Rainbows on the High Desert

Rainbows of the High Desert – Harvesting Nature

I fished my first desert stream when my good friend and fly-fishing sensei, Chas Kyger, moved to Washington State. Both transplants from the Appalachian hometown, we interestingly ended up three hours apart working as fish biologists.

Spring can offer formidable conditions in the Pacific Northwest mountains, where high flows and snow melt careen through narrow canyon creeks. Spring on a desert creek, however, can be epic, with early warming waters and insect hatches.

A hard left from the Columbia River pointed us toward a large desert canyon, characterized by steep, rocky bluffs, talus, and sagebrush. Various alfalfa, wheat, and corn crops created a lush patchwork landscape across the canyon floor broken only by the random cattle or horse pasture.

The creek bottom through the valley was a mere ditch with cattails sucking up the last of any moisture lingering in the cracked, astringent landscape. Skepticism ran high as 30 years of fly-fishing and fisheries science taught me that streams gain flow as they lose elevation. Contradictory can be the case in dry country.

Finding ourselves abruptly at road’s end, staring at a shabby ranch home with heavy equipment scattered about, it appeared we missed the trail into public land. Better judgement would have heeded the brown sign with binoculars on it, now some miles in the rearview.

Circling back and taking a right turn into oblivion, it was unclear whether we were on public or private. Fording a creek and passing a fifth-wheel “ranch home” while dodging an excitable border collie, the decision was made to kick in the four-wheel-drive and ascend the red, rocky bluffs separating the headwaters beyond from the bottomlands.

The flat, torrid landscape atop the rocky rims appeared desolate and unfriendly to the touch, colored in various hues of auburn and bister. Heat waves shimmered upon the caustic environment. Everything appearing scorching hot and sharp to the touch. The creek canyon formed a precipitous crevasse in the desert floor.

Peering into the narrow canyon, a trickle of water more than a hundred feet below was our destination. Without need of further inspection, vests and waders were donned, and with fly rods in hand, we bailed over the steep, dusty slope. Fortunately, and to our surprise, a staggering creekside oasis lay in store.

The creek was characterized by deep cuts through large boulders and gray slab bedrock, worn smooth by enduring eons of nature’s erosive processes. Scenic cascades separated by deep plunge pools babbled with clear, cool desert spring water, shaded by tall, overhanging grasses. Moments passed as we ogled the creek, like teenage boys at the beach, before finally putting the moves on some classic trout water.

Kneeling behind and leaning against a boulder the size of a Volkswagen Bug, a haphazardly-lobbed #8 elk hair caddis stimulator flopped into the pool that lay beyond. A small plunge at the head dampened any ability to hear a rise. Carefully peeking from behind the boulder, a visible wake erupted.

An instinctive hookset embedded the fly into one of the fattest twelve-inch rainbow trout I have ever laid eyes on. After making several strong runs about the tiny pool, the trout darted for fast water, busting down a cascade, Columbia River bound.  It’s dashing run put a hard whip in the little three-weight Temple Fork Outfitter before reluctantly coming to the net in the next pool downstream.

In the span of a mile, another ten-inch fish, fat and spunky with a blazing red lateral stripe, and countless dinks, six-inches or less, succumbed to the classic caddis pattern. A few other typical classics worked well enough, including a #12 parachute Adams, but the whopping caddis stimulator duped more fish than any other.

Most casts, a trout rocketed from the depths, sometimes followed by several others, eager to claim the meal for themselves as the fly hit the water. As if their last meal was the summer before and having no certainty of another.

It’s funny how long a day at the office can feel, yet the hours on good trout water evaporate like morning dew in Death Valley. Feeling as though the day had just begun, the sinking sun put an end to an exceptional day spent deep in the bowels of the red canyon walls.

Among the perks of fishing small desert streams, any skill level can experience an epic day. Fishing with big flies in small water for aggressive fish can be quite forgiving of imperfect presentation. Just as well, 5X tippet is a staple, providing tremendous versatility and strength, suitable to handle overzealous hook sets and retrieving flies hung in riparian vegetation.

This curious little gem of desert trout heaven made a believer of this cynical Appalachian boy. While there is no replacement for a high mountain trout stream, aggressive desert rainbows are a worthy opponent, opening the season a few months early, while the mountain waters rage with a melting snow pack.

The June Hogs of the Columbia Basin

Our jet sled bobbed near the infamous “Buoy 10” in the mouth of the Columbia River. It was a stormy September afternoon with angry Pacific surf bullying its wave action far upriver. Coho were the target, yet no one aboard complained at the prospects of landing anything willing to trounce the cut herring corkscrewing behind the boat as we drifted.

Kicking back, we enjoyed the ride, and experience of fellow fishermen jumping hurriedly for a bent rod, ripped from the complacency of a lull in the action and casual conversation. I had passed a dozen salmon to the three other anglers. They finally insisted the next bite was mine.

Diving for the gunnel as the port side rod doubled hard on the strike, drag began spooling noisily from the reel. The run was fast and strong, unlike the coho hook-ups of the day. Only a Chinook (king) salmon can pack a tuna-like punch into a chrome freshwater torpedo.

Following the initial run, the 26-inch king came in quickly. Not my first king, but certainly the most striking. Dime-bright scales glistened under the overcast sky as if the fish had been dipped in glitter. It’s dorsal was painted in muted teal, and it’s black speckling popped like sequins. It was no “June Hog”, but an unforgettable fish, nevertheless.

A small Columbia River “Buoy 10” King fresh from the salt.

June Hogs, on the other hand, have earned their place in natural and sporting history as king salmon of the Columbia Basin past. Before commercial fisheries and dams made their way to the Columbia River, kings breaching 100 pounds swam over 1,000 miles to their spawning grounds in British Columbia. Genetically speaking, these fish were the same kings that continue to return to the Columbia River year after year, but a population that grew five or more years in the Pacific Ocean before returning to spawn.

Much larger fish than those of lower river populations, historic accounts suggest they reached nearly 50 inches in length and were football-shaped, their bodies rich with fat stores. Their long journey inland led these fish to enter the Columbia River in early summer, earning the moniker June Hog. But the trek to their natal tributaries took time with spawning occurring in late summer or early fall.

Once a Native American subsistence staple, the superior quality and flavor these massive fish quickly became a prized food item for all as the west was developed. The first canaries on the Columbia River opened in the mid-1800s. A grand haul by the Seufert Brothers Cannery in The Dalles, Oregon landed 2.5 million cans of “Royal Chinook” in an Astoria, Oregon warehouse around the turn of the century. The table fare of the June Hogs deserving of the “Royal” marketing crown. At the peak of the run, canneries could pull several tons each day via fish-wheel.

The Seufert Brothers Cannery floor after a decent haul. (Photo Credit: Oregon Historical Society)

With harvest affecting the salmon populations, the average size of the June Hogs began to decline by the early 1900s, decreasing as much as 50 percent by 1922. Thirty pounds was once the bottom end of their weight range, but today, a 30-pound Columbia River Chinook is news-worthy.

Modern fishery management and harvest has resulted in an increased proportion of “jacks”, which are basically trout-sized salmon, that return within a year of migrating to the ocean, and may never have left the Columbia River estuary. But the final blow to the massive June Hogs came long ago in the form of Grand Coulee Dam.

Built without fish passage, the June Hogs racing for British Columbia were stopped cold at Grand Coulee by 1940. The populations spawning downstream in Washington tributaries were able to do so successfully with a more modest size and fat stores, their migration being half as long or difficult.

The June Hogs of historic proportions may never grace the Columbia Basin again, yet, kings in the 20-pound range are still common. Last month, I wound my way through the visitor center halls at Ice Harbor Dam and stood in awe at the fishway viewing window. Kings of all sizes cruised by, shooting nervously through the fish counting slot. According to the counting booth attendee, the kings are returning well thus far in 2021, but the overall projection for the spring run is lower than last year.

At present, myriad challenges are pressuring salmon and steelhead populations through the Pacific Basin. While special interest groups lobby against the lower Snake Rive dams, they fail to present the big picture, meaning dams are but a piece of the complicated salmon life history puzzle. Ecosystem-wide reform of fishery and harvest management, habitat restoration, invasive species management, and other environmental improvements are necessary in concert to achieve genuine population “recovery”.

Nevertheless, salmon are resilient, enduring all we’ve thrown at them for more than a century. With mindful management among stakeholders, and improvements in environmental conditions, the kings of the Columbia Basin will persist.

The Phenological Calendar of Kokanee

The Phenological Calendar of Kokanee – Harvesting Nature

Whether you realize it or not, most outdoor enthusiasts are phenological scientists. You may never have published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal or even considered proper phenology as practical in everyday life. Maybe you’ve never even heard of phenology. But if you appreciate the outdoors or even just vegetable gardening, chances are, you’re a seasoned phenologist.

Simply put, phenology is a branch of science dealing with the correlation between climate and environmental cues, and periodic biological phenomena such as fish spawning, deer and elk rut, songbird migration, and upland bird nesting seasons.

For example, the big game hunter reads the moon phase and weather patterns to estimate the peak of the rut for hunt planning. Anglers keep an eye on snowmelt and spring runoff timing and water temperature to predict migration and spawning periods for fishes like salmon, bass, and walleye. My wife keeps an annual calendar of weather and plant bloom patterns to phase seed starts into her vegetable garden.

As a professional scientist, it’s only natural that I also rely on phenological cues to plan outdoor activities, fishing being the most common.

A downrigger set at 30 feet maintains a small dodger and squid bait in the pursuit for kokanee salmon.

Spring in the arid lands of the Pacific Northwest is an incredible season, rich with the hues of our natural landscape responding to longer and warmer days. Brilliant canary-yellow clusters of arrowleaf balsamroot, cotton-topped common yarrow, fuchsia cushions of longleaf phlox, and the snowstorm of black cottonwood and white alder seeds wafting on the breeze all hint at the timing for fishing desert lakes.

By mid-May, I’ve been chasing trout among the puddles of the Washington scablands. But as the water temperature warms, my thoughts drift to kokanee, advancing in their early summer patterns.

When balsamroot clusters speckle the shrub-steppe, glowing like yellow lava perforations among the sagebrush, it’s time to drop a downrigger and squid bait behind a dodger for those silver-bullet, landlocked sockeye.

While rubber squid are not exactly a natural food source in the seep lakes, a small, orange, eyed skirt with tiny trailer hooks tipped with scented corn (inexplicably) does the trick when trolled behind a small dodger. Downriggers make it easy to target a specific depth, and this technique becomes more successful as the lakes stratify and food sources concentrate.

Lakes in Washington’s channeled scablands registered around 55 degrees Fahrenheit at the surface in mid-May. Cool enough that the kokanee scattered about the depths from approximately 12 to 75 feet. Additionally, the cold water had the fish finnicky to start the day, making their half-hearted bait bumps nearly unnoticeable on lines clipped to a downrigger ball. But a rod with a two-ounce weight dropped off the back of the boat provided quick adjustment to encounter fish at many depths, as well as greater sensitivity to strikes, landing a limit of “kokes” in short order as fish warmed up, committing to the bait.

Kokanee are typically small, but beautiful and delicious, and worthy of a relaxing day on the water.

Kokanee are sought for their table fare first and foremost. Small fish tugging against heavy tackle doesn’t produce the most inciting of battles, and their weak mouths make them difficult to land if they fail to inhale to bait. Additionally, as fish strike the trolling squid, they typically hook themselves. It may take a few fish to get over the instinct to set the hook, but simply reeling up and keeping the pressure on can be most effective for landing fish.

Kokanee action in June can be more reliable as fish narrow into their preferred depth and become more active with warmer water. Bigger fish can be found in some lakes with a little research, but a passel of 10 to 12-inch kokanee is typical and perfectly suited for a smoker, oven rack, or frying pan, and sublimely paired with a Pinot Gris or Chardonnay, and fresh asparagus spears from the garden. Another phenological sign of the time to kick back in the boat and coax up the tasty (albeit tiny) freshwater salmon of the frigid depths.

Upland Pursuits – The Caddis Revolution

Published in the East Oregonian, July 16th 2021

If you’re a fly-fisherman, think back on your first trout on the fly. Can you remember it? Turns out I cannot, but I do recall my teenage years spent trying to crack the code on mountain brook trout in Appalachia. While my casting skill left much to be desired, habitat selection may have had more influence on my struggle to coax a fish to the fly. Thirty years later, mountain trout streams take me back to basics such that the last time I carried a western-style fly rod and reel into a headwater stream was probably 2016.

These days I seek elevation and skinny water with only a handful of flies of usually one or two patterns, and a tenkara rod. Whether the fishing is actually easy or just second nature to me now remains to be determined, but one thing has remained constant. The elk hair caddis. This classic pattern stands as a staple in the fly box of trout anglers worldwide, mine included. It’s effectiveness has made this the first, and often the only fly I use on mountain streams.

A Montana brook trout couldn’t resist the caddis as it bobbed overhead, casting a shadow in the summer sun

So, how did this fly earn its reputation? There are approximately 7,000 known caddis species, which hatch generally April through October in the northern hemisphere. The dry fly (adult) pattern is often effective through November with peak hatch months typically being June through September. The October caddis hatch is well known in some areas, including locally, for remarkable densities of colossal flies that may be mistaken for large moths. Fishing a giant October caddis can redefine “epic” as feisty fish feast to fatten up for winter on the filet mignon of insect forage.

Tied with a black, brown, or olive body, ribbed with copper or tensile or not at all, and topped with hair as black as moose or bright as a bull elk’s rump, the pattern is universally effective. The same olive elk hair caddis once duped native brookies in several Virginia mountain streams only days before it landed me the Bitterroot Slam of rainbow, brook, brown, cutthroat, and cut-bow on my drive back to Washington. That was July 2020, and that fly now hangs on my pickup’s driver-side sun visor as a constant reminder of an exceptional few days on the headwaters draining our major eastern and western mountain ranges.

Given the fly’s popularity, effectiveness, and commonplace existence as a renown fly pattern, one of the most curious facts about the fly is that it has been on the scene barely over 60 years. The simplicity of the elk hair caddis pattern led me to assume it has been around since the beginning of modern fly-fishing at the latest.

The elk hair caddis (far right) is a staple in the box of most any fly fisherman and fits perfectly with this array of large stimulator patterns for cutthroat

Seemingly one of the earliest possible fishing methods, one may assume that fly-fishing was common as early as 1653 with the first publishing of Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler. Surprisingly. One of the first records of fishing flies includes a group of about a dozen salmon streamers tied in Ireland in 1789, possibly older than the first color illustration of flies, according to the American Museum of Fly Fishing. Even more surprising, the first elk hair caddis is credited to Al Troth, tied in 1957, far later than many other classics like the Adams, which turned up around 1922. Little did Troth know that his caddis pattern would go on to imitate virtually any species of caddis, as well as some stoneflies. A truly revolutionary fly.

Dry-fly fishing – fishing flies on the water surface – is thought to be the pinnacle of trout angling. Norman McClean’s A River Runs Through It, centered in Missoula, Montana, sensationalized fly-fishing, invigorating the fishing world to take up the sport. McClean’s wit suggested purity in fishing dry flies through biblical reference, saying “Our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly-fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly-fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.” While anyone can fish dry-flies, sans the pretention, there are arguably few other flies or fly-fishing methods that compare to charming wild trout with an elk hair caddis.

A mountain stream rainbow fallen victim to the temptation of the elk hair caddis

A creamy puff of elk rump bobs carelessly on a dead-drift, cascading into the head of a mountain stream pool. Unable to resist the temptation, a muscly rainbow with a cotton-candy pink lateral stripe rockets to the surface, engulfing the fly in an eager splash as it drifts over the emerald depths. A quick flip of the wrist sets the hook, and the fight ensures. Admiring the remarkable hues of salmonid perfection from the clear, cold cascades is what dreams are made of. Dreams that can be reality for anyone willing to chase them with an elk hair caddis, July being a fine month on streams like the Wallowa River, Umatilla, and Walla Walla.