Pitching Steel for Deschutes River Chrome

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

There were a lot of empty trailers in the parking lot. We were in for some competition, not just for fish, but for a rock to stand on. The word was out.

By the first of July, summer-run steelhead make a hard right turn out of the Columbia into the cooler water of the Deschutes. Before the first snow flies, they'll be spread from the mouth up to Pelton Dam.

There are a dozen legal ways to tempt them. Some prefer fur and feather, while others opt for jig and float. For the angler who likes to chase aggressive fish, a bit of flashy steel and a weighted shaft is the way to go. The steelhead are there and they'll take a spinner. You can bank on it.

Deschutes fish average four to ten pounds. B-runs can tip the scale at 20 pounds. Plenty of steelhead, long drifts and lots of water make the Deschutes a prime destination for anglers from all over the country.

On this particular Wednesday in September, it seemed they were all here.

Nick Amato had his game face on. He's run the lower D at least a dozen times a year since he was a teenager and he knows the river better than most, but it's technical water with little margin for error. Brad Douglas, who would be running video on the trip, climbed into the boat and turned around to help Robyn Moulder in.

Robyn, a native of Southern Oregon, is the inventor of the Bank-Ease Planer and he promised to put on a demo for us later in the day.

Nick fired the 200-horse Mercury and turned his 20-foot Alumaweld in a tight circle in front of the ramp before pointing the bow upstream at Moody Rapids, a tricky, narrow chute with wicked ledges on either side.

"We'll run up a ways and see if we can find the fish," Nick said. "If there are too many people, we'll keep going. I know a couple good places upstream that don't get as much pressure."

We had to go up a long ways. Every run had a fisherman or two. Nick threaded the boat between boulders and shallow gravel bars. On step, we passed through long runs and grassy banks with anglers on both sides of the river.

We pulled out about seven miles up. I tied on a No. 4 brass and chartreuse spinner and waded out. After every cast, I'd take two or three steps downstream, covering water. Nick looked frustrated already. "Give it ten more minutes. We've got more water to fish." Soon we were headed upstream again.

We put in to shore on the west bank and I leaped out into the grass. Here was a long, even run with a current that moved at about the speed of a fast walk. It looked to be between six and eight feet deep with a few seams and ripples that suggested there were a few big boulders creating cover for steelhead. I jumped in behind the boat and made a short pitch, let the spinner flutter down then started to reel.

Wham! The fish hammered the lure and ripped line off the reel. The first short run ended as the steelhead switched tactics and tried to wallow his way free. He thrashed at the surface then sprinted downstream again. In five minutes I had the wild fish to hand, slipped the hook out and let him go.

"I would just wade down maybe 20 feet past that first rock and make some long casts down below you," Nick said. "It should be good for one more fish."

All right. I was good for at least one more fish myself.

20 feet beyond that first rock, I made a longer cast and let it hook downstream with a slow thump in the rod tip. He took it way down on the swing. Fish on!

26 inches of chrome summer-run launched into the air and splashed back down, the Lamiglas pulsing with its power as the fish pulled out line on a series of short runs. I let the fish fight the backbone of the rod. The fish was now farther downstream than I was willing to go and there wasn't a good place to land it if I could coax it back upstream.

"This is why I think this is a good spot. Nobody wants to walk around over here," Nick said.

There was probably another fish to catch, but Nick had different plans. We loaded back in the boat and pointed the bow downstream to another tricky spot, this time on the east bank at the end of another run where willows hung low over the water. I waded in. Cast, step, cast, step down, cast again.

"Woo-hoo-hoo-hoo!" This was faster current and the fish ran away with the lure then turned and ran straight at me. He went airborne after that, then sprinted upstream, pulling line all the way. When I gained some line he came right to the bank then took to the surface again. Standing in hip-deep water, I backed the hook out and let the fish kick away to fight another day.

Spinner Fishing Strategies

Steelhead follow the path of least resistance. Surface seams and foam lines indicate the transitions of swift and slow water. Such places allow steelhead to travel with fewer obstacles.

Holding water consists of any place where several fish can take refuge. It might be a deep pool downstream from a riffle. It might be the pillow of water in front of a rock. It might be the calm in the downstream shadow of a boulder. It might be a pool below a fallen tree. It will be a place where the fish can feel reasonably comfortable, and secure from predators.

To take a steelhead with a spinner, fish it deep and slow. Green, chartreuse, blue, black and blood red are my first choices in summer colors. Use a brass, silver or nickel-plated French-blade spinner with colored beads and accent tape on the blade.

Big fish like their space. Let a flashy intruder into their comfort zone and they will react in one of three ways. One, pretend it doesn't exist. Two, run away from it. Or, three, destroy it. The only way a big fish can kill a smaller creature is to crush it in his mouth. This is the response the fisherman wants – to provoke a strike before the fish are spooked.

Maximize the time the spinner is in front of the fish. That means a tantalizingly slow retrieve – but fast enough that the blade thumps with a slow, strobing effect. If fish are holding in a riffle, cast from downstream and bring the spinner straight toward them, just above the speed of the water. They will have no choice but to hit it or get out of the way.

Some days the fish are more aggressive than on other days. We'd hit it right this time.

Three casts after my third fish, I hooked the fourth. "That's just wrong," Nick said. "So much for the fish of a thousand casts."

I was finished by lunchtime. Six hooked – five landed. One was wild, four were fin-clipped; all were ferocious, aggressive, acrobatic. The biggest was 28 inches, about eight pounds. A steelheader isn't supposed to admit something like this, but I was feeling a bit greedy.

At the next spot, a well-loved piece of classic water just vacated by another jet boat, Robyn Moulder tied on a Worden's FatFish and ran his revolutionary side-planer out into the current. The plug began to work and the Bank-Ease, banked against the current, held the lure in the hot zone. Cool.

The FatFish wiggled its hips suggestively. We headed back toward the boat and our lunch in the cooler. Brad, watching through the camera lens, saw the grab.

"You got a fish on, Dude!"

We forgot all about the sandwiches.

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