Here’s the scenario: three 57-somethings on a backpacking adventure to trout waters nestled deep within the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon. The first step of our journey took us to a forested trailhead overlooking the Wenaha River. It was early August and 90 F at high noon. Three miles, six switchbacks, several piles of bear scat and a quart of water later we reached the river and started to fish.
As it turned out, the first few hours were uneventful. I hooked and lost one rainbow trout after swapping out a Renegade for a Stimulator then a Bucktail Royal Coachman (All standard patterns that worked on the west side of the Blues). Ken caught two 13-inch trout on a Parachute Adams and Ted enticed a 4-incher to an unnamed pattern he tied himself. While working our way downstream to base camp, we experienced a violent thunderstorm and got drenched.
The seed for this hike-and-fish adventure found fertile ground after being planted on two long-time friends during a microbrew moment. Our preparation mirrored respective personalities. Ted shaped up by hiking Badger Mountain with a pack full of rocks. I carried my golf clubs around the course for several rounds. Ken, a regular visitor to a court club, followed his wife around the shopping mall. Otherwise, we relied on zip-off leg pants for everyday wear, closed-toe sandals for wading and trusted that our ancient Boy Scout mess kits still had utility.
The Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness Area, created in 1978, is rugged country with over 200 miles of managed trails and several tributaries to explore. The larger landscape was shaped, in part by lava flows that inundated the region around 16 million years ago. According to geologists, subsequent uplifting of the Blue Mountains into a broad arch caused the rivers to cut steep deep canyons that are evident today. The Wenaha River skirts the southern edge of the Wilderness Area as it flows eastward from the Blues, dropping in elevation nearly 4,000 feet from its origin near Bones Spring- a stone’s throw from the headwaters of the Walla Walla River- to its confluence with the Grande Ronde River at Troy. Steep side-slopes, rugged basaltic ridges and outcroppings rise as much as 1,600 feet from the valley floor to the plateau above.
The primary recreation activity within the Wilderness Area was traditionally elk hunting. Recently, however, excellent fishing and spectacular scenery has drawn an increase in anglers, backpackers and horseback riders during the summer and early fall months. The normal hiking season is from June through November with many higher elevation trailheads inaccessible until July depending on seasonal snowpack. Trout fishing is best after snowmelt subsides in mid-summer.
Much of the Wenaha River is characterized by broad cobble floodplains with adjacent shallow riffles connected by short rapids to deep boulder-lined pools. The largest pools are present where the river bends to challenge a bedrock-confining bank. Three general sections of river can be described based on access trails (See Table 1). The “lower canyon” extends from the mouth approximately 9 miles to Hoodoo Crossing, the middle section covers the next 7 miles to Cross Canyon trail, and the upper section extends upstream to near the Elk Flat trail intersects the Forks. Each section has unique characteristics due to differences in gradient and volume of flow.
The Wenaha has remained one of the best rainbow trout streams in northeastern Oregon and consequently is a popular local guide trip. The “bows” are not large, but they are plentiful because you have to work to get to them. The Wenaha also has abundant mountain whitefish and bull trout. Anadromous Chinook salmon and steelhead enter the lower river in the fall.
Although with protected status under the Endangered Species Act, bull trout populations from the Wenaha River remain productive enough to allow for targeted catch-and-release fishing downstream of the confluence of the North and South Forks. According to fish biologists, there exists two general life history types: fluvial-type fish that migrate downstream to overwinter and forage in the Grande Ronde and Snake Rivers after spawning; and, resident fish that remain in the Wenaha drainage year-round. Recent studies indicate that Wenaha River bull trout migrate as far as 60 miles with most spawning occurring upstream of Butte Creek.
There’s a long history of anglers chasing big bull trout in the Wenaha. In early fall 1958, newspaper columnist Vance Orchard and a pal hiked into the upper drainage in pursuit of “whopping big Dolly Varden trout”, having “packsack and grub” for an overnight stint. Unfortunately, their Dollies “had been up, spawned and gone back downstream”, according to a fellow angler who beat them to the punch two days prior.
Having a spinning rod is one option for bull trout. Try tossing #2 Rooster-tale or Mepps spinners into the many large pools that line the middle and lower canyon. Or, wait until shadows lengthen and insects are more active to bring out the fly rod. Fly fishers would be advised load up their fly box with meaty flies for bull trout, including muddlers, large streamers and Clousers.
Good top-water patterns for rainbow trout include Adams, PMD, Stimulator and hoppers. For nymphing consider Copper John, Hares Ear and weighted stonefly patterns. Check out the Blue Mountain Anglers and The Joseph Fly Shoppe web sites for how to match the hatch. Local fishing regulations are from Oregon’s Northeast Zone.
Back to the River Trail
After a breakfast of cowboy coffee and granola, we left our Crooked Creek campsite on Day 2 to head upriver. Tired of admiring Ted and Ken’s casting, I veered off to try different water at mid-day.
A two-fly tandem (Bucktail Caddis with a Copper John dropper) produced nothing larger than 8 inches after fishing a half-mile or so upstream from camp. The one large fish I saw, refused to come back for a second pass. With sun directly overhead, I switched tactics, moving upriver to where a telephone pole sized log was wedged against a boulder at the head of a long pool. At the head of the pool, swift rapids funneled over a rock shelf that was sculpted smooth. I drifted Golden Stone deep through a narrow slot and promptly caught a foot-long rainbow that jumped 10 times. Two casts later I hooked a large bull trout that pulled free as I worked it to shore. A 9-inch trout was also led to the net for release. All three fish had resided where I had caught three small rainbows on a dry fly.
Reminded of the need to keep track of fishing companions, I worked downstream to camp, releasing several trout in the 10-inch range along with two 15-inch mountain whitefish. Unfortunately, the bite slowed at a crucial time. (Note that our menu planning for Day 2 included eating our daily limit of two fish larger than 8 inch in length). It was looking like canned sardines until Ken and Ted fooled three barely legal-sized trout to fry up and serve along with Uncle Ben’s pre-cooked wild rice and dried apricots.
Rather than test the evening bite, we sipped Pendleton whiskey out of tin cups and watched bats chase insects above the open meadow. A brilliant cascade of stars reminded just how far from civilization we were.
On Day 3, we stretched out the hike to Troy by stopping to fish along the way. Almost every Class 3 pool having good cover in the form of eddy flow, overhanging vegetation or large wood held a bull trout. However, getting them to strike a fly in the middle of the day was a different matter. I caught up with Ken at lunchtime to find him parked at the head of a long deep pool with a serious look on his face. “Had a bull trout,” he shared.
Well, not quite, as it seemed. As is the character of large bull trout, it grabbed a small rainbow trout that Ken had on the end of his line, holding on to its prey long enough to leave teeth marks. While I munched on a peanut butter sandwich, Ken switched to a large Muddler Minnow hoping for a rematch with the big native char.
The main Wenaha River Trail 3106 follows along the entire length of the river along the north side. It sometimes climbs high above the water to provide panoramic views of awesome canyon country. The challenge for fishing the lower section of the river was when to bushwhack and when to stick to the trail. In the end, my truck was parked where it was supposed to be, complete with a welcome back note and complimentary candy bars from the shuttle driver. Unfortunately, the Troy store closed early on Sunday afternoon, and these tired and thirsty hikers had to settle for warm beer that I had left in my truck.
But the adventure was not over. We took the long way home to skirt the west and north boundary of the Wilderness Area on 25 mph dirt roads. Once on top, new families of mountain bluebird escorted until we reached the headwaters of the Tucannon River, and eventually Highway 124 back to the Tri-Cities.
The Wilderness Experience
Nearly every wildlife species present in the Blue Mountains can be found within the Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness Area including bighorn sheep, whitetail and mule deer, black bear, cougar, bobcat, coyote, wolf and pine martens. Not to mention that in 1982, three of my high school pals were part of a group of hunters who made plaster casts of “Big Foot” prints in the deep canyons of the Wenaha River (as documented by Vance Orchard in Big Foot of the Blues). We did not experience a similar simian-type encounter.
With every wilderness experience comes danger. One option for the safety conscious is a satellite phone that you can rent for around $20 per day. While the risk of attack from large mammals is low, two hazards to watch for are rattlesnakes and poison oak. During the heat of mid-summer rattlesnakes become nocturnal so daytime encounters are not as common as during the cooler ends of the season. Also, include poison ivy oak prevention and treatment lotion with your basic first aid supplies.
You might not have to sleep on the ground, but you cannot fish the Wenaha without hiking. Small campgrounds can be found at Timothy Spring, Elk Flat, Cross Canyon, and Hoodoo trailheads for day hikers wishing to access the upper Wenaha River. My rule of thumb, however, is 3 miles down feels more like 6 miles when hiking up and out. A more relaxed approach is to arrange for shuttle service to take your car to Troy. The Grand Ronde Steelhead and Outfitters (541-828-7902), Boggan’s Oasis (509-256-3372), and Minam Raft Rental and Shuttle Service (541-437-1111) all have shuttle service. Overnight lodging and supplies are available in Troy at the Shiloh Inn Lodge/Café and RV Park (541-828-7773).
Floating the Wenaha is possible with inflatable kayaks providing the best option for summer anglers. Personally, I vote for the human mule. We proved that three old guys can get down the trail with aplomb.
Check in at the nearest Ranger Station to get a $5 per day parking permit (required at most trailheads) and updates on use restrictions in effect. Note that our culinary experience was compromised due to a campfire ban. Also, Wilderness Areas are closed to motorized equipment and mountain bikes. Other guidelines include establishing camps 75 feet from the stream bank and Leave-No-Trace ethics. Irresponsible campers failing to practice appropriate waste management etiquette tarnished our wilderness experience.
Trailhead access roads are rutted and greasy slick when the ground is wet, requiring a 4-wheel drive vehicle. And don’t leave home without a GPS and a map or two. I rely on both the Oregon and Washington Atlas & Gazetteer to find interesting and efficient back road routes. Handy trail guides can be found in the Umatilla National Forest and Wenaha –Tucannon Wilderness maps and on Trails.com.
One of the main concepts of the Wilderness Act of 1964 is that wilderness remain a pristine environment that should show no evidence of man. To most people, wilderness is a piece of wild land or backcountry where they can find solitude and beauty in unique surroundings. This remote headwater area of the Blues berries (a place sometimes referred to as “Spirit Mountain”), where local Indian Tribes fished, hunted, and gathered roots, is no exception in this regard.
Trail information for main South Rim and Troy trailheads of the Wenaha River.