All Aboard – For Steelhead on the Wallowa River

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

It wasn't going to be easy.

We took a left turn at La Grande and headed for Minam, but not before we stopped at the Mt. Emily Ale House, eight of us armed with long rods and chest waders. Jerry Grant introduced himself, a fisheries biologist turned brewmeister with creations like Heifer-Weizen, Paleface Ale, and Northwest Porter on tap. I can vouch for their root beer. But we couldn't stay, we had to catch a train.

Some of the best steelhead rivers have a set of tracks along one bank. Often we walk the rails and, hip-deep in the river, exchange a wave with an engineer. For the final leg of our journey, we boarded a train – the Steelhead Train – at the town of Minam in northeast Oregon.

The whistle blasted. I was last up the steps. The first person I saw when I walked down the aisle was Dan White from Eugene, who I recognized from the McKenzie Flyfishers Club. Brian Smith from Birmingham, Alan Stout, Dennis Patterson, both of Sunriver, and Loren Anderson, Dan Cardot, John McDevitt and Brad Douglas, of Bend, were already in their seats, staring out at the river.

The Wallowa is classic steelhead water with riffles, rock gardens and long pools. The train stopped at the best holes and disgorged hopeful anglers. Several of us chose Fisher Creek for our first stop and we spread out over two good runs.

18 degrees with a water temperature of 36. Ice formed on the rod and encrusted in the guides. When the reel on the 6-weight seized up, I switched to the 9-weight. When it froze, I picked up my spinning rod. When the guides locked up on the spinning rod, I put them in my mouth, one by one, till the ice melted and I could cast.

What do we know about steelhead in cold water? We know they stack in slower, deeper pools and they don't move far to take a lure or fly. Opening a box of spinners, I picked out a No. 4 blue-bodied Blue Fox doctored with blood-red prismatic tape on the inside of the blade. I fired a cast to the head of the pool, let it sink and started to crank.

What else do we know? When the sun comes up and the temperature climbs a degree or two, a fish is more likely to take a spinner. 

Every steelhead is a gift anticipated, but unexpected. My spinner stopped. There was sudden, electric energy in the rod. The line scribed an arc in the green water, zigged and zagged. Then the fish showed, olive green, black speckles and a rainbow sash. The spinner glittered in its mouth.

Close to shore, the fish turned back to deeper water on its last run. No adipose, a hatchery fish. When it was back in the shallows, I waded in and steered it by the tail into the rocks. 

That afternoon, drifting a fly in a narrow slot, Birmingham Brian saw his indicator streak sideways. He set the hook into his first steelhead. Two minutes later we saw the fish, right before it broke the tippet.

On Sunday, we climbed back on the train. This time we chose the Howard Creek run to start, a long, narrow channel fed by a chalky creek. Beau McLendon pointed at the confluence and showed us the seam. “The fish will be lying against that cloudy water out of the creek and also across the river.” 

After the fly rods were both encrusted in ice, I picked up the spinning rod and tied on a No. 4 silver-plated spinner with black and red accents. A fish grabbed then turned toward me at the hook set and threw the hook at the surface.

20 minutes later, another stop and a quiver in the rod tip. And another five-pound male, but this one had an adipose. With a green back, speckled with black, his flanks were gold and crimson.

Shore birds bobbed and dipped on the far bank. Water dripped from icicles that clung to mossy rocks like silver beards. We moved up to work another long run and its tailout. 

Standing on a rock, I threw a pink spinner and splashed it on the far side of a boulder. A steelhead elevated from the dark bottom, animated, agitated. Spinner and fish came together, the fish opening his mouth, crushing the intruder. Stung, the fish streaked upstream then charged, turned again, and swam a complete circle, five to ten feet off my rock, coming to the surface again and again.

Now the fish lay at water's edge half in, half out, about to take its first ride on a train. Green water swirled around my legs. It came to me that this was as far inland as I have hunted steelhead. 

To get here, these fish swim the Columbia, climb the ladders past eight hydroelectric dams, take a right turn up the Snake, climb the Grande Ronde and hang a left to negotiate the Wallowa, a journey of close to 500 river miles from Astoria to their natal streams.

We hunt them with fly rods and spinning gear, but they seldom come easy. That's the way it should be.

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