Steelhead Benchmark (Still Stands)

I’m one of those fishermen for whom fishing is always great even when catching isn’t so hot.

When I go out on the Lower Deschutes river with my son, Chris O’Donnell (owner/operator of River Runner Outfitters) whether on foot or in his drift boat, my day is made just by being with him, enjoying the sound of the river, feeling the motion of the boat, or the thrill of navigating (with him on the oars) whitewater that will flatten on the rocks any boat with an inexperienced captain.

On a trout trip, a single fat redside rainbow trout will more than make my day. On a steelhead trip, a grab, as we say, or a bite will suffice. I don’t knock myself out to hook fish. They’re a bonus.

But sometimes you get a day for the books.

Late last month Chris took me out on a day trip on our homewaters, the Lower Deschutes River. (He was the guide, but I insisted that he fish too.) Our quarry was summer steelhead, a close relative of the rainbow trout, except that the steelhead is anadramous, that is, born in a freshwater stream and then grows to maturity after migrating to the Pacific Ocean. They return, like salmon, to spawn, but unlike salmon, may make two or three trips back and forth before cashing in their chips.

At Chris’s house, we had a pre-dawn breakfast of hot Quaker Instant Oatmeal and strong coffee. Then we headed for the river. A friend accompanied us.

This past year I’ve developed a knee situation that has curtailed skiing and I thought that it might end fishing – at least wading, which I love to do. I can’t flex and put weight on the right knee without support from the left. Makes climbing stairs awkward. But my son would brook no excuses during the arrangement of the trip. “I’ll be right next to you as you move through the run, Dad.”

True to his word, Chris put me in more easily waded runs (less big rocks to trip on) and stayed right with me. I also learned that I could take a stab of pain to avoid folding and taking an unscheduled swim, but his strong arm was what really kept me out of the drink.

Remember I said a “grab” meant a good day of steelheading? This was a day for my record book. Chris set me up for two hookups and two steelhead landed. (We released them both – one hatchery, one wild.) I had this feeling that I was experiencing someone else’s life. We were swinging Intruder-style flies using spey rods and shooting line that can reach out on the river a loooong ways, but both of my fish were hooked on a second cast, darned near at my feet.

Our friend was also two for two, and Chris, who spent relatively little time angling, fished the runs after us, and gave us first choice wherever we fished, finished up three for four (one got loose). He also hooked two big rainbows, but they didn’t count on a steelhead day. All fish were released.

Three guys, seven for eight. Not bad.

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