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.

Three Keys to Mountain Stream Trout

Published July 2021 @HarvestingNature

Stepping into a reach I had never laid eyes on, water spilled across the floodplain through newly cut side channels, occupied new backwaters, and spilled through massive apex log jams. Beautiful pools formed below the jams and behind precisely placed root wads. Riffles spilled across cobble bars parallel to the head of the pool, forming textbook dry-fly dead-drifting waters, irresistible to inhabiting trout.

Knowing the fish would be somewhat less active in the glacial June flows, I nevertheless opted for a size 12 elk hair caddis. Having embraced fishing simply, a tenkara fly rod has become my go-to for mountain trout streams. Capable of landing fish as large as salmon (speaking from personal experience), easily reaching mid-stream pocket water habitats, and presenting a flawless dead-drift, a lightweight tenkara rod and single fly box graced my presence as I traversed the cottonwood riparian and shallow riffles.

A riffle formed the beautiful emerald pool where it collided at 90-degrees with a large toppled tree root wad. Hydraulic forces cut their way through the substrate until the head of the pool widened enough to shift flow and scour downstream depths. It was the ideal location for a calculated approach and fly presentation.

Dropping the caddis into the riffle and watching it bob carelessly into the flow seam below, it was no surprise that a rainbow stealthily slithered to the surface, trouncing the fly with the confidence of snagging an easy meal. A soft pop of the wrist set the hook with the tenkara rod, which played the 12-incher through the riffle and into a shallow pocket for a safe release. The fish’s cotton candy pink lateral line, grape-sized parr marks, and overall random speckling of bluish blotches and tiny black flecks were a sight to behold. Its otherwise chrome sheen was nearly blinding in the morning sun as rays peaked over the eastern basalt rim.

Approaching “fishy” habitat is an important consideration. How the angler casts a shadow, disturbs the water, or presents the fly and line can mean the difference between landing multiple, and possibly big fish, and no fish. Consider a classic log jam and downstream pool.

Whenever possible, approach the pool with the sun in your face. Keeping a long shadow off the water serves well to avoid spooking fish. Additionally, I like to approach from the side and begin near the top of the pool. Bigger trout get the best “lie”, meaning they take preferred feeding zones, which are usually farther back in the pool where the water is calmer and predators more visible. Fish are easily spooked here and often race into the whitewater at the top of the pool seeking shelter. Game over.

Approaching from the side, one can cast high or across the pool and drift down for the best presentation. Additionally, any fish caught in the top of the pool are less likely to escape to the tail and spook other fish when released.

If you must approach from the bottom end, carefully work your fly further and further into the pool to try to catch any fish near the tail before spooking them with the line touching down or wading into them.

When approaching from the top, keep a low profile and dead drift the fly from the head of the pool into the middle and tail. This is superbly easy to do with a fixed length of line approximately one-, to one-and-a-half times the rod length. Keep the rod tip high as the fly touches down, then slowly drop the rod consistent with the flow rate to keep line drag from affecting the fly drift. A hungry trout cannot pass on a caddis presented accordingly.

Aside from log jams and pools, gentle runs with large boulders providing velocity breaks are a good choice. Side channels, root wads, and anywhere riffles push perpendicular into a stream bank or other structure, creating a deeper pocket, is bound to hold trout. Trout also seek flow seams where faster water eddies off into slower water, depositing food, and allowing trout to save energy when holding position.

Approaching the next pool from below, a gravel bar split the pool, sending a run to the river-right bank that paralleled a downed tree, and creating a scour pool on the river-left bank beneath a small, submerged tree. Drifting a fly along the right-bank produced a single missed strike, but working slowly to the head of the left-bank pool enticed several fish seeking shelter beneath the tree.

While fly-fishing may seem intimidating to the novice, there are three general keys to mountain stream trout that can be quickly mastered; quality habitat, a stealthy approach, and clean fly presentation. The best producing areas are always those resembling quintessential trout habitat, with braided channels, large wood, a good riffle-run-pool sequence, and lush riparian vegetation. An elk hair caddis or Adams are staple flies, working on nearly any mountain stream at any time, making fly choice less concerning.

Mountain streams are the heart and soul of fly-fishing. Keep it simple. Keep the rod tip high. And savor the radiance of those speckled forest gems.

 

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.