Rainbows of the High Desert

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I fished my first desert stream when my good friend and fly-fishing sensei, Chas Kyger, moved to Washington State. Both transplants from the same Appalachian hometown, we interestingly ended up three hours apart working as fish biologists.

Spring can offer formidable conditions in the Pacific Northwest mountains, where high flows and snow melt careen through narrow canyon creeks. Spring on a desert creek, however, can be epic, with early warming waters and insect hatches.

A hard left from the Columbia River pointed us toward a large desert canyon, characterized by steep, rocky bluffs, talus, and sagebrush. Various alfalfa, wheat, and corn crops created a lush patchwork landscape across the canyon floor broken only by the random cattle or horse pasture.

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The creek bottom through the valley was a mere ditch with cattails sucking up the last of any moisture lingering in the cracked, astringent landscape. Skepticism ran high as 30 years of fly-fishing and fisheries science taught me that streams gain flow as they lose elevation. Contradictory can be the case in dry country.

Finding ourselves abruptly at road’s end, staring at a shabby ranch home with heavy equipment scattered about, it appeared we missed the trail into public land. Better judgement would have heeded the brown sign with binoculars on it, now some miles in the rearview.

Circling back and taking a right turn into oblivion, it was unclear whether we were on public or private. Fording a creek and passing a fifth-wheel “ranch home” while dodging an excitable border collie, the decision was made to kick in the four-wheel-drive and ascend the red, rocky bluffs separating the headwaters beyond from the bottomlands.

The flat, torrid landscape atop the rocky rims appeared desolate and unfriendly to the touch, colored in various hues of auburn and bister. Heat waves shimmered upon the caustic environment. Everything appearing scorching hot and sharp to the touch. The creek canyon formed a precipitous crevasse in the desert floor.

Peering into the narrow canyon, a trickle of water more than a hundred feet below was our destination. Without need of further inspection, vests and waders were donned, and with fly rods in hand, we bailed over the steep, dusty slope. Fortunately, and to our surprise, a staggering creekside oasis lay in store.

The creek was characterized by deep cuts through large boulders and gray slab bedrock, worn smooth by enduring eons of nature’s erosive processes. Scenic cascades separated by deep plunge pools babbled with clear, cool desert spring water, shaded by tall, overhanging grasses. Moments passed as we ogled the creek, like teenage boys at the beach, before finally putting the moves on some classic trout water.

Kneeling behind and leaning against a boulder the size of a Volkswagen Bug, a haphazardly-lobbed #8 elk hair caddis stimulator flopped into the pool that lay beyond. A small plunge at the head dampened any ability to hear a rise. Carefully peeking from behind the boulder, a visible wake erupted.

An instinctive hookset embedded the fly into one of the fattest twelve-inch rainbow trout I have ever laid eyes on. After making several strong runs about the tiny pool, the trout darted for fast water, busting down a cascade, Columbia River bound. It’s dashing run put a hard whip in the little three-weight Temple Fork Outfitter before reluctantly coming to the net in the next pool downstream.

In the span of a mile, another ten-inch fish, fat and spunky with a blazing red lateral stripe, and countless dinks, six-inches or less, succumbed to the classic caddis pattern. A few other typical classics worked well enough, including a #12 parachute Adams, but the whopping caddis stimulator duped more fish than any other.

Most casts, a trout rocketed from the depths, sometimes followed by several others, eager to claim the meal for themselves as the fly hit the water. As if their last meal was the summer before and having no certainty of another.

It’s funny how long a day at the office can feel, yet the hours on good trout water evaporate like morning dew in Death Valley. Feeling as though the day had just begun, the sinking sun put an end to an exceptional day spent deep in the bowels of the red canyon walls.

Among the perks of fishing small desert streams, any skill level can experience an epic day. Fishing with big flies in small water for aggressive fish can be quite forgiving of imperfect presentation. Just as well, 5X tippet is a staple, providing tremendous versatility and strength, suitable to handle overzealous hook sets and retrieving flies hung in riparian vegetation.

This curious little gem of desert trout heaven made a believer of this cynical Appalachian boy. While there is no replacement for a high mountain trout stream, aggressive desert rainbows are a worthy opponent, opening the season a few months early, while the mountain waters rage with a melting snow pack.

Brad Trumbo

Brad lives in southeast Washington State with his wife Ali and pack of Llewellin setters on a small homestead. He serves the public as a fish and wildlife biologist and active Pheasants Forever life member. His free time is devoted to habitat, the pursuit of fin and feather, and writing about his outdoor passions.

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