At least six inches of snow still coats the ground outside Terrebonne. Gray clouds hang heavy over the canyon. The reeds and bushes are doubled over by the weight of the snow. The fresh smell of wet sage fills the air. The river is almost unrecognizable compared to the vibrant, verdant, meandering stream I fished so frequently when I first returned to Oregon this spring.
* * *
After a long winter in North Carolina, I was so happy to be back in central Oregon, and so eager to take full advantage of all the region had to offer. I felt absolutely spoiled to live less than a ten-minute drive from a great, little trout stream (not to mention the fact that I could see one of the country’s premiere climbing destinations from my back porch). Of course, there were two world-class stretches of river within an hour’s journey, and I did frequent those waters, but the Middle Deschutes was so close - it seemed downright criminal not to fish it at least a couple times a week. And being the law-abiding citizen that I am, I fished it as often as I could. I managed to become familiar enough with this stream that I might have even been able to convince someone that I had some clue as to what I was doing. I caught fish. Sometimes I caught a lot of fish. Sometimes I caught no fish. A couple of times I caught a fish that you’d hardly believe came out of that water. I’ll never forget the stout, brightly-colored 18” Redband that took me for a ride downstream after exploding on my size 8 Chubby Chernobyl in less than a foot of water. That day, it sure looked like I knew what I was doing…but the truth is that I hooked that fish on a half-hearted lob made as I was moving upstream to fish the opposite bank. I’ll bet I was even late on the hookset. It’s silly how often that happens, how often a lapse in focus, a momentary blunder, a break in the monotony, or simply a blatant, unforced error results in a fish in the net. I’m sure there’s something more to be unpacked there, some philosophical musing or metaphor for life. I’m a little less mystical about such things. Like the late, great Bob Ross, I just call them “happy little accidents".
The Middle Deschutes was actually where I learned to fly fish, or fly fish for trout in moving water, anyway. Last summer (2021), I moved back out to Oregon. Rather, I moved back into my 2014 Prius V and drove back out to Oregon. I was going to guide for the same rock climbing outfitter I had been with the previous summer at Smith Rock State Park. But of course, one cannot simply drive straight across the country without a couple detours. In my case, I had planned a month-long detour with one of my best friends and climbing partners, Eric, in the passenger seat. Our drive out West was filled with laughter, misadventure, and even a little bit of rock climbing. We managed to tick off a couple of ultra-classic, ultra-long routes: Scenic Cruise in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Colorado and Epinephrine in Red Rock, outside of Las Vegas, both no less than 1,600 feet high. The latter route was uneventful, though not uninspiring. The former, however, provided me with one of the most difficult days on rock I’ve had to date, and left us scrambling to the canyon rim, dodging cactus and trying to ignore the burning thirst in our throats, under the light of a full moon. Days like that are certainly humbling, but more importantly I find them to be empowering. When you’re forced to dig deeper than you’ve ever had to dig before, only to finish and realize you still had more left in the tank - that’s a powerful thing.
* * *
Eventually we wound up in a ditch. I should say, we wound up in “The Ditch.” Yosemite Valley, the crucible of North American climbing where wannabes come to prove themselves, or perhaps prove something to themselves. Eric’s sister, Sarah, lives inside the national park in a small community known as Foresta, and she has been kind enough to host us and other pilgrims over the years as we throw ourselves at the vast granite walls of this climbing Mecca. We would spend two weeks in the Valley, though much of that time would be spent on one objective - El Capitan. Eric and two of his friends were to climb Lurking Fear, a 19-pitch route on the southwestern flank of the massive monolith. My friend, Artem, and I planned to tackle the Salathé Wall - perhaps the Captain’s longest route at 3,200 feet. This was to be my first big wall, my first time hauling a pack and sleeping on the route. For those who don’t understand the gravity of that, it was ambitious, to say the least. But, sometimes you need to be a little ambitious, if not a little audacious, to achieve anything worth achieving in life. And sometimes you get smacked down, hard. Eric and I both got a proper ass-whooping, though his deposited him on the summit after a 20+ hour push at the end of his third day, while mine landed me back on the ground at the end of my third day. Artem and I had dug deep, but we had nothing left in the tank - at least not enough to get us to the top. [But I learned a lot and gained enough experience to return to the Valley with Eric a year later and complete the Salathé this spring - a lifetime achievement for any climber.]
After my time in Yosemite came to an end, I stopped to visit my friend, Brian, at his new home in Reno. From the world’s biggest little city, we trekked into the Sierra to climb one of the most highly-acclaimed routes on one of the most highly-acclaimed pieces of alpine granite known to man: Positive Vibrations on the Incredible Hulk. This was a route that I had drooled over for years, an absolutely stunning line up an immaculate shield of white granite in the middle of the remote alpine wilderness. The approach to the mountain involved a five-mile hike with nearly 2,500 feet of elevation gain, so we carried overnight packs along with all of our climbing gear and camped out at the base of the cliff the night before. Despite ridiculously high winds and stout climbing, I managed to climb the entire route without falling. I was climbing well. As well as I ever had. When I finally arrived back in Terrebonne for the season in June, I was hungry for more. I was ready to have the best season of my life. Then I fell down the stairs. I wasn’t even supposed to be there. I wasn’t on the schedule that day, and yet my boss called me up to ask where I was and why I wasn’t out helping guide a group of college students at Smith Rock. After some grumbling and no small amount of swearing, I hopped in my car and drove out to the park, only to find out that I wasn’t even needed. There were more than enough guides for the group, and I was left standing there with my teeth in my mouth, not knowing what to do with myself. Then, as if on cue, a pair of climbers next to our group got their rope stuck in a crack high off the ground when they pulled it through the anchors at the end of their climb. I offered to help retrieve the rope, but first I decided to give it a good tug. I gave it a damn good tug; so good, in fact, that the rope popped loose and I went tumbling backwards, ass-over-teakettle, directly down the stairs I forgot I was standing atop. Fortunately, I was wearing my pack and my helmet, and I managed to walk away with only a couple of scrapes. Unfortunately, I quickly realized that I had seriously tweaked two of the fingers on my left hand. The injustice! I saw my climbing season evaporate before my eyes. I wouldn’t be yarding on small edges or cranking on tiny crimps for weeks, if not months! I was crestfallen. I needed an alternative activity, or else I just knew I would lose my mind. And so my mind drifted away and landed on the fly rod stashed away deep in the recesses of my car.
* * *
Munsey Wheby was one of my Sunday School teachers at St. Luke United Methodist. More importantly, Munsey Wheby gave me my first fly rod. It was a 9’ 6wt Redington Red Fly, but that meant little to me back in high school when I first received it. I was impressed when he came out to the lake in my parents’ neighborhood and showed me how to cast it. He could put his fly exactly where he wanted it with deadly precision. Luckily enough for us, the bass and sunfish that inhabit that lake were really biting that day and Munsey put on a show for me and my brothers. Eventually, I got the basic fly cast down and could even make a passable roll cast on occasion, but I was far from good and even further from being hooked on fly fishing. I got out on the lake from time to time that summer and caught plenty of small panfish, often feeling overgunned with the 6wt in hand, but it was never more than a passing curiosity. And then I just stopped. I gave Munsey his reel back (it had graciously been lent for months on end), and I tucked the rod away in my closet. I think it must have sat there untouched for more than five years. I remember my younger brother, Ben, suggested I take it with me when I moved to southern Oregon to attend graduate school in 2019. I forgot to grab it, and I never missed it. Then, for whatever reason, the fly rod made the cut and found its way into my Prius last year, stuffed into the storage space above my spare tire. Realistically, I’m afraid that poor fly rod was destined to see about as much action as that spare tire, had I not had my happy little accident.
* * *
With my freshly mangled fingers, I waltzed into the local fly shop down in Redmond the day after my tumble and declared that I wished to purchase their cheapest reel and fly line. Without even an attempt at upselling me, the manager, Paul, hooked me up with just that, and he even threw in a handful of flies on the house. It was this first experience at Fin & Fire that kept me coming back month after month, year after year. These things matter. I grabbed some leaders and a bit of tippet, and I was ready to get out on the water! But I hadn’t the slightest idea of where to start. I drove north on Highway 97 with my new tackle in tow, and I pulled into the parking lot of Redpoint Climbers Supply, the local climbing shop/coffee shop/bar/community hub for all the local (and non-local) climbing dirtbags. It just so happened that a dirtbag of a different kind was sitting at one of the picnic tables outside Redpoint that day - a freshly minted trout bum named Mike. I had met Mike the previous summer. He and I both found ourselves in the motley crew of crusty, COVID-displaced, car-dwelling climbers that inhabited the public land surrounding Terrebonne. This group of misfits included local climbing guides, college students on their summer break, recently laid off young professionals, quasi-employed quasi-locals, and perennial vagabonds - all of whom were more than happy to live simply and climb rocks as the world came to a standstill at the height of the pandemic. There was an energy there in Terrebonne that summer, a vortex that seemed to suck people in. My friend, Brian, arrived in June, planning to stay for only two days - he ended up staying two months. Mike was in between jobs and had moved back into his orange 2011 Subaru Forester, the exact make, model, year, and color of my previous vehicle. He had been in central Oregon for several years at that point, a transplant from outside Atlanta, Georgia, and he had worn many hats since moving out to the high desert. He climbed, rode mountain bikes, skied, and played his guitar with equal joy and ability - but he had not yet been bitten by the trout bug. Boy, did that change in a hurry. I hadn’t seen Mike since I’d left town last August, but I had seen pictures, and many of those pictures included rivers, fly rods, and the occasional trout. So after exchanging the customary pleasantries, I mentioned to him that I had just picked up a reel and line for my fly rod and asked him if he knew any good local spots. As it happened, he was on his lunch break (a generous lunch break, at that) and was headed to the river right then; he had just stopped to say hey to our mutual friend, Kellie, after seeing her van parked at Redpoint. I sheepishly asked if he wouldn’t mind me joining him, and of course he happily obliged. He had not yet been to this spot himself, but he was all too excited to have me along to check it out. We said goodbye to Kellie, hopped in our respective vehicles, and bolted down Lower Bridge Way toward Steelhead Falls. This was not a new spot for me. In fact, I had spent many nights sleeping in my Prius at one of the many dispersed campsites there, but I had never ventured down to the river. Boy, did that change in a hurry. We parked at the end of the dusty road, rigged up, and headed off on the trail. After about a quarter of a mile, we found a break in the basalt cliffline where we could scramble down to the river below. It was the perfect spot for folks like us; the rock-hopping and fourth-classing required was second nature for experienced rock climbers. This rough terrain kept all but the most surefooted anglers away, but it provided great access for a neophyte fly fisher such as myself who was restricted to fishing from the bank. Mike helped me assemble the dry-dropper rig that the guys at the fly shop had talked about, and before long I had my first trout on the line! It wasn’t very big, but that didn’t matter to me at all. Eventually, Mike was forced to scurry back up the trail and hightail it to his job down in Redmond. I, on the other hand, had nowhere to be and nothing but time on my hands. I stuck around for another hour or so and even managed to catch a second small rainbow before the afternoon was over. If you’ll pardon the pun, I was hooked. This boulder-strewn stretch of river would become my dojo, my laboratory, and my sanctuary. Until that day, I had usually camped at various spots around the area, not often spending more than one night in the same place, simply out of habit. But old habits change quickly when new habits take hold. I began spending more and more nights at that trailhead, logging more and more hours on the water. I would often rush down the trail in the morning before guiding to get a few casts in, or else catch the last rays of sun down in the canyon after a day of climbing with friends. I never once saw anyone else down there, and I hope to God no one ever saw me and my horrible cast! I didn’t have the money for a guide nor the luxury of a reliable mentor. What I did have was time, and a whole lot of it. And as I have come to learn, there is no substitute for time on the water. You can watch all the YouTube videos and spend hours practicing your cast in the backyard, but you can’t learn how to get a good drift in turbulent water or how to accept a skunk with a modicum of grace while sitting at home.
* * *
Through all my mistakes and mishaps, I managed to get a decent enough grasp of the sport to feel confident in approaching bigger, more difficult streams. I had gained enough experience to have even a moderate amount of success on the varsity waters of the Lower Deschutes and the nearby Metolius. But the Middle Deschutes remained my home water, and I always made time to sneak down there to fool a few fish. The single-minded focus that fly fishing demands provided me with an escape that I had never been able to find outside of rock climbing. And with fishing, I didn’t even need a partner or dry rock to achieve that state of mind. I could simply go to the river and lose myself, drift off into that moving meditation, and maybe even walk away with something more than the smell of trout on my hands.
The fishing was slow. The river was fast. The snow was cold. Every spring, water is siphoned off from the Middle Deschutes into a series of irrigation canals, reducing the flows to more fishable levels. Every fall, the irrigation ends and the river swells. I hadn’t been down there in months, and when I spoke to my buddy, Chris, at Fin & Fire, he told me it wasn’t worth going down there this time of year…So of course, I loaded up the Prius and drove down the freshly plowed, winding road to the bridge - my “quick fix” spot. I pulled into the parking lot on the side of the road that had yet to be plowed, knowing full well it would be a pain in the ass to get out of there in my FWD hybrid vehicle (and believe me, it was). But I had decided to fish, and nothing was going to change that. I messed around with a double nymph rig for a couple of hours, fishing in runs that I knew were too fast and thrashing about in water that was definitely too deep. I knew I was likely to get skunked. I was just happy to be there. But it sure would be nice to catch one more fish before I flew back home to North Carolina the next day… I may not be the most skilled angler, but I am one of the most stubborn - and it is that persistence (or pigheadedness) that has landed me more fish than any other attribute I possess. So I headed upstream on the trail, leaving fresh tracks behind me, for no one else had been bold enough or dumb enough to fish in these conditions. I was headed for a deep pool about half a mile upriver that had produced for me before, and I knew it was likely my only chance of landing a fish that day. The thick, marshy briar patch that surrounded the pool was covered in snow and bent over in such a way that it provided safe passage right to the edge of the pool, a lucky break for me. I eased myself out to the water, tied on a small black sculpin streamer, and chucked it across the pool to the large volcanic spire on the other side, letting it sink down deep before starting my retrieve. On my third or fourth cast, I felt the familiar tug, and I soon had a skinny 16” brown trout in my net. He looked like he’d missed a meal or two, and he was a bit slow and lethargic. I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. I released him back into the icy water and took a moment to look around. I was far enough away from the road that I could no longer hear the cars passing by. In fact, I couldn’t hear much of anything save the river; the snow has a way of deafening things. The sun was beginning to set, painting the heavy clouds in thick coats of orange and purple. It was so pretty I almost cried. Almost. And as I knelt there in the snow, I was overcome by an overwhelming sense of gratitude for this river, for this region, for the friends I’d made, and for all the happy little accidents that had brought me there.