February 14th, 2012
Fishing the Metolius

Pine needles filtered down against a leaden sky. A breeze whispered of snowflakes yet to come. My daughter, almost grown now, carried her own fly rod. This was the river where I had introduced her to the sport so many summers ago, when she stood alongside as I cast and tempted a trout to the fly.

Today we were joined by Roger White. The proprietor of the Camp Sherman store rigged his rod and shook line out of the tip, while Chuck Burley, of Bend, leaned against a picnic table and tied on a beadhead nymph.

Towering Ponderosa pines leaned eastward toward the rising sun. Lightning-charred hulks stood rotting alongside their more fortunate brothers. Toppled timber stretched out into the water, providing cover for trout.

We walked on crushed pine needles and aspen leaves, following in the footprints of untold centuries of fishermen. It seemed like centuries since I had plied this stretch of river.

It had been summer then and the fish could be seen in the tail-outs and in the shallows, feeding on emergers and dries, caught in the surface film.

At the tail-out of one long pool, I used a tree for cover to watch and cast to a trout that was nearly as long as my arm. The fish took my No. 14 Royal Wulff several times before finally feeling the steel long enough to get the idea that it would not make a good meal.

The Metolius was discovered by Anglo-Saxons, soldiers, who found a river that arose full-bodied from springs in a forest meadow. But the Indians knew it and fished it long before the Europeans. The name Metolius is a native American word for river of the white salmon, probably a reference to spawning spring Chinook.

The big fish that used to find their way back to the spring creek of their birth are now a memory, but they may be part of the river’s future as well.

These days, anglers that come to ply the fabled waters of the Metolius arrive outfitted for rainbow trout.

Rainbow Redd Surveys

The river is regulated for fly-fishing and catch-and-release. For years, hatchery trout supplemented the catch, but stocking was discontinued in 1996 and the river is now managed for wild trout. Rainbows spawn from about the middle of December to the end of April in the river and its tributaries.

Since the mid-90s, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has been studying spawning activity in the Metolius by counting redds between the headwaters and the mouth of Spring Creek. In 1995-’96, ODFW counted 150 spawning beds. By 1998-’99, there were almost 500 redds. The redd count spiked in the 2002-’03 season at almost 1200 beds and has stabilized, since 2006, at just over 900.

Today, fish are released to restart spring Chinook salmon and steelhead runs that were halted with the construction of the Round Butte Dam.

Lake Billy Chinook

When Round Butte Dam was constructed, the power of the water was harnessed by three 1000-kilowatt generators. Today, the entire Pelton Round Butte complex generates enough energy to power a city the size of Salem. But confusing currents halted fish passage between the Metolius, Crooked and upper Deschutes rivers and the Pacific.

Today, the kokanee migrate downriver to the lake as smolts, where they mature. Throughout their life cycle, they are prey to bull trout.

The bull trout is a colorful fish. His back and flanks are olive or brown, sprinkled with red, orange, pink or yellow spots. His belly is white and his tail forks slightly. His head is long and broad.

In the spring and fall, bull trout can be found in shallower water, chasing kokanee and smallmouth bass throughout the reservoir. In the summer time, bull trout follow the kokanee deeper.

Lake Billy Chinook (and Metolius River) bull trout average 18 inches to 10 pounds. Every year, fish in the low teens are caught. Oregon’s state record bull trout came out of this lake in 1989, a fish that tipped the scales at over 23 pounds.

Best of all, these fish will take a fly. Baitfish imitations work the best, employed with a uniform-sink line, 20-pound leader and three-foot strips.

Restrictive catch regulations have ensured a thriving bull trout population in the river and the reservoir. You may find bull trout in all arms of the lake, but if you fish the Metolius channel, you’ll need a Warm Springs Reservation fishing permit. This can be purchased in the nearby town of Culver on the way to the water.

Construction of the fish passage and transfer system facility may allow sockeye to reach the ocean once again. And the passage of steelhead and spring Chinook smolts will most likely change the dynamic of the reservoir as well as the river.

The River in Autumn

This fall, the river looks the same as it has for the last forty-some seasons, but now an angler reads the water with an eye for the runs most likely to hold a bigger fish. In a couple of years, we might be swinging for steelhead or spring Chinook.

Today there were few insects on the surface and I didn’t expect a wild autumn trout to give me many opportunities to catch him. Yet there were fish to be caught. The water opened windows into their world.

Seams shift and play with the light. Where riffles and glare conceal the gravel bottom, suddenly the water flattens, smoothing for a moment to disclose the river’s secrets. There. A trout with speckled back and crimson sides.

The same currents are not so agreeable when the fly is cast. Flows pull fly line and leader in different directions and the fly follows first one way then the other. The trout senses that something is not right and lets the current pull him downstream to safety.

But now and then it all comes together. For a moment, a fish put a bend in my fly rod and jumped once, turning, diving, then came to hand. The barbless hook slid free and the fish was gone.

Across the river, White worked a seam with a beadhead nymph. Downstream, Chuck Burley waded deep, prospecting an edge.

When the afternoon sun backlit the pines, we followed the river road downstream to the end of the road at the Wizard Falls Hatchery. Here, the river’s character shows a marked difference from the pleasant spring creek that is the upper water. Doubled in size in the hatchery reach, fissures channel whitewater through lava ridges and over shallow shelves.

Tiffany and I walked upstream to fish the Idiot Hole, named for the legions of anglers that have over the years tried to fool 12- to 18-inch rainbows while standing in full view on the bank. Today, we were the only ones.

She made long casts up and downstream to avoid the streamside brush, working her line through the guides before rolling the Prince Nymph to the edge of the fast water. Fishing a floating line, she watched the downstream drift, setting the hook as it hesitated in the current. Tiffany coaxed a second trout to the grab, but lost it too, leaving both angler and trout a little wiser for the experience.

A half-mile down from the hatchery lies the Dolly Hole, known for holding big bull trout. Burley waded in, with the tannin-colored water swirling about his legs. He cast, threw an upstream mend and let it swing. Stepping down like a steelheader, he cast again and again, searching the water.

The bull trout ran for the fast water at the hookset, then used its body in the current before finally succumbing to the power of the rod. Burley held it for a heartbeat then rocked it gently until it kicked away.

We worked nymphs in the shallows and fished streamers in the riffles. We shared the water with no others save a blue heron and a little brown bird on the edge of a turquoise torrent, the water spilling over him as he dipped over and over in the fast water.

The river has a different feel in fall and winter. Often there is ice on the trail and the forest lies dormant. There are thousands of dead kokanee buried in banks of stream-borne debris. Heads and tails exposed, their silver and red and green bodies decaying, giving nutrients and life back to the river.

I wondered why it had taken me so long to walk this trail again. Maybe it is because there are easier places to get to, because there are fish more easily caught in less-complicated waters.

Weekday pressures slid away as the sun slipped out of sight on the western rim. These moments on the water are rare and fine in a fast-paced world. Deadlines and headlines are lost in the focus. Then fly and quarry come together, and all that matters is the pull of a good fish.

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