The calendar says winter is still a couple weeks away, but the cold, rain and snow are in Oregon right now. When the Oregon winter arrives, I start going to the Crooked River, a fun little tailwater that flows out of Bowman Dam about 20 miles from the town of Prineville.
I always expect three things on the Crooked River tailwater in early winter: lots of wild trout — but very few big ones, at least a few hours of sunshine on my face, and a scenic five-hour round-trip from Hood River and back.
Heather was in the midst of a raspy, hacking two-week battle with a nasty cold but she wanted to soak in a little sun and catch a few wild rainbow trout . We we loaded the 4X4 pickup with gear, dogs and food — and headed out into a snowstorm.
The sun beat through the clouds and snow just after we passed the turnoff to Mount Hood Meadows Ski Area on Highway 35 and began the long drop from the alpine slopes to the Central Oregon sagebrush. The west slopes of the Cascade Range catches most of the rain and snow from winter storms, which leaves the Crooked River, which is east of the Cascades, in a nice rain shadow.
Central Oregon is sagebrush, sandy soil and basalt rock country — the exact opposite of what most people think of when you say “Oregon.” Lots of people believe Oregon is mostly thick, green, rain-dripping stands of massive Douglas fir trees on steep mountainsides. In fact, most of Oregon — from the middle of the state east to the Idaho border — is arid, high desert sagebrush and small ranching and farming towns. Prineville is just about in the center of Oregon, and this is cow country. It’s also sunshine country when western Oregon is slogging through endless rain storms.
The Crooked flows through a little basalt canyon, threads through some flatter ranch land and then lopes through Prineville on its way to Lake Billy Chinook, where the Crooked enters the lower Deschutes River. The sun felt good on our faces as we slowly cruised along the Crooked and looked for rising trout. The clean, cutting scent of sagebrush and juniper trees flowed through the open windows and into our heads. The Crooked is as weedy and bug-filled as a Montana or Idaho spring creek, and the many wild trout are usually feeding.
“We’re going to catch a lot of fish,” I told Heather. She smiled.
“If we have to nymph, will you put on one of those little balloon bobber thingies?” she said.
“It will probably be a dry fly bite all day,” I said.
Famous last words.
We stopped at a favorite spot a couple miles downstream of Bowman Dam. I rigged up rods while Heather’s beloved dogs — Berkeley the black lab and Cooper the mentally challenged terrier mix — watered the boulders and sagebrush and cadged bites of beef jerky. The day felt dry and toasty, unless you stepped into the shade, which felt like walking into a freezer. Patches of frost still lingered in the dark corners of the river bank.
Not one fish rose in this usually productive spot, and I didn’t see one blue wing olive mayfly or midge on the water.
So I rigged up two rods for nymphing.
“The fish will probably start rising as soon as we start casting,” I said.
Two hours later, we hadn’t seen a rise or hooked a fish. It was weird. I stuck my hand in water and it stung with the cold. Winter was definitely here. Two weeks of bitter cold before our trip had slowed down the bite — even on this bottom-release dam tailwater.
We drove downstream to another prime spot. The best winter fishing on the Crooked happens where deep, weedy water flows into a bouncing, rocky riffle that then rolls into another deep, weedy run.
We parked and hiked down to the river. Heather sat in the sun with her two dogs. I began nymphing a tandem rig of Zebra Midge and scud fly where the shallow riffle started to slow into the deeper, weedy water.
The sun felt warm on my back, and my bobber jerked to the side. Finally a fish. Ten inches of beautiful wild Redsides rainbow trout rolled on the surface and sluggishly wiggled to my hand.
I began to suspect that the trout were too damn cold today, and it would take a few hours of sun to wake them up. Heather was half-asleep and snuggled up with her dogs in the tall grass when I reported that the fish were finally biting.
“On dries?” she said from her sunny, warm spot.
“Nymphs,” I said.
She settled back into her warm bower.
A couple of hours later trout started to rise to a light blue wing olive mayfly hatch. The fish slowly porpoised to the drifting flies. Heather watched from a warm spot high above the river as I hooked and bungled two nice fish — and spooked the rest.
“I can see your little fly from way up here,” she said.
I looked up and saw Heather huddled against Berkeley. They were in the sun, but she looked a little cold and pinched. It was time to get Heather off the water and into the warm truck before the sun fell below the canyon rim and turned off the solar heat. The short hike back to the truck turned chilly as the sun vanished in this part of the canyon. We took off our waders and turned the truck heat up high.
We drove downstream along the river toward Prineville. It was about 4 pm or so, and we had about 70 minutes of daylight left. I felt bad that we had driven almost three hours to fish over rising winter trout and hadn’t found many trout at all. Heather, who pushed through her cold all day, hadn’t gotten to cast a dry fly. I slowed the truck as we neared a roadside pool that is often good at the end of the day.
“Watch, we’ll see a bunch of fish rising here,” I said. “Especially now that we’re out of our waders.”
I am the perpetual optimist on any fishing trip. But some spots on this winter river can turn on before dusk, especially if the sun has warmed the water for most of the afternoon. That said, not one of my predictions had played out on this day.
“Are you on drugs?’ Heather said. “It’s not happening today.”
I slowed the truck anyway. The rings of trout slowly rising to little mayflies filled the pool. I pulled over.
“Look at that,” I said. “Look at that! Dozens of rising fish right at the end of the day!”
I reached to open the door and grab my waders. Heather put her hand on my arm. Her fingers still felt cold from the long afternoon outside.
“Don’t look,” she said. “Just don’t look.”
Warm air pulsed through the heater vents. I put the truck back into gear, and we drove away from all those late-rising trout — and toward a hot dinner.