Fish Don’t Live In Ugly Places
“There, did you see that?” Ben Kittell, our fly fishing guide on the Lower Deshutes River pointed a few feet from where I balanced in the current. He whispered, “A fish just broke the surface”. Without a clue of how to entice that fish onto my light fly rod, I hand it to Ben and ask him to show me that casting technique one more time. In Ben’s hands my fly rod comes to life and he once again talks me through “short line nymphing”. This involves casting tiny ‘nymph like’ flies upstream and a few feet below the surface with a tiny lead weight attached near the end of the line. Ben advises me to watch my line closely as the fly drifts with the current, and to set the hook when I feel the slightest tug of the line. Ben explains that nymph fishing is great for beginners because most fish feed below the surface. In other words, as a novice, I have a better chance of catching a fish by nymphing.
This was our first visit to Oregon, which was planned around a four day fishing trip in the Sisters area. Sisters is a small town named after the three surrounding 10,000 ft ‘sister’ mountain peaks called Faith, Hope and Charity. My original plan had been to hike along the streams as I usually do while Glen, my husband, fly fishes. However, I was so taken by the beauty and rushing sounds of the rivers along the way that I decided that now would be as good a time to learn to fly fish. They never put a fish in an ugly place,” Glen said as encouragement. My husband loves everything about fly fishing and had been trying to interest me in the sport for years.
Glen and I walked into The Fly Fisher’s Place in Sisters and made arrangements for a guided float trip with local expert Ben Kittell. Although my heart was set on the beautiful Metolius River, I discovered that guides are not allowed on that river. Glen convinced me it would be better if I started with a guide first before striking out on my own to fish the Metolius .
“The stonefly hatch is on at the Deschutes River” Ben said. “It’s an all-day float trip. The fish are found near the banks, where stoneflies fall from nearby trees. The catching is particularly good in the late afternoon when the stoneflies are blown into the river by afternoon breezes.”
I should probably mention here that Ben was not the weathered, laconic guide I expected. He did not wear a hat with artificial flies stuck in the brim nor was he stingy with his fish secrets. With his looks and gentle, patient manner, Ben could have been cast in Robert Redford’s film, “A River Runs Through It.”
Although this is a float trip, it is illegal to fish the Lower Deshutes River from a boat. The idea is to float to the juiciest feeding grounds by boat, and then step into the water to fish. That is why within minutes of the boat launch I am wading slowly in strong, thigh deep current, fighting to keep my balance. It is a struggle to cast and stay upright on the rocky riverbed. I am wearing what feels like waterproof footy pajamas in borrowed boots that feel slick on the mossy rocks. It is all I can do to stand, much less master the cast that Ben patiently teaches me. On our stops along the river, I wade awkwardly from the boat and repeat my casting mantra ‘pick up, back cast, forward cast, let down, mend… ‘. All with my feet planted in a way that will prevent me from being swept downstream. A visual learner, I ask Ben to show me yet again and he elegantly swooshes my rod back and forth to demonstrate the correct casting technique. There are so many things to remember about casting, that with the first few stops of the boat I have what kind Buddhists might call ‘Beginners Mind’ and my mother calls ‘Perfectionist Tendencies”. I am focusing so hard that Ben reminds me to ‘think like a fish’… which instantly got me out of my overthinking mode and into studying the river environment. It was interesting how shifting my attention away from myself relaxed my arm and body. Suddenly even the current did not seem menacing.
I look upstream at Glen. He is artfully doing his thing. An experienced and passionate fly fisherman, Glen values our happy marriage too much to try and teach me himself. Lucky for me, our guide Ben is as patient as he is knowledgeable. Tying and casting nymph lines is a ritual which for Ben seems second nature as he zings the line back and forth laying the artificial nymph down on the water in a smooth beautiful motion.
After a few hours I have the hang of what Ben calls a ‘good beginner cast’. It was the setting of the hook that took some work. My eagerness combined with the slightest pull from a submerged rock or weed was enough to prompt me to jerk my rod skyward in the nibbling phase, thereby ensuring that the fish was released before the barbless hook was set. To make it easier for me, Ben stuck a small, white floating indicator on my line to help me know when to ‘set’ the hook.
In truth, I couldn’t help doubting about my chances of catching a fish. There were swarms of real insects flying just above the water. If trout could not be bothered to ‘rise’ for the real thing what would make it desire the imposter on the end of my line. Ben assured me that trout love those large, tasty stoneflies. If I could convince the trout that my lure was a stonefly I would soon be reeling in a trout.
As Glen reeled in and released his first trout of the day I consoled myself with the thought that no matter what happened, I was outdoors surrounded by stunning rock formations and lush, green riverbanks. Plus, my cast was improving and I was enjoying myself. Why had I waited so long to fly fish? As Glen reeled in and released trout in the 11 – 15 inch range I tried ever harder to ‘think like a fish’, cast properly and hold my ground in the rocky, river bed all at the same time. Since Glen was catching fish, I knew that Ben was right. I needed to cast in a way that convinced the trout that my fly was a real insect. As proof, the first time I placed a perfect cast, I felt a strong tug. If only I had remembered which direction to pull the line to set the hook, I would have been able to catch that trout. Then I could have magnanimously released it instead of see it swim away on its own accord. With the loss of that fish, it became very important for me to hook a fish and bring it into the net.
Strangely enough, my one solid catch that day was caught on a back cast. Even our guide was surprised by that. My first fish catch was an important milestone for me. I felt such a connection with my trout that I wanted to keep him – maybe for a mount. But then Ben pointed out that it was better to release the trout and give other fishermen the same joy I felt. Additionally, my trout was on the small side. But that trout had a stout heart and fought the good fight right up until Ben scooped him into the net.
After I came down off the adrenalin rush of catching that fish, I realized that I had been wrong about fly fishing. I used to think that fly fishing was not about catching fish, but an art form. But even releasing the trout was exciting. I had to administer fish CPR to get my trout perky for return to its habitat. I felt such a thrill catching that wild trout that I was ‘hooked’ on fly fishing.
Wearing only shorts beneath my waterproof overalls, I started getting cold as the sun set and breezes blew down the river. I returned to the float boat and watched Glen cast, catch and release until it was too dark for him and Ben to tie flies on the line.
We had been on the Deschutes a full 10 hours. The next morning Glen and I slept in and decided that even though my technique was not ready for prime time, today we would fish from the banks of the famous Metolius River. First we needed to buy some green drake flies and stopped again at The Fly Fisher’s Place. I was surprised to see Ben manning the shop after such a previously long day on the Deschutes. But he seemed fully revived and took out a map to brief Glen on the best places to access and fish the Metolius River. As we left the shop Glen remarked, “A great fly shop. Ben sold me $20 worth of flies and gave me $200 worth of advice.” We felt like locals.
Our plan was to visit the head of the Metolius River before heading downstream to fish. I knew the Metolius was spring-fed, but it was still a surprise to see a river pouring out of the side of a hill. The sign at the end of the lush, tree bordered path said that the Metolius wells to the surface at the rate of 50,000 gallons a minute from underground springs. Those clear, blue headwaters set the stage for the rare beauty and scenery of the Metolius River.
On Ben’s advice, we drove eight miles further downstream from the headwaters to the Wizard Falls fish hatchery which is open to the public. I was surprised to read that there are no fish stocked in the Metolius River – it’s full of wild trout. The hatchery uses the spring water for hatching operations, but the five million hatched trout, as well as salmon eggs, are sent to other rivers, lakes and streams in Oregon.
The trout in the Metolius River are famously smart. I might go a stretch further and say they are downright wily. Even Glen was not savvy enough to catch one of those blue ribbon trout. The fish were there alright – from the banks above I could see silvery shapes floating lazily in the holes and working their way upstream. But the bank of the river was as close as I came to a Metolius trout that day. However, I had no regrets – the beauty of that swift river over mossy rocks was more than enough reason to fish the Metolius River.
Four days, three Sisters, two rivers and one new fly fisherman. I don’t want to wait too long to get back to it.
NOTE ABOUT WRITER:
Julie Bradley is new to fly fishing, but is more proficient catching pelagic fish on a hand line from the back of a sailboat. She and her husband Glen lived on their boat for seven years and sailed around the world. Julie and Glen now live and fly fish in the high country of Arizona.
You may arrange for Ben Kittell to guide you at The Fly Fisher’s Place (541) 549-3474 in Sister’s, Oregon. Tell him you want the apple brownies with your lunch. You won’t be sorry!