Burning Chrome 

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Photos by Louis Cahill

Photos by Louis Cahill

By Louis Cahill

The sun never rises. Not today, at least not here on the Deschutes River.

The light is an eerie yellow-orange. The air is hot and dry, and the wind is howling. It’s unsettling. You’d expect it to feel like fog or overcast but it doesn’t. It’s almost the opposite. When you catch a glimpse of the sun, it’s just a vague red blotch in the sky. The air burns the soft tissues of my eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Everything smells and tastes like a camp fire. I cough constantly and spit up chunks that look like cottage cheese into the river. The Deschutes River Canyon fades as I swing my fly from behind a hot, gray vail. It feels like the whole world is on fire.

IMG_4936A few miles away the Columbia River gorge is consumed in flame. One of the prettiest places I know, reduced to ash and coal. The fire is so intense that it jumps the mile wide Columbia River and sets Washington ablaze. Stupid kids shooting fireworks. They caught them, but what are you going to do with a bunch of kids who burnt down the lives and livelihoods of tens of thousands of Oregonians. Fire fighters do an amazing job of saving what can be saved while the rest of us just watch it burn.

I left my home in Atlanta less than a day before Hurricane Irma was scheduled to hit. The day before it had devastated the Florida Keys. It’s still hard to picture. I had been in the Keys the week before, when Harvey was washing Houston from the map. While the East drowns, the West burns and I don’t know which is worse. I have learned this much during my stay in Oregon. When they call for evacuation from a storm, Texans may say, “We’ll see what happens,” or “I’m not leaving my home,” but when they call for evacuation from fire, everybody goes. No one “rides it out.”

Everyone in the camp admitted to having gotten up in the middle of the night to look for an orange glow on the horizon. As terrible as the fire in the gorge is, it isn’t the forest being lost that most of us are concerned about. We have all been watching the count of returning steelhead to the Columbia system and the news is no better than that of the fire.

2016 was one of the worst steelhead returns in decades.

DSCF9437-2As we stand in the Deschutes, 2017 returns are only about a quarter of last year, which biologists called a complete year-class collapse. Burned trees will grow back in time but, with ocean conditions worsening, steelhead populations may be harder to replace. It’s anyone’s guess if we are seeing a few bad years or a worsening trend.

Notably absent are the B-run fish. The big steelhead headed for Idaho, who stop in the Deschutes for a breather in the cold water. This year only eleven-hundred are expected to enter the system. Far fewer will find their way here. If you were to draw a bubble-graph with one bubble representing B-run steelhead in the Deschutes and another representing Georgia steelheaders, the intersection would not inspire confidence.

With the gorge burning and the steelhead runs so poorly reported, most anglers have elected to stay home, or maybe fish somewhere else. The river is as lonesome a place as I’ve ever seen it. Normally a traffic jam, the Deschutes is pleasantly deserted. The water is the clearest I’ve ever seen it and flowing strong. If breathing the air wasn’t as painful as pepper spray I’d be swinging flies in paradise.

DSCF9793I am lost in thoughts of fire and fish when I feel the familiar pluck, pluck, pull of a hot summer steelhead. It seems that someone showed up after all. After a few good runs and cartwheels I have a beautiful wild fish at my feet. She’s taken a little red hair-wing swung on a dry line. What a gift. As I reach for her tail she rolls and the barbless fly comes free. We are done without a handshake. I can’t help but wonder if this is as close as I will come to holding a fish this trip.

When the group meets up for lunch, I’m excited to hear that almost everyone has at least had a fish on and several landed. We’ve done better than expected and spirits are high. The afternoon session proves productive as well. The next day the wind changes direction and the sun returns. Mysteriously, and beyond any explanation, we are having good fishing. What’s even more surprising is that we are catching wild fish. The numbers of wild fish returning have been depressingly low, and yet all but one fish we have caught has been wild.


On the morning of the third day I have a few nice fish to my credit, but my morning is slow. Most of the anglers in the group have landed a fish but I haven’t had a pull. We make one last stop before heading back to camp for lunch and a midday nap. Curtis Ciszek, my guide, puts me alone in a deep run while he takes two anglers upstream.

“The trick here is to think deep thoughts,” Curtis tells me. “Get it down.”

I look at my T-11 sink tip and back to Curtis. “I’ve got T-14,” I offer.

“Well ok,” he replies, “If we’re going to do that, I’ve got a fly for you.”

Curtis digs in his box and comes back with a huge black fly tied with lead eyes.

“There’s probably a twenty pound chinook in there. Call me and tell me you’re screwed when you hook him.”

Casting the heavy fly and sink tip is a chore but it digs in and swings well. I cast the fly to the far side of the seam and step down with it as it sinks. I lead the fly in and it swings slow and straight, right into the seam. Four or five steps into the run my fly stops hard. There are a couple of head shakes and all hell breaks loose. The fish digs deep and heads downstream for the rapid below the pool. I pull low and hard toward the bank as I run through knee deep water after the fish.

I grapple for the walkie-talkie in my waders, press the key and say, “Curtis, I’m screwed!”

By the time Curtis gets to me with the net, I have the fish turned away from the rapid. It’s a heavy fish. It would be cool to land a nice chinook. They are the only salmon I really enjoy targeting. I’ll have some work to do yet, though. I’m just getting my running line back on the reel. Curtis and his dog Rowlf stand by as I work the fish in. As it gets close I lift its head and we get our first look at the beast. It’s no chinook. It’s a beautiful B-run buck. A big wild steelhead headed for Idaho.


Photo Curtis Ciszek

Curtis scoops the big silver fish into the net. I can’t believe it’s real. It’s the biggest fish I’ve ever caught on the Deschutes and to catch it this year seems unbelievable. One of eleven-hundred. I hold the fish carefully with this head in the water and Curtis takes a couple of quick photos with my camera. I release the fish and pray that Curtis has the shot. I’m not taking the chance of over stressing this fish. He has important work to do in Idaho.

I show the photo around at lunch and get a few pats on the back. Everyone has had a good morning. Better than we ever expected. Even if the afternoon does not give up a fish, we have had a great trip. After lunch I have a shot of whisky and grab a quick nap in my hammock. This is as content as I get.

DSCF9807When we switch boats and hit the river for the afternoon session, traffic is picking up. No doubt word is out that the fishing has been good and local anglers are turning out. Guide Barrett Ames takes us for a jet boat ride upriver and finds some fresh water. Barrett drops my buddy Mark Haffenreffer off on an island and takes me and another angler downstream. We barely get to our run before Mark hooks up. It’s exciting, but brief. The fish unbuttons and Mark has to take a minute to walk it off before starting the run over.

DSCF0175-EditBefore I have made my first cast Mark is hooked up again. It’s moments like this when you question the moniker “Fish of a thousand casts.”  Barrett grabs the net and heads up river to assist while I start to fish my run. After a few casts I look upstream to see if Mark has landed his fish. Barrett has him by the straps of his waders hustling him downstream, his bright orange backing glowing in the air. I reel in and grab my camera.

Mark was nearly spooled but by the time I get there he’s close to sealing the deal. Curtis, running down river with the rest of the group, has stopped to see the action. Barrett makes one perfect scoop and nets a beautiful, wild B-run hen. Mark is beside himself. It’s his biggest steelhead ever. The sun is out and the light is perfect for a couple of quick photos and a release video.

Watching that fish swim away strong and healthy, I can’t help but feel something I never expected from this trip to the Deschutes. Optimism.

There is no doubt that steelhead are in trouble everywhere. Especially the Idaho fish. They are like hens teeth but seeing two of them this day, a male and a female, I can’t help but picture them meeting up on the Clearwater or Salmon. Hovering together over a redd and making babies that I might one day hold in the clear cold waters of Oregon.

Even as I am heartbroken over the desperate counts of returning fish and the destruction of the forest, I am reminded of how resilient these fish and these rivers truly are. If given a chance, they will find a way to survive. If we can make just a few good decisions on their behalf they will come back and they will meet us here on the river.

This year’s Deschutes Steelhead Camp is Sept 10-13, 13-16 & 16-19.

I hope you can join us! CLICK HERE FOR DETAILS.

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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One thought on “Burning Chrome 

  1. Awesome story Loiuis. You have captured how special of a place the lower Deschutes river is perfectly. My home waters. Can’t wait to get back out there’s this spring to target the chromers non-anadromous cousins.

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