Clouds of dust billowed from the dirt road as I steadily climbed a Forest Service road in the Deschutes National Forest. The fine dust preserved my boot tracks next to a line of black bear tracks which I carefully walked around. I had my gym bag – which contained wading boots, waders, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a few scoops of trail mix, a liter of water, a small net – hanging over my body like a backpack, and the straps shoved into my shoulders. I carried my fly rod in my hand.
The Metolius River cut through the canyon 200 feet below. I looked down the slope on the side of the road, and the slope seemed just gentle enough that I could walk down it and get to the river. There were only so many hours to fish that day, and in my haste I stepped on a patch of loose rock which immediately tumbled down the hill and threw me back. I landed on my gym bag. I crushed my sandwich for sure. I was hoping I hadn’t broken the net.
On a normal fishing expedition, I might not put my body and gear on the line like that. But that day was different because I was fishing bull trout – one of Oregon’s rarest and most protected fish species. They are large – usually over 20 inches – with wide faces and almost nasty mouths, hence the name bull trout. Their light brown or green bodies are flanked by orange spots and their fins are tipped with distinctive white tips.
I had heard of Oregon bull trout from fly fishermen around the other rivers in that state. After a day of stocked trout fishing on the McKenzie, a tall man with a mustache wearing a flannel and shiny waders told me he once caught a bull trout and a rainbow trout -sky on subsequent throws. If you mean bull, I’m sure he had plenty. But I really got interested when a steelhead trout fisherman on the Deschutes River in central Oregon said he used to fish for bull trout. flat on the Metolius when he was a student at the University of Oregon.
Either he had a gem or he was a criminal – intentional fishing for bull trout is illegal in many places and on all but one river in my home state of Montana, and harvesting bull trout is illegal. bull trout is illegal everywhere. Indeed, bull trout are federally endangered and are particularly vulnerable to dams that prevent fish from making the necessary spawning migrations, as well as habitat loss, species invasive species and climate change.
Rivers where an angler can legally fish for Bull Trout are rare, and the Metolius, as one of those rivers, intrigued me. And a section of the river was ‘fly fishing only’ – exclusive and a little pretentious, but desirable.
The Metolius is groundwater fed which makes it crystal clear but when I finally got to the river I couldn’t see that clarity due to the way the water was foaming and spitting as it rushed through the canyon . Deep pools and ice jams where bull trout usually live were not found. I looked down the slope I had just come down, swore, and started back up.
The forest service road eventually turned into a trail, and that trail gradually faded as I walked. I hacked the overgrown brush just to get to the river, and good fishing spots were few and far between. Walk for 20 minutes, fish for five, walk for 20. I didn’t even come close to catching a fish.
Finally, I found an open area to reach the river. As I got into position to cast my underground fly down a deep drop that followed a slight riffle, I had a feeling that this spot, after six miles of walking, was my best chance at catching a Bull Trout. And sure enough, on my second throw, I saw a giant shadow swim up and scurry up my fly, roll to the side, and flash a pale belly at me. It all happened in an instant.
And then it was over, because the fish completely missed my fly. My worn shoulders slumped in defeat. I knew I had just missed my best chance with a bull trout, and I knew that more than likely the opportunity would not come again. I was right – the only animal I saw for the rest of the day was the pissed off skunk that charged me down the trail and nearly ruined my day.
But on the way back, contentment replaced my haste and frustration. Above the spikes of ponderosa pines across the canyon, the sun turned a slab of rock into a bright orange protrusion. I looked back into the canyon at the rushing whitewater, grateful that I was not hurtling down the slope and grateful that the bull trout lived in such a hard-to-reach place.
Camping is available at eight Forest Service campgrounds on the Metolius River. Visit the Camp Sherman Store and Fly Shop for fishing and camping supplies.