A Guide to Deschutes Steelhead

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

The 252-mile Deschutes is a river of many moods, draining a large part of central Oregon on its way to the Columbia. Bighorns and mule deer are often seen on the canyon walls. Chukar call from the rimrocks and wild turkey live among the oaks that line the tributaries. The river is known for blue-ribbon trout fishing, but its steelheading is also world-class.

Summer steelhead enter the river in June. By October, they have made their way to Pelton Dam, south of the town of Warm Springs. 

Much of the west bank of the Deschutes is bounded by the Warm Springs Indian Reservation and is thus closed to fishing by non-tribal members. The only exceptions are anglers who book days of guided fishing with tribal member Al Bagley.

Bagley, of River Bend Guide Service, Tel. 541-553-1051, begins to guide for steelheadin late September and continues to run trips into February.

I first fished with Al Bagley on December 19, 2002. An overcast day, the temperature hovered around 32 degrees. We drove a rough road on the west bank and stopped to fish at Bagley's favorite spots. Swinging black and purple leeches, I brought three fish (5, 7 and 9 pounds) to the bank. The last fish I hooked ran out almost all my backing and then, when I caught up, broke my 12-pound leader. 

Bagley impressed me as a man who would rather fish than sit and talk about it. Two years later, I fished with River Bend Guide Service again. Bagley assigned me to guide Rob Sipler. I landed two steelhead. The third time was a frigid December day when ice formed on the line. Bagley worked hard all morning and afternoon to make sure my partner and I landed fish.

Depending on calendar and commitments, Bagley might assign an angler to fish with his grandson, a knowledgeable 18-year-old who is full of enthusiasm and loves to see his clients connect with big steelhead. Both Bagley and grandson are good anglers. A client can request to fish with either one.

Though he may seem gruff, and though his river lunches are not gourmet affairs, a river trip with Al Bagley is a great way for the beginner to put a swinging fly in front of hundreds of aggressive fish. For the experienced angler, this trip may provide the best fly rod steelheading of a lifetime.

Plan to bring a 7- or 8-weight one-handed rod or Spey rod rigged with a floating line and a high-density sink tip. Depending on the method, leader length runs between three feet and eight feet with a 10-pound tippet. Any steelhead flies may catch fish, but most anglers bring articulated leeches.

Temperatures in September and October range between highs of 85 degrees and lows of 40. In November, temps may drop into the teens at night and rise into the low-70s. Days in December, January and February average between 30 and 45 degrees, but may be cold enough to freeze ice in the guides.

On most days, the average fisherman will land between three and five fish. When temperatures drop into the single digits, steelhead won't move as far to take a fly and the fisherman may be fortunate to land one or two fish.

Deschutes River hatchery and wild steelhead average between 8 and 13 pounds, but can run to 18 pounds. One day last November, a lone angler landed 14. On Bagley's best day, two anglers landed 34 steelhead.

Anglers have two options: move up and down the river in comfort in Bagley's Ford truck or take the drift boat. On a boat trip, the ride starts below Trout Creek and ends at Whiskey Dick, 13 river miles downstream. Bagley stays on the water as long as clients want to fish.

Pastry and coffee are provided in the morning. Sandwiches or wraps (with turkey, hummus, guacamole, etc) are served at lunchtime. In cold weather, Bagley brings hot soup. 

Anglers may fly to Portland International Airport (PDX) and rent a car for the two-hour drive (east on Highway 26) to Kah-Nee-Ta Resort on the Warm Springs Reservation. Another option is to fly to Redmond (RDM) for a one-hour drive (north on Highway 97 to Highway 26) to Kah-Nee-Ta.

The Kah-Nee-Ta High Desert Resort & Casino, Tel. 800-554-4786, offers a variety of accommodations from suites and private view balcony rooms in the Lodge to Village suites, teepees, and even a full-service RV Park. The resort offers hot springs, spa, golf and stables. Hotel rates drop in November and December.

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