Rafting the Deschutes River for Redsides

My older brother became uncharacteristically animated as he described getting dumped on the lower Deschutes River. “I stayed with the raft for awhile, but it kept pushing me down. I was stuck under it. Finally, everyone yelled at me to go to shore so I let go and swam for it.”

It was day one of our float trip and all I could hope was that his rafting experience was atypical. Everything I read had described relatively safe rafting due to a stable river discharge afforded by upriver dams. These same conditions were also thought to be important factors leading to a healthy population of rainbow trout and steelhead. In other words, I was ready to go fishing.

The Fish 

Deschutes River trout are managed primarily as a catch-and-release fishery, with up to 4,000 fish per mile reported for some sections. Two fish, between 10 and 13 inches, can be retained per day. However abundant trout are, experience has shown that the native redside population is wary. They are wary of the constant parade of fly fishers scrambling along the shoreline. They are wary of boaters drifting overhead. They are wary of having small pieces of hairy foam with dangling hooks tossed at them. Wary, that is, until twilight when trout may show in a place where there was no sign with the sun high overhead. During this “magic hour”, Deschutes River trout seem to abandon their sensibility.

On one such magical evening, I hooked one trout that jumped into a clump of bank-side reed canary grass before thrashing back into the water. Two others busted me off in heavy current. Things were topped off when a fat 16-inch redside hammered a fluffed-up golden stone drifted next to the bank. A quick recap showed seven trout hooked and landed in less than an hour. It was the kind of action that I could have only imagined before the float trip.

River currents dictate where trout lie and wait for food. For example, each shift of the channel provides a feeding lane at the outside of a bend. If there is deep water and boulders to provide cover, trout are there. Elsewhere, trout position at current edges or lurk where complex eddies and back swirls ebb and flow. Slow deep water having divergent current to push floating insects towards the bank should also not be ignored. Foam lines are key indicators of current seams and are good targets for landing your fly. Short casts are often as productive as longer ones, especially where they allow for better
control of line and fly drift.

Local anglers have coined the term “jungle water” to describe shoreline having tall grass and overhanging trees. In this type of water, feeding trout can often be found with their nose a foot from the bank waiting for insects to fall. Rocks provide additional cover, as do deeper water. Early in the morning, trout are often close to shore near reed canary grass or under overhanging alder. By mid-day, actively feeding fish might line up on foam lines formed where the current pushes out from shoreline knick points.

Insect Life

The Deschutes River is home to golden stoneflies, yellow sallies and big salmon flies that from ½ to more than 2 inches long. Coloration can be tan, dark brown, yellow or reddish-orange. This variability in size and color has produced dozens of fly patterns available for those hoping to match the hatch. During the famous golden stone and salmon fly hatch period, which might last from May to June, Deschutes River rainbow trout are vulnerable. But, “stones” and salmon flies aren’t the only game in town. Consider clouds of caddis blowing off overhanging alder, pale morning dun and swarms of mayflies dancing on the water’s surface. The Deschutes is rich in insect life. Local tackle shops have websites that provide regular updates on fishing action by location. These same shops should be visited for tips on fly patterns. A 9 foot, moderate action 6-weight rod with short, stout leaders is the tool of choice for most fly fishers. I’ve gone to a floating line and 4X tippet. Anything less and one might get busted off in the first 5 seconds. Then again, you still might get busted off when a big redside takes you around a corner or down the riprap further than you can follow.

The River

Early French trappers called the Deschutes River “le Riviere des Chutes,” meaning “The River of the Falls.” It flows fast and hard through big canyons carved out by ancient floods. Giant swirl holes have been formed where the river turns against sheer cliffs of basalt. Where the gradient lessens, the river spreads out to form shallow riffles braided by cobble islands.

Each section of the river is different. From Warm Springs to Trout Creek, the river gives no hint of what is to come, turning lazily on long drifts with an occasional small rapid. Things change when a few “warm-up” or Class II rapids appear during the 4-mile drift to South Junction and the terrain steepens where the river makes a big “S” to incise down through the Mutton Mountains. A mile downstream of Whiskey Dick campsite is where one of the most dangerous rapids in the river awaits. According to guidebooks, the river drops 40 feet over a distance of 0.6 mile at Upper Whitehorse. Rafters and boaters must safely navigate past “Oh Shit” rock, legendary because of its position in the rapids, and “Can Opener” so-named because of its “pointy” head. Upper
Whitehorse is where even the most experienced boaters stop at the overlook to scout safe passage.

Downstream of lower Whitehorse Rapids, experience a constant panorama of shear rock pinnacles, anticlines layered with columnar basalt and rim rock headlands muted in tones of red, green and yellow. At Davidson Flat, high water from the 1996 flood has formed new gravel bars upstream of where the river t-bones a sheer rock cliff. A cluster of 1950 vintage summer cabins, some rebuilt, are perched along the river here in the shadow of the railroad bridge. From North Junction downstream to the Locked Gate (5 miles upstream of Maupin), road access on the east shoreline is restricted to all except members of the Deschutes Anglers Club. Boaters can wade and fish the river up to the normal high-water mark. From here to Maupin is 5 miles. Stay in the center of the river to catch a wave train at Buckskin Mary and Four Chutes, ending the trip at Harpum Flat, or stay afloat to blast downstream through roller coaster chutes at Wapinitia Rapids. Then on to Box Car, a Class IV rapid that includes 20-foot drops and a “suck hole” before take-out at Maupin City Park.

River Rafting Basics Rafting-resized-dennis-dauble-books

For starters, consider a single-day trip from Warm Springs to Trout Creek. This 9-mile section has minor rapids and plenty of shoreline to wet your line (you cannot fish from a floating vessel in the Deschutes River). One downside is the high level of competition from other anglers. Add days to your itinerary and camp at Whiskey Dick or lower Whitehorse, followed by Rainbow Bend or any number of camps below Buckskin Mary. Plan paddle time and packing duties to reach your planned take-out location at the end of a day, assuming approximately 4 miles per hour drift speed. Inflatable rafts float faster at high flows and through broken water, but slow when afternoon winds blow up the canyon. Be prepared for the fact that river conditions can change during the course of a 4-day trip. Study the USGS website for hourly updates on flow (USGS 14092500 Deschutes River near Madras, OR).

Raft rental companies generally supply life jackets, oars/paddles, a pump, dry bags, tie-down straps and a 80 to 100-gallon cooler that functions as a seat for the oarsperson. If possible, bring your camping gear and clothing already stowed in a dry bag. It’s also a good to have an assortment of carabineers for securing loose gear. I recommend renting a raft set up with oarlocks for the simple fact that oars provide more control than paddles. A 14 ft boat is generally adequate for three people and camping gear. Rental prices range from ~$100 to 160 per day depending on time of week and whether the raft is delivered or u-hauled. Last time I checked, four rafting companies operated out of Maupin. Guided trips are a reasonable option for the first-timer or the cautious. Otherwise, “Row away from trouble.”

Every boat trip should have a float plan. Leave your planned itinerary with a person you trust. This same person should be contacted once you’re off the water or if plans are modified. The trip starts with careful packing. It’s important to balance the load so that the boat captain can steer the boat. Before attempting to navigate your first rapids, practice how to turn the boat, how to paddle backwards and forwards and how to clear obstacles. Also, make sure to wear your life jacket. Discuss what to do if our raft gets stuck on a rock or in a “suck hole”, how to retrieve a companion who falls out of the boat and what to do if your raft overturns.

Each major rapid has a preferred route. Scouting is highly recommended for all rapids Class III and higher. Ask someone with previous experience how to approach each major rapid before you launch or take an experienced whitewater rafter along. Consider checking out a “how to” video on whitewater rafting. Many are available online. The Deschutes River-Boaters Guide at NRSweb.com provides useful information for the novice rafter and identifies campsites along the river. The BLM website also has detailed maps with points of interest

All campsites are fee and first-come, first-serve. Camping along the west bank (river left) is prohibited to non-tribal individuals from Warm Springs downstream to the reservation boundary at river mile 69.3. Access to fishing on the reservation shoreline requires a permit obtainable from the Warm Springs Tribe. Expect competition from guided outfits for prime camping sites and from anglers for fishing locations, especially during holidays and weekends when boating passes may also be are limited. So plan your trip in advance and purchase a pass early.

The BLM website (www.boaterpass.com) has a map of all campgrounds, major rapids and boat ramps. Summary tables provide details on toilet locations and number of campsites per location. The lower Deschutes River Recreation Area has a long list of rules designed to ensure conservation of natural resources, including restrictions on firearm use, packing out all refuse and burning in a fire pan only wood that you bring. Note that the lower Deschutes River is closed to open fires from June 1 to October 15. Rafters must also use an approved portable toilet or developed toilet facility. No potable water is available thus bring plenty of water for drinking or have a method for treating river water.

Streamside Hazards

Weather in the Deschutes canyon is variable in late spring, ranging from wind, rain and 40 F to blue skies and 90 F, so prepare accordingly. Wading can be treacherous with steep drop-offs, slick rocks and strong current. However, the number one hazard might be poison oak. It takes the form of a vine to hide in reed canary grass or can be disguised as a shrub. Wearing chest waders, a long-sleeved shirt and washing exposed body parts with products like Tecnu at the end of the day helps reduce the risk of infection.

Things can also get exciting when a rattlesnake shows up, like the 8-button version my fishing buddy almost stepped on next to our tent site. During a cool rainy day, watch for rattlers in riprap boulders and along the railroad tracks. On warm days, they tend to be most active in the early evening, often next to shaded streamside trails. Much of the riverbank parallels railroad tracks used by anglers to access fishing holes. Some sections have signal lights to warn when a BNSP is coming. Camping next to the tracks can also lead to surprises. My experience suggests there is no way to prepare for being awakened from deep sleep by a freight train that passes by 50 feet from your sleeping bag.

Despite the risks associated with white-water rafting, the reward for a float trip on the Deschutes River is world-class trout fishing and star gazing at its finest. Time spent on this iconic river leads to adventure no matter how you slice it. As for my brother, he lost a vintage bamboo fly rod when the raft overturned, but he did not lose his appetite for rafting and fishing the Deschutes River.

Dennis Dauble is the author of the award-winning “Fishes of the Columbia Basin” and “The Barbless Hook”.