Fish Rap: Adventures on the Oregon Trail, Part I: At trail’s end

A rustic sign at the entrance to The Dalles City Park marks the official end of the old Oregon Trail.
A rustic sign at the entrance to The Dalles City Park marks the official end of the old Oregon Trail. Special to the Idaho Statesman

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wanted to make it to The Dalles.

A small town on the Oregon-Washington border might seem like an odd choice for an 8-year-old’s bucket list. But the wish dates to 1994, when my second-grade class was granted one hour of free computer time each week.

It was a cherished hour, during which we all looked forward to playing the only game available on the old Macintosh computers: The Oregon Trail.

The rules of The Oregon Trail were as simple as the game’s 32-bit graphics: make it to the end of the trail with at least one member of your pioneer party still alive. And the final, game-winning landmark was — you guessed it — The Dalles.

The trail was littered with rattlesnakes, broken wagon wheels, sick oxen and cholera. It was a rare and joyous feat to navigate The Dalles and reach the Willamette Valley.

In real life, it took me 30 years to finally reach The Dalles. On the plus side, I arrived disease- and injury-free, safe and sound in my blue Honda Civic.

My journey began with an invitation from the chamber of commerce, which was leading a two-day tour of The Dalles area. The chance to finally reach the end of the Oregon Trail was tempting enough — the opportunity to fish in one of the Northwest’s premier salmon and steelhead spots sealed the deal.

As it turns out, getting to The Dalles from the Treasure Valley is a five-hour drive, and there are no turns involved. Just jump on I-84 and head west.

We toured the old Sunshine Mill, which once milled the flour used to make Cheez-Its. The mill has since been repurposed into a vintage winery, but many of its original features remain, reflecting the deep sense of history that permeates The Dalles.

Early the next morning, we set out steelhead fishing on the Deschutes River. It was a beautiful fall morning, with one caveat — a recent storm had turned the Deschutes into Willy Wonka’s chocolate river.

Our guide, Grant Putnam of Grant’s Outdoor Adventures, wisely called an audible and trolled for salmon near the confluence of the Deschutes and the Columbia River. Fishing was slow, but the day was salvaged when one of our companions, Eric, landed a nice, 11-pound chinook.

After photos and “atta boys,” Grant fired up the jet boat and took us upriver. Unfortunately, the fishing matched the conditions. Most of the group lounged in the boat, enjoying a scenic lunch as bighorn sheep patrolled the canyon above. I kept after it, hoping my jig would bump a steelhead’s nose. No dice.

That afternoon, as we drove downtown for a walking tour, I asked if anyone could guess why I’ve always wanted to visit The Dalles. “The Oregon Trail game!” cried Colin, a western Washington radio personality and fellow ’90s school kid.

In town, we visited Liberty Tapworks, Sedition Brewing, Nichols Art Glass studio and Klindt’s, Oregon’s oldest bookstore. After dinner at Zim’s Brau Haus, I turned in early.

Victory went to the fish on Day One, but my adventure on the Oregon Trail was only beginning.

Jordan Rodriguez has been fishing Idaho waters since he was a teen. Share your fish stories, adventures and tips at outdoors

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