This is a copyrighted excerpt from ‘When First I Saw Her Face’, published in the book My Mistress Whispers and Roars – Second Edition. This chapter details my first ever visit to the Lower Deschutes River.
Do you have the strength of recollection to peer back upon the moment you first saw your greatest love? Can you block the visions your conscious compels you to believe, and accept the truth? Because this object might not be what you think it is. I might not be what you want it to be. And it probably isn’t what you think it should be. Take a moment. As long as you need…
I’m fascinated by what you may have just seen.
As I’ve documented herein, the last thirty years or so of my life has been a series of heart-swelling encounters with rivers and trout. But there have also been numerous duds, too many ill-founded first dates to chronicle. Oh, I can find beauty in most everything; that’s not the problem. My bar is not unrealistically high. If anything, as my angler’s path unfolded, I had brief and sometimes intense moments with Others I’d rather not admit to. If it had a pulse, I was in. It wasn’t a guilty pleasure, because there was no guilt. She was there, I was there, and we got it on. Her, with currents sweeping around me, pushing, pulling, caressing, challenging balance and perception. Me, donned in Seal-Dry waders, poised not with a bouquet of full-scented flowers, but instead a crappy four-piece Cortland fly rod, wanting only a glimpse of her essence; no intention of stealing from her jewels; wishing only that her flow and mine might entwine momentarily. I would take from her nothing but a tactile memory.
The next day I was heading north on Highway 97 around two in the afternoon. Once through the town of Madras, the road begins a steep descent into the big river’s canyon. I was at once struck with the dramatic, near table-flat rim, the vertical basalt layers, the sense of enormity. Before I ever saw the river, the pelting began. Pop, pop, pop. Was there a small army of delinquent kids stashed amongst the roadside brush armed with slingshots? Pop, pop, it continued. For me to suss out the source of the ambush, I had to refocus, slightly closer to the front of the car. Then I saw them. And then, once I realized what I was looking at, I saw many, many more. There were flies -huge aquatic insects- crowding the air as I dropped in next to the river. They were approximately the size of my little finger. And there were thousands of them. No, millions. The attack on my windscreen continued as the road paralleled the river. I was on river-right and going with the flow. First impression: the river itself reminded me of the Lower Sacramento near Redding. It was, of course, much more beautiful, but then shriveled, blackfly-covered dog turds are more attractive than the Lower Sac. Though I was having a hard time really looking at her. The flies were bombarding the car, flying clumsily right into traffic like a great horde of locusts.
I pulled into the road that I was told would lead to Mecca Flat campground and immediately saw a sheriff standing beside his cruiser blocking the road. Then I saw another sheriff a hundred feet behind the first, leaning on his SUV. Then, I thought of the distinct reek of weed in the Subie and the cold beer between my legs. I came to a slow stop. The first sheriff, young, fit and obviously agitated began walking towards me. I shut the engine off and jumped out. We met midway between the two cars. Before I could even offer a greeting, he stammered, his voice breaking a little, “You can’t come in here!” Then there was an awkward silence as I peered over his shoulder at the much older, much more relaxed sheriff. Both their rigs were parked in the road, the same road I was to take to the spot where I’d slap my Chubby against the bank for the take of a lifetime. I re-focused on the young sheriff. He blurted on, still lacking any sheriff-like composure, “The road’s closed!” I suppose he was expecting some kind of response, but I was in gotta-go-fishin’ mode, and he was in my way. And so, in the vacuum that was my reaction, he went on, “It’s a crime scene. You can’t go down there.” And then as if a terrible vision filled his brain, a vicious odor assaulted his olfactory perception and he was fighting back vomiting, he said with as much affect as he could, “The road’s closed!”
“Yea, that’s what you said,” I began, once again looking over his shoulder. “So how do I get down there to go fishin’? Can I just hike in?” His eyes grew big at the thought of anyone going down that road just then. I went on, “You see, I have a Chubby in my pocket.” With that, I affixed his panicked eyes, then continued, “With the implicit instruction to slap it against the bank down at the campground.”
Now we had a standoff on our hands. He sort of half squealed, “You can’t go down there! It’s a crime scene!” Desperation was setting in. Then he looked over his shoulder at the other sheriff, and beyond, down canyon, at the source of his nightmare. The older sheriff began approaching us. The younger guy turned back to me and tried to get a grip, “The road’s closed,” he said yet again, only this time almost level toned. Then we stood in silence for five seconds until the older sheriff was there. He paused for a moment, kicking random rocks, scanning the canyon nonchalantly. Then, from a mouth that barely moved, with a soggy toothpick lodged beneath an un-trimmed, grey mustache, which was in turn under a set of seen-it-all eyes that were mounted under unmoving, bushy eyebrows, the entire countenance shielded from the late-spring sun by a crisp, tan Stetson, the words eased out, “The road’s closed. Yer gonna have to go someplace else.”
“Yea, that’s what your pards was sayin’,” I began, figuring if I went full hick we might relate. Then, in a conspiratorial whisper, I went on, “You see, a buddy of mine down in Bend, nice guy that he is, gave me a big, golden-bodied Chubby. You wouldn’t believe the size of this thing. Told me to slap it down along the bank at Mecca Flat.” I scanned the eyebrows for movement. There was none. I continued, “Yup. Said that’s all I needed to do. Claimed I wouldn’t believe the explosion.” The three of us stood, all within a few feet on the rutted dirt road, a slight breeze caressing the moment. The eyebrows hadn’t budged but the toothpick had exchanged one piece of mustache shade for another. “So, there any way I might be able to get to the river down there?”
“The road’s closed,” he drawled. “Yer gonna have to find somewhere else to fish, friend.” There was zero friendliness in his tone. And thus, I accepted his word, spun and returned to the car. Before getting in I turned back to the Sheriffs. “You think you’re gonna be here long,” I asked.
“Yea! For sure!” the young one yelped, nodding his head in a blur. The old guy agreed almost imperceptibly.
I drove across the road to a large parking lot next to the river and tried to figure out my next move. There was, at the moment, no plan “B”. I’d learn this area is the boat ramp for a stretch of the Lower Deschutes called “The Day Stretch”. But just then all I really wanted to know was where I could go and slap my Chubby. The bank on the far side looked good. As I stood in the expansive lot, a couple old poplar trees rustling in the breeze, beer in one hand, smoke in the other, an old pick-up truck pulled in and parked. And Hispanic guy around my age hopped out and strode towards me while popping open a PBR. I nodded “hello” and turned back to face the river. When he was a few feet away he greeted me with, “How’s it goin’? Guess we’re not gettin’ down to Mecca, eh?”
“Guess not. Sounds like they got some kind of crime scene down there.”
“Yup. Them crazy Indians, man. Wonder what they did this time.”
“Indians?” I had no idea what he was talking about.
“That’s all tribal land on that side. From the dam to the boundary twenty-five miles downriver.” Just then a large trout ripped open the surface of the river against the far bank to pound a salmonfly.
“Can I fish over there?”
“Nope.” Then another big fish did the same thing twenty feet above the first.
“What would happen if I did?”
The guy shot me a “no bullshit” look and answered evenly, “You don’t wanna know.”
He invited himself to come stand close, leaning against the car with me. It was hard not to notice all the ink covering is upper body. He wore a “wife-beater”, slightly sagging jeans and had a wallet chain looping to his back pocket. His facial hair was impeccably trimmed, hair slicked back, reflective Pilot glasses disguised any sense of expression. We stood kicking rocks for a long minute. Then he said, “I’m waiting for a buddy coming down from PDX. We were gonna camp at Mecca. Suppose we’ll head down to Trout Creek now.”
That had a nice ring to it. “Where’s that?” I asked trying to not sound like a complete idiot.
“Oh, downriver a piece. You can follow us down there if you want. He should be here soon.”
I peered over my shoulder back at his truck. “Nice rig,” I complimented.
“Thanks, man. Ground-up restoration all by myself. Sixty-four Chevy. Fuckin’ love that thing.”
“That’s the year I was born,” I told him and again took a long look at the truck, which appeared as a piece of art with the river and poplar trees behind it.
A little while later his buddy showed up on a motorcycle with saddlebags overflowing with gear. After a brief discussion they agreed to head towards Trout Creek with me in tow. We followed the river back up canyon and then across a broad expanse of alfalfa fields before dropping into and through the tiny town of Gateway. There, we turned left and headed west back towards the river. And it got remote. Now, I’m not the paranoid type, but at some point it occurred that we’d passed no signs indicating a “Trout Creek Campground” and that I was following strangers into completely unfamiliar territory after having just left the scene of an apparently grisly crime. But as I’ve done many, many times, I let the winds blow me toward whatever fate awaits. A cold beer was tucked between my legs, the day was sunny and warm, I was traversing roads at the end of which could be anything, nobody knew where I was, it was just the dog and myself. Reggae blared from the door speakers.
Then the road began a steep decent on rutted, washboard gravel. The guys pulled over and told me to go first. They would go slowly from there to the river. And so off I went. The rest of the road beyond the steep hill and railroad tunnel was bad, but the Subie did what she does, and we soon found ourselves on the banks of the mighty Deschutes River. I was already in waders by the time the guys showed up. They told me that they’d fish later. Off I went, nervous and eager for our first embrace.
The dog and I began walking downstream along a glassy, seam-addled run. The right bank was crowded in with Juniper and Alder. And I had been told to find overhanging foliage and cast around it. The big bugs were everywhere, mating in the tall grass, flying clumsily over the river, clinging to branches. Every few minutes one would crawl onto the back of my neck, having worked its way up my waders and over my shirt. It was the largest aquatic insect I’d ever encountered in such amazing numbers. And every minute or two one would fall to the river’s surface and get absolutely roasted by a trout.
Amazingly I had that stretch of river to myself. There was a guy upstream on the far bank who had rowed over in a small canoe. He was fishing the reservation along a stretch where it is allowed so long as you possess a Tribal Permit. There were some fish rising out in the middle of the river where it looked like a boulder garden textured the surface a little. I was fishing a stout five-weight that allowed me to reach quite a ways out from a large rock just above the small rapid where Trout Creek joins the big river. And there I was, against all the tips I’d been given, hurling sixty feet of line out towards fish that were feeding on something other than salmonflies. And I did this for a half hour. Then, upstream and under branch, there was a tremendous, heaving splash. I redirected my attention to an equally difficult cast. This presentation would require forty to fifty feet of sidearm chucked up under overhanging alder branches, several of which were adorned with large flies. The Chubby proved a challenge to move accurately on a long leader, but I made a bunch of tries nonetheless. After maybe five minutes of butchering this cast, I decided to try a shorter leader. While drawing the line in to make the change, the fly landed eight feet off the bank and maybe fifteen feet in front of me. What happened next stole my breath and etched an image in my head that has not fled. Out of perhaps eight feet of water, a torpedo shot up and positively annihilated my big, golden-bodied Chubby. I’d never witnessed such an aggressive take, not for grasshoppers, October Caddis, big stones on the McCloud. Not ever. The fish’s momentum carried it out of the water two feet as it took the fly. It looked to be an eighteen-inch ‘bow, fat and evidently full of big-bug protein. Its next move was for the middle of the river posthaste. Out there it jumped several times. From my boulder I could only watch, slack-jawed and stunned. The next minute changed the way I think about dry fly fishing for trout. This fish was way, way nastier than my typical quarry. But its tenacity was what impressed most of all. The fish simply would not stop brawling. It had a repertoire of barrel rolls, summersaults, headshakes, reel-burning runs, savage darts for the bottom and heavy surface thrashing. Rarely have I ever just held on like that with a trout. Fortunately, the hook was buried solidly, the knot held and after several chaotic minutes I was able to get the fish to my hand. I offered a quick introduction and thanked the handsome Redband for having the grace in its heart to engage me. The fooling of that fish had nothing to do with skill; I’d just gotten lucky. Even though only a foot and a half long this fish would weight over three pounds. Its dimensions were masculine, powerful and purpose-built. I cradled it for a moment, admiring every angle, every shape and color. Then I allowed it to slide back into the currents and set about getting another one.
And then five more after that.
Within a hundred yards of river, I fooled a bunch more fish. Some took the Chubby the second it hit the water. Some took two or three swipes at it before either eating, or not. Some ate it when it had sunk and began swinging at the very end of the drift. Every one I landed was between sixteen and twenty inches. All super healthy and brutally strong. In the middle of the day, under a hot, bright sun, the fish were coming out of deep water to smack the Chubby. The grab was easily one of the coolest things I’d ever witnessed on a trout river.
It was a session I’ll never forget. For months afterwards I was certain that every trout in the Lower Deschutes was that size, and they all fought like crazy, and ate anything huge you threw at them. I’d learn, of course that the reality is far different. But as a first impression, she could hardly have been more enthralling.
Now I call her my office as well as my mistress. Over the last bunch of seasons my time with her has increased, but there isn’t even a hint of ennui creeping in. She has too many faces to count, and even more moods. Her challenges are so vast and multi-layered that I’ll be intrigued till my last day. She can be as giving or as stingy as any river I’ve known, sometimes in the same day. And she possesses unique, quirky rules, meant to keep some of her secrets hidden forever. Little could I have known that first afternoon, when first I saw her face, what she would come to mean to me.