Bend, Ore. — Sometimes anglers focus too much on size. They can spend all day at Crane Prairie Reservoir in Central Oregon hoping for that one trophy rainbow trout — and not register even a hint of a bite.
While big fish are often the aim of anglers, sometimes I would prefer nonstop action over a single monster trout. A prime place for titillating trout action this time of year is the Upper Deschutes near the headwaters. Sure, the rainbow and brook trout there are pretty small — but they are incredibly active. Fishermen will not get bored there like they might on Crane Prairie, staring at a strike indicator or bobber all day long.
I recently armed myself with my fly rod and a bevy of elk hair caddis patterns, I made the 40-mile drive from Bend to the Upper Deschutes between Little Lava Lake and Crane Prairie. After parking at Deschutes Bridge, a few miles south of Lava Lake, I trudged downstream through the forest and thick marsh to find some decent fishing holes. I noted the clear water of the small brook, and where deeper pools formed downstream of fallen lodgepole pine trees.
While fish in that stretch typically range from just 6 to 9 inches, fish in the 12- to 18-inch range are not uncommon, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. I waded in a few feet, as the water there is mostly shallow, and cast to a spot just downstream of some logs. The trout immediately attacked my tan elk hair caddis as they rose to the surface time and again like they had not eaten in weeks. A gentle lift of the rod was all that was necessary on the strike, so as to not pull the fly out of the tiny mouths of the small fish. I landed and released 14 fish — most of them in the 6- to 9-inch range — in less than two hours.
The fishing soon thereafter seemed to slow down, as the trout quit rising to the surface with such intensity, and when they did rise, they seemed to not bite quite as hard. I hiked downstream in search of new holes. Another reason I enjoy fishing the stretch of the Deschutes below Little Lava Lake is the sense of adventure. With relatively few well-worn trails, anglers must bushwhack through thick lodgepole pine forest and marshland to find ideal casting spots.
Bringing extra flies is a must, as getting them snagged in the thick bush is fairly common. The Deschutes River flows 252 miles from Little Lava to the Columbia River. The uppermost 7 miles below Little Lava is the only remaining section of the river not controlled by dams, providing the ideal spawning habitat for native rainbow trout and kokanee, according to the ODFW. Fish species in that section also include wild brook trout, stocked rainbow trout and native whitefish. Dry-fly fishing is generally good all summer on the Upper Deschutes, and in addition to elk hair caddis, anglers should try ants, beetles and mosquitoes.
The section between the headwaters just below Little Lava Lake to Wickiup Reservoir opened on May 24 this year. Fishing it just after opening seems to boost angler success, as the trout are at their hungriest early in the season, according to ODFW. The stretch of the Upper Deschutes between Little Lava Lake and Crane Prairie is limited to flies and lures and closes Sept. 30. The bag limit is five brook trout per day, 8-inch minimum, and all rainbow trout must be released.
Some of the stretches below Little Lava Lake are slow and fairly deep, where bigger fish are often located. Finding the deeper sections of the mostly shallow stream is key. Access to the Upper Deschutes above Crane Prairie is available at several pullouts, or off Forest Service roads 4270 and 40. After hiking downstream and then back up to Deschutes Bridge, I had landed and released 18 fish on the day. Yes, they were small guys, but they sure were feisty and fun.
To me, hiking, exploring and hooking lots of little fish beats sitting on a boat for hours and hours, waiting for a chance at the record books that most likely will never come.