While my early fishing life began with a fateful first cast into Grandpa Harry’s farm pond, it was adventures in headwater streams that laid the foundation for a love of Blue Mountain trout. My apprenticeship years were spent listening to Uncle Chuck spin tales of huge trout taken in the Walla Walla River. Every summer after wheat harvest he saddled up his packhorse to visit remote places where trout were “so thick you could dip them out with your hat.” One common practice for local anglers was to hike into the steep river canyon to fish “cutbait” for “big Dollies.” In those days, rainbow trout had a generous 20-fish limit and Bull Trout could be harvested without restriction.

So what are headwaters? One definition might be “the source of the river” or where it all begins. For my purposes, headwaters are the upper reaches and tributaries of a river. What I like best about these small waters is there are no secrets, only surprises. Give me a headwater stream and its variety of opportunity: pools, riffles, runs, slots, pocket water, back swirls, shaded edges. The native trout that live there are rarely complacent when it comes to taking a fly.

The Blue Mountains

Imagine a setting where trout-filled streams flow like spokes on a wheel and combat fishing means encountering two other anglers on the trail. The Tollgate region in northeastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains is the geographic hub to such a place that nomadic Indian tribes once referred to as the “Shawpatin” Mountains, French fur trappers called “Le Montagnes Bleus” and locals know as “the Blues.”

The Blue Mountains are mostly volcanic in origin with a terrain comprised largely of narrow basalt ridges and broad plateaus that are deeply incised and dissected by V-shaped stream valleys. From the air, the landscape appears like a rumpled patchwork quilt: south-facing bunchgrass slopes, mixed conifer islands, basalt outcrops, brush-filled draws. In the northern half of the Blues, small waterways collect rain and snowmelt from every ridge top and crease to form three principal watersheds: Wenaha, Walla Walla and Umatilla.

Wenaha-Tucannon Watershed

The Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness encloses a remote area that local Indian tribes refer to as “Spirit Mountain.” The Wenaha River skirts its southern edge, flowing eastward to drop in elevation nearly 4,000 feet from its origin near Bones Spring to its confluence with the Grande Ronde River at Troy. This rugged country has over 200 miles of managed trails and several tributaries to explore. Nearly every wildlife species present in the Blues can be found including bighorn sheep, whitetail and mule deer, elk, moose, black bear, cougar, bobcat, coyote, wolf and pine martens. Three of my high school pals reported an encounter with “Bigfoot” in the Wenaha River canyon country during the summer of 1982. Plaster casts made from mystery footprints added to the controversy over this mythical creature.

My first backpacking trip into the headwaters of the Wenaha started off with a two-fly tandem, Bucktail Caddis and a Copper John dropper, that produced a cautious swipe from a large rainbow. My go-to fly, a #12 Renegade, fooled a 6-incher. With the sun directly overhead, I rested on a massive log that would have been a telephone pole in another life and contemplated a change in tactics. I tied on a Beadhead Golden Stone, drifted it through a deep slot and felt my line tighten to the pull of a foot-long rainbow that jumped ten times before it tossed the fly. Two casts later, I hooked a large bull trout. Both fish came from the head of the pool where only tiny rainbow trout rose to a dry fly.

Although protected under the Endangered Species Act, bull trout populations are productive enough to allow for targeted catch-and-release fishing downstream of the confluence of the North and South Forks of the Wenaha. Newspaper columnist Vance Orchard, of “Rambling the Blues” fame, wrote about a fall hike he took into the headwaters in pursuit of “whopping big Dolly Varden trout.” Consistent with the approach to backpacking half a century ago, he carried a canvas rucksack, fishing rod and only enough grub for an overnight stint. It turned out his Dollies “had been up, spawned and gone back downstream,” according to a fellow angler. Regardless, Orchard managed to catch enough trout for dinner and “for bragging.”

The Tucannon River makes an appearance in the northern half of the Wilderness Area. Lewis and Clark referred to this small stream as “Kimooenim creek” on their return trip in 1805. Barely a “step-across” upstream of its largest tributary Panjab Creek, the “Tuke” flows northward 58 miles from its source near Misery Springs before meeting up with the Snake River near Starbuck. For me, wading after small trout in its headwaters provides welcome respite from the heat of summer. Late season trout fishing is best in shaded reaches upstream of Maringo Grade.

Walla Walla River Watershed

The two directional forks of the Walla Walla River flow west from near the Umatilla-Wallowa County line at 5500 feet elevation and merge 6 miles upstream of Milton-Freewater, Oregon. The North Fork clears early, lending itself to tossing flies on opening day of trout season. Sometimes there are surprises. Like when I hiked to a bedrock plunge pool on a cold sleety day in late May. Unable to raise a fish on a Parachute Adams, I tied on a Bucktail Royal Coachman and let it swing deep through a shallow run. A small trout grabbed the fly and ran downstream to the plunge pool. But before I could lead it to shore, my rod bowed and I was fast into a giant Bull Trout that eventually coughed up the mangled trout.

Much of the North Fork is private property. Alternative access is offered to 3000-foot elevation headwaters (following early summer snow melt) via a short hike off FS #6512 near Indian Ridge. Miniature pocket pools form where the river stair-steps over giant boulders. I once caught and released over 50 small trout there under a sanctuary-like setting of moss-draped old growth fir.

Rainbow trout are generally larger in the South Fork, up to 16 inches long, depending on how far you are willing to hike. A passage from my fishing journal shows how easy it is to forget about a fishing partner when trout are biting:

Moving upstream to a short stretch of familiar water, I approach a cobble shelf covered with monkey flower, mountain aster and ox-eye daisy in full bloom. On the south-facing slope, ponderosa pine towers over basalt outcrops and bunch grass bleached blonde by the sun. A pair of Vaux’s swifts swoop low and disappear into streamside canopy. The music of water running over smooth stone muffles all sound. Concentrating on every cast now, a steady barrage of strikes from eager trout rewards. Only after fooling two fat, freckled 10-inchers do I pause to consider where my brother has wandered off.

Early season wading can be a challenge in the South Fork because the river tends to flow bank full until late June. Until things settle down, my preference is fishing a #10 Wilson or Royal Coachman Bucktail wet. Later, as the water drops and bugs begin to fly, I go to dry flies like March Brown, Blue Dun, or Light Cahill. Meaty attractors, such as Royal Stimulator, often bring the big boys out from their hiding place.

Most anglers drive to the South Fork trailhead near Harris Park (a private campground) and hike upstream. You can also access the headwaters via the Rough Fork (2 miles down), Burnt Cabin (4 miles down) or Mottet trails (2.5 miles down) that originate near Jubilee Lake. Caution: hiking these same steep trails once burned out a friend who never asked to go trout fishing with me again.

Emerging from dense conifer forests just north of the Washington-Oregon state line are the Walla Walla River’s two principal tributaries: Mill Creek and the Touchet River. Unfortunately, the headwaters of Mill Creek are closed to protect the drinking water supply of Walla Walla, Washington. The North Fork of the Touchet affords easy access to native trout upstream of Dayton along North Touchet Road. Angling opportunities on the South and Wolf Forks are limited to short stretches lacking a “No Trespassing” sign.

Umatilla River Watershed

The Umatilla River is a river of two characters. The lower 30 miles meanders past tall cottonwood, townships and low-elevation farmland suggestive of the Indian name, “water rippling over sand.” The higher gradient corridor upstream of Pendleton, Oregon is shrouded in mixed conifer, cottonwood and alder. The North Fork watershed, separated from the South Fork by Nine Mile Ridge and Buck Mountain, lies within a designated Wilderness Area. Access is via a low gradient hiking trail that parallels the river for 3 miles.

Nineteenth century explorers penned at least fifteen different spellings for this small Blue Mountain stream, including “Youmalalam,” “Ewmitilly” and “Umatallow.” A popular route for the Oregon Trail ran across Meachum Pass and several miles along the river’s course downstream to Echo. Naturalist John Townsend, the “Bird Chief,” visited the “Utalla” in 1834. Narcissus Whitman traveled down the headwaters of Iskuulpa Creek on her way to Fort Walla Walla two years later. These activities served as harbinger of change to the landscape and native peoples whose livelihood depended on the plants and animals of the valley.

I recently visited the shaded confines of Bear Creek, a small tributary upstream of the Umatilla Indian Reservation boundary, following a fruitless morning spent casting into the high and roily mainstem Umatilla. Starting with a Royal Coachman Humpy, I pulled two trout, the largest 10 inches long, out of a narrow run. An Orange-Butt Caddis enticed the strike of another nice trout. Switching to an Olive Dun when the sun came out from behind gathering cumulus, I hooked several fingerlings from a long stretch of pocket water. I couldn’t help notice how large they appear when they turned broadside to strike my fly.

My favorite place to visit, however, is the North Fork Wilderness area, as journal notes describe:

Fifty yards from the trailhead the trail angles away from a stream that whispers softly through old growth fir. Five more minutes of walking and I melt into a trail crowded with waist-high bracken fir and snowberry. The first overlook tries to seduce me into an early start. Logjams that resemble a pile of pickup sticks beckon, but I resist temptation until the trail drops down to meet up with the river. Casting directly upstream, mostly one-handed, I navigate slick cobble with the aid of a wading stick. A small dark form shoots out from a shaded edge to grab my Stimulator, but I miss the hookset in a moment of inattention. Time stands still for me where steep bedrock blocks the river’s flow to form a shape-shifter hole. It’s here where I hook the “king” of the river on my first cast. The foot-long trout clears the water’s surface at the sting of the hook, runs under a log and tangles. I lay prone on the log, hand-line the trout in and release it while suspended over the North Fork.

Lookingglass Creek

On the other side of Coyote Ridge, Lookingglass Creek runs nearly 16 miles from mile-high Langdon Lake to its confluence with the Grand Ronde River at Palmer Junction. There are no roads nor maintained trails along its course. The creek ran 50 oF and gin clear when my buddy Ken and I visited the headwaters in mid-August 3 years ago.

“Are you sure this is the place?” Ken asked, reflecting on the broken-down picnic table and rusted fire ring under a grove of fire-scarred ponderosa pine. Finding the rustic Luger Springs campsite deserted on a blue sky Saturday in mid-August was surprising. No matter, more fish for us, I thought, easing my truck down an old logging road cut obliquely into the side of the hill. A quarter-mile further, the steep track widened enough to park between downed timber and an axle-busting boulder. That’s when we got out to peer at the tiny ribbon of water far below.

Ken was silent. Up to then, he had no clue what he was in for other than a 3-hour drive home on dusty back roads. In contrast, I had happy memories diluted by more than a handful of passing years. “I remember my high-school buddy Norm picking me up in his two-tone yellow-and-white 58’ Chevy after I got off the night shift at the pea cannery,” I said. “When we got here, I stuck three bottles of Lucky Lager in my creel and hiked straight down this hill. We fished all day before climbing hand-over-hand back up the same route we came down.”

Noting Ken’s hesitation, I spread my arms to absolve his fears and said, “We can hike downstream on this old logging road, traverse to the bottom, fish upstream to where the creek bends to the west and climb a gentle grade leading back to the truck.”

“This time I brought radios,” Ken replied, referring to a time I took him up the Walla Walla River and we got separated on the hike back–something I had conveniently forgotten.

“Not a requirement,” I explained. “We won’t get out of each others’ sight. It’s too small of water to split up. We have to leap frog it.”

With that, we put fly rods together, reduced our equipment to a box of flies and a bottle of water apiece, and plunged down the hill.

The Fish

According to the noted trout expert, Robert Behnke, the subspecies of redband rainbow trout that expresses a sea-going life history are called redband steelhead. The other subspecies is considered to be a resident form of rainbow trout. Blue Mountain streams support both life history types. Because juvenile steelhead remain in freshwater for 1 to 3 years before they migrate to the ocean, they contribute to the catchable-sized pool of native rainbow trout. Although most Blue Mountain streams allow for limited harvest, headwater rainbows are too beautiful to kill: bold parr marks bisected by a narrow crimson lateral line stripe, bronze gill covers with a blush of pink, dark-freckled back and flanks.

Bull trout can be found in deep pools of nearly all headwater streams that flow cold and clear from the Blues. Two general life history types exist in the Columbia Basin: fluvial-type fish that migrate downstream to overwinter and forage in the larger water, such as the Grande Ronde, Snake and Columbia Rivers after spawning; and resident fish that remain in the principal drainage year-round. It’s unlikely a large bull trout will take you down to your backing, but they can put a bend in your rod.

Mountain whitefish reside year-round in these same streams, often migrating to headwaters in late summer to gobble up the loose spawn of spring-run Chinook salmon. Whitefish can be taken on a small Beadhead Nymph drifted deep through long languid pools where they school up. Look for the strobe-light flash of feeding whitefish when they turn to grab insect larvae from the surface of smooth cobble.

Headwater Tactics            

A military approach is useful to effectively fish small creeks. Study the water and carefully plot your approach before casting. Use trees, boulders and the stream bank as cover. You may only have one chance. To minimize disturbance, I usually work upstream. It’s best to split up and meet someplace in between if you bring along a buddy. Two can be a crowd.

Overhanging vegetation and tight quarters provide ample opportunity to practice dapping, sidearm and bow-and-arrow techniques. Focus on short, precise casts and manage the path of your fly with your rod tip. A 7 to 9 foot, 3 to 5-weight rod with 5X tippet handles nearly every situation.

I guess I could summarize my thinking on the topic of pattern selection as similar to Thomas McGuane who once described his favorite fly as, “When I look at it, I believe I’m going to catch a fish.” Feeding Blue Mountain trout a steady diet of classic western patterns: Renegades, Stimulators, PMDs and Adams–reinforces my beliefs. The truth is most any attractor-type pattern that floats will entice a strike.

While many Blue Mountain streams occur on public land, you will occasionally find a “No Trespassing” sign. I can say from experience that most landowners are particular when it comes to visits by random strangers, especially when livestock is present. If you seek access, set aside extra time to scratch, spit, pet the family dog, discuss the weather and empathize with political opinion that might make you wince.

If you are comfortable navigating one-lane dirt roads, I suggest you arm yourself with a good map and explore the Blues. Find a high-elevation trail that harbors the scat of black bear and sunlit seeps where wasps gather. Regale in the chatter of dipper birds. Savor the sweet odor of mock orange in bloom. When your day on the stream is over, glean wild mushrooms and huckleberries from the shade of old growth fir. The odds are also good that you’ll learn something new about headwater streams and trout fishing.