take a dry fly. The Donner und Blitzen trickles from the western slopes of Steens Mountain near the tiny town of Frenchglen, one of the state’s most isolated and ruggedly scenic areas. It’s real Wild West country. The river’s hardy redband trout have adapted to their high desert environs and can grow to 18" and more, though most fish are in the 10" to 12" range.

Stimulators, Elk Hair Caddis, and other attractor patterns are the order of the day here. Anglers willing to hike the Donner und Blitzen’s banks to find good holding water will be rewarded for their efforts with many hookups. On a year with a good snowpack (like this year), the river fishes well into the fall. Beware: Fierce weather can sweep off the west slopes of Steens Mountain at a moment’s notice. An evening that ends with blissful zephyrs can give way to a howling morning blizzard!

You might consider a sojourn to the other side of the Steens and Mann Lake, where 20" Lahontan cutthroat trout cruise the banks in the spring and fall, seeking scuds and chironomids. There’s no drinking water, no formal campground – not much of anything, really, at Mann Lake except big trout and the awesome east escarpment of Steens Mountain, which rises nearly 10,000 feet.

With the exception of the Donner und Blitzen River and Mann Lake, all the waters mentioned in this story are served by licensed fly-fishing guides.

A full list of guides can be found on the Oregon Guides and Packers Association Web site (www.ogpa.org).