Wild and Scenic Grande Ronde Steelhead Report
Fishing update for the Wild and Scenic
By James Nash
The Wallowa and Grande Ronde rivers have steelhead in them and earlier this week, the conditions for catching them reached what will likely be the most optimum levels for the Spring season. Winding Water River Expeditions floated from Minam to Wildcat Bridge with two anglers who work for the Rolls Royce of the fly rod industry, R. L. Winston Rod Co. My experience guiding anglers, by nature, usually involves instructing people who are on the youthful end of the experience spectrum. On this trip I found myself faced with the less common challenge of guiding men who were better fishermen than me. And so it was a perfect storm. The rivers had stabilized their flows and colored slightly due to last week’s drizzle, the steelhead were there in force, the weather was warm and overcast, we had the finest fly rods made in the United States and two anglers who, having had a hand in building them, knew how they should be used.
On the Wallowa we caught fish on black, chartreuse, yellow, brown, orange, pink, peacock, and white colors; which reinforces the theory that fish do care about color but it is the aspect they care about the least. We hooked fish in the tailouts of long riffles and in deeper pools, as you might expect, and almost exclusively on a dead-drift presentation. The hatchery steelhead dogged somewhat and who could blame them after all they’d been through. Although these fish are close to their terminus, they do not give up easily as we experienced in spades later on when Jock hooked and landed a shining wild hen his 9’ #6 BIIX. After we released the fish with a trembling voice jock whispered “that’s what I came here for…” Then he looked at his rod with amazement and gratitude and back to the water from which his fish had come. He had just experienced something he’d thought about for decades and it was better than he’d imagined.
At night, full to bursting on gourmet three-course meals cooked by WWRE guide Morgan Jenkins, we saw large stoneflies attracted to the flames of our campfire. During the day Blue Winged Olives, Caddis and Skwala stoneflies came off sporadically on both rivers. The Wallowa was easier floating than it had been earlier in the week, although the rock garden below Blind Falls was a predictably sweaty trial.
On our last night we listened to rain flowing in little creeks off the roof of our wall tent, kept cozy by a wood stove. Enough water accumulated in my drift boat to require 20 minutes of bailing with a Folger’s can in the morning. The Grande Ronde came up 1,000 CFS to just over 3,000 and the water turned to the brown side of steelhead green. That morning mist clung to the rims where four bighorn sheep watched us eat breakfast and pack camp. The mountain goats we’d seen the day before were concealed in clouds.
After a Spring rain the canyon looks at the same time as if it were both very old and also brand new. The first arrow leaf balsam roots begin opening showing spots of yellow along the hillsides where soon bears will be out eating them. The old gray moss hangs off the fir trees dripping the night’s rain and the morning’s dew. The river itself, milder on the surface than before the rain slaps gently on the hull of the boat and beneath steelhead move from one place to the next towards the gravelly redd where they were born. If you didn’t know better you might think you were the first person to ever float through those canyons.
Stopping at pools and riffles, Adam and Jock stand on the edge of the water carving curves in the air with the long slow strokes of their Spey rods and then standing still as the line unrolls across the water, straightens, pauses briefly then falls into the current and begins swinging downstream then across and then straightening below them before the cycle begins anew. It isn’t every day we get a chance to be quiet and graceful, but this time of year on the Grande Ronde you can hardly avoid it. The pace and the experience are of the type that you start missing before you’ve even left, and you plan on returning. In addition to all of that, we caught Grande Ronde steelhead every day, hooked more than we landed, and left the river as we found it.