“Crazy for the Bug”

Salmonfly Rainbow Trout

“Hands in the Cookie Jar” – photo by Mike Doughty

My Toyota Tacoma rattled down the gravel road — a century-old railroad grade that saw its last locomotives decades ago.

Off my left side, the grade gave way to a steep, rocky slope that plunged toward the blue-green flows of Oregon’s lower Deschutes River.

It looked like hundreds of little sparrows were flying drunkenly over the water, but those sparrows were big bugs — salmonflies up to three inches long and slightly smaller golden stoneflies.

I stared at a salmonfly that caromed off a alder branch and twirled into the water like a crashed helicopter. I hoped to see a big Redsides rainbow trout hammer the bug, but the truck lurched toward the edge of the road, and that steep drop to the water.

I jerked the wheel back on course and steered the truck around a bend. In the distance, dozens of tents, motorhomes, campers, trailers and trucks jammed a camping area. Anglers in baggy waders wandered along the banks. It looked like a camp of war refugees had all decided to go fly fishing.

Welcome to Salmonfly Madness on the Deschutes.

I’m always tempted to say bad things when I first see all these crazed anglers loping through the sagebrush or wading out into the fast currents. But then I realize that I’m one of them.

Most people think of Oregon as a lush, green, damp landscape of massive trees and fertile valleys, but half the state — the part east of the Cascade Range — is mostly sage and juniper desert. The Deschutes flows north through this high desert in a deep canyon toward the giant Columbia River.

There are only a few places where anglers can get onto the Lower Deschutes, and all of them are clogged with dazed, trout-addled anglers in mid-May, when the big black or tannish nymphs crawl out of the water like a miniature migration of 1950s science fiction monsters. Then they burst out of their skins and turn into giant winged insects.

Salmonflies and golden stoneflies look like dangerous relics of the Dinosaur Age, but they’re really harmless, unless you look at them too long and almost crash the damn truck.

The bugs gather in the bankside alder trees, sagebrush and grass, where they crawl around, openly have sex — often with several partners — and sometimes fall into the water.

As you’d expect, the rainbow trout notice all these bugs, and they whack them hard. This is the biggest, best meal of the year for the fish. So, you’d also expect easy catching for slabby, strong-running wild trout that can range up to 20 inches or so.

It doesn’t work that way.

Well, it CAN work that way — if you’re on the river when the warm sun beats down at the right time and the perfect breeze is blowing, and thousands of those bugs all decide to flop onto the river and lay their eggs. The trout go nutso, and the catching for big, strong trout is fantastic, unless your leader is lighter than 2X or 1X and the fish roar down the fast currents and snap your tippet.

Timing all this is impossible, so you’ve just got to be on the river when it happens. That’s why a ragtag army of fly anglers desert jobs, families and sanity and camp for days waiting for two hours of angling nirvana.

I like camping along the Deschutes, but not with mobs of other people. I do my Deschutes camping from a drift boat in July, August and September, when solitude is much easier to find.

I parked the truck and talked to two sweaty anglers who guzzled lunch beer while I rigged up.

“We’re getting some nice fish now and then, but the big flight just hasn’t happened yet,” said a woman with the deep tan of a fly angler on an extended safari.

I’ve fished this hatch for decades (yeah, I know) and I’ve hit the mass egg-laying Trout-O-Rama four or five times. Each time is like a fever dream, and it takes me a few minutes to realize it’s really happening. I always hope for the best during Salmonfly Madness, but I come prepared to work, and maybe catch and release some memorable trout on big, floating flies.

That work starts with getting away from the crowd. As I’m on foot today, that means marching upstream or downstream away from the people. I usually march at least two miles to escape the mob.

Then I look for three things:

1. Trees that hang over the river. Their branches hover over the water and create deep, shaded caves. The big bugs stumble around in the branches and fall into the shaded water. The trout are waiting.

2. Steep, scary banks with rocks that slide under your feet as you inch down to deep runs with lots of brush along the banks. You have to push through the brush — rattlesnakes and spiders live here — and then get into the river, where you clamber over sunken rocks and make short casts into lies along the bank. This fishing is all about covering the water and moving. Bruised shins are certain.

3. Big, swirling eddies that kiss a steep, deep bank. Eddies are the longshot spots here. Sometimes eddy fish will nose you big fly and swim away. Other times, they hammer it.

All of these places hold big trout that really love to eat big bugs. Humans get nervous in these places. That’s good, as only the craziest of anglers will put in the work to find the scattered fish that quietly chow down on these bugs for days on end.  On this day, I flipped my Chubby Chernobyl flies into the tree caves. I fished two steep banks. I dropped my big flies into two eddies. I got a lot of boils and swirls under my flies, but no takers.

Amy Hazel, my guru from the Deschutes River Fly Shop in Maupin, Oregon, always goes fishing with me during Salmonfly Madness. Well, at least her voice does.

“Change your fly right away if the fish rejects your fly,’ Amy always says in my head. “Don’t cast again. Change to a different fly.”

I did this every time. When the trout rejected a golden stone imitation, I tied on the salmonfly, and vice versa. I tied on smaller flies and bigger flies.

Four hours into the day, and it was 85 degrees, with no wind and no fish. I saw plenty of beautiful rainbow trout, but they would rather boil or swirl than eat. Then I came upon another tree cave. I sat on the bank and changed my fly to a Norm Woods Special, which is basically a Stimulator with wiggly rubber legs. I wondered if the trout were tired of the Chubby Chernobyl, which is often the fly of choice during this hatch.

I made a sidearm cast and pitched the fly up under the tree branches. It bobbed downstream, and a fish flashed underneath it. I was so hungry for a hookup that I nearby ripped the fly off the water.

I tied on the golden stonefly version of the Norm Woods Special, which is smaller than the salmonfly version. At this point, I had six different salmonfly or golden stonefly imitations riding on my drying patch. I made another sidearm cast. The fly landed in the tree cave, and a big head came up and sucked it right down.

Later, when I finally got back to the truck after hiking about three miles in the dark, I rolled down my sweat-soaked pants and looked at my bruised legs. My feet barked after hiking six miles in waders. Cuts from rose bushes and blackberry vines laced my hands. I found a tick crawling inside my hat.

I sat on the tailgate in the cool dusk and chugged a bottle of water from the cooler. I remembered that big fish rolling out from under that tree, wallowing on the surface and then pulling line off my reel in long, smooth, chattering surges.

Salmonfly Madness is really one of the sanest things I do all year.