Steelhead Camp

Pull your waders off and prop your feet up by the fire. Steelhead Camp is a collection of adventures from across the Pacific Northwest and Canada. Steelhead anglers are a special kind of crazy, but you already knew that.

The German/American Steelhead Expedition 2016

Joel La Follette - Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Every once in a while your path crosses that of someone who seems to be an old friend, even though you've just met. My friend Stefan is kind of like that, but it took a day on the water to really figure that out. Our first meeting was brief and relatively anonymous. We shared a few words while rigging up for an evening of Steelhead fishing on the Deschutes. Although we fished the same river, we fished alone. As darkness ended the day I left a business card and a fly on his rental, forgetting the encounter.

The first time we really fished together was not planned, nor expected. I was on the way to the river when my phone rang and it was Stefan. It took a second to figure out who was calling, but the German accent gave him away. I told him I was meeting up with my friend, Mike Duley, at 5:00AM the next morning in front of Gray's Market in Maupin and he was welcome to join us. Doing the math I figured Stefan would have to leave his hotel at 2:00AM so there was very little chance of him meeting us in time. No one is that dedicated. As I loaded my gear into Mike's Suburban I caught a glimpse of a little rental car coming down the road. I turned to Mike and said, "I've got a friend joining us today." And so it was. 

That first meeting was over 18 years ago and since that time Stefan and I have fished many days together in Oregon and British Columbia. We have shared many memorable moments and some incredible fishing. Throughout that time Stefan had never successfully fished for winter Steelhead. The last three February's my good friend has managed to schedule a few days of fishing by extending a business trip to Southern California. His first winter visit coincided with the Snowpocalypse of 2014. That year we faced high water conditions as the snow melted and left us with relatively tough fishing. I was able to coax a hatchery fish out of a small coastal stream, but that was the extent of our success. The following year was not much better as low water and warm temperatures plagued the Northwest. Again, I managed to bookend the trip with Steelhead encounters bringing one nice wild fish to hand on the Sandy River and losing a fish on the Clackamas. Stefan remained determined, but skunked.

The true measure of a Steelhead angler is optimism in the face of adversity and Stefan is the very definition of optimism. He returned again this year hoping to crack the code of winter Steelheading. This challenge could not be left  to amateurs so I enlisted the help of my good friends, Marty Sheppard and Brian Silvey. These two veterans of the winter Steelhead wars are known throughout the west and revered for their exceptional guiding skills. They are the measuring stick against which all Sandy River guides are held to. While it is widely noted that Mr. Silvey has earned the moniker of el Numero uno, Mr. Sheppard is no slouch and a force to be reckoned with. Both men are a pleasure to fish with and although possessing widely different personalities, maintain a close working relationship and friendship. They both also have a fondness for cookies.

Weather is always a factor when pursuing winter Steelhead, but you can't control it nor spend too much time worrying about it. This year the forecast was for near perfect conditions yet as we all know forecasts can be wrong. A persistent rain greeted Stefan's Wednesday evening arrival and seemed to be more enthusiastic than was anticipated. While some rain would be nice to freshen up the rivers, too much would be detrimental to our expedition. As it is often said, you pay your money and take your chances. 

Thursday proved to be a wash in the end as rising water sent fish scurrying upriver, too hurried to grab a fly. Marty had drawn the short straw and it was his lot to be the host as the flow increased 4000 cfs over the course of the day. In addition, most of the guide contingent was plying the water, jockeying for position as the river invaded the willows. While we were drenched by torrents of rain for most of the morning hours, our enthusiasm held true and was not dampened. If anything, we stood more determined and optimistic for the coming day.

Brian was waiting at the arranged location even though we arrived  several minutes early. Eventually we stood in the morning darkness fully rigged and ready, waiting for enough light to navigate the churning waters. While not a task for those lacking whitewater skills even in daylight, running this section in darkness is best left to experts like Marty and Brian. The ease at which both of these gentlemen pass through the raging boulder laced waters is enviable and a confirmation of their talent.

Unlike the previous day, we found the falling river to be more productive and less populated. We experienced several Steelhead encounters and finally in the afternoon Stefan hooked and successfully landed his first winter Steelhead. Soon he followed it up with his second  winter fish and the code was cracked. He was even nice enough to let me maintain my dignity by leaving a willing fish for me to intercept, kindly netting it for me to end the day.

While Sunday proved to be a test of patience as bobber lobbers in jet boats cruised over our flies on the Clackamas RIver, we were cheered knowing another day on the Sandy River with Brian lay ahead. We could endure the rudeness of lowholers and classless Neanderthals with guide licenses for only so long, finally retreating to the peace of Woodsprite Lodge and a meal of authentic German wiener schnitzel.  My friend proving that Steelheading was not his only skill. His culinary mastery had remained unknown to me having been confined to the opening of a can of chili or Dinty Moore Beef Stew.

Monday dawned and we again faced the day with enthusiasm and optimism. While the river had returned to its pre-deluge stage, we held out hope for another successful day with el Numero uno. Pushing off in the dark had now become commonplace as rocks and standing waves marked our passage to favorite pools. I hope to make this same trip in the daylight soon so I can photograph this wild place.

This was our final day and although the pressure of scoring Stefan's first winter fish had been lifted, it is not in our DNA to be distracted from the task at hand. So focused was I in covering my allotted water that Brian had to alert me to the black bear swimming across the river  just a short cast upriver of my position. While I fumbled for my camera to record this rare event the bruin gained the far bank and scramble into the woods. A grainy video  from the guides phone the only record.

As the sun cleared the trees  the river was soon awash in a blinding glare. Fishing would be different in the crystal water that now flowed off the mountain and towards the sea. In the second run of the day Stefan came fast to a hot fish that broke through the shimmering glass making his reel sing and heart race. Frantic actions by angler and fish were highlighted by the morning light. Soon this powerful traveler was netted and released, relieved of Stefan's hook and one of an angler perhaps less fortunate. A parting splash to thank us for the favor.

It is not possible to have a bad day on the water when the day is spent with good friends, no matter the weather or fishing success. These days are special and live on in stories replayed over and over in conversations or private reflections. These days make up who we are and remain with us even though our friends are miles away. 



State of Jefferson Road Trip

Joel La Follette - Wednesday, February 04, 2015
I've asked my good friend, Jason Atkinson, to write a guest post for the Steelhead Camp blog this week after our visit to a river that is near and dear to his heart. I have refrained from expounding on the fishery in an attempt to secure an invite back to this little slice of Steelhead heaven and leave the telling of the adventure to him. If it seems generalized and cryptic it is for a reason known only to Steelhead anglers. 

You can tell a lot about the character of a person by how they describe the weather. If it needs to be sunny and warm they fall into one camp. If the threat of rain causes concern or a frost warning changes travel plans, then another. If winter weather causes you to pick up your smart phone every 30 minutes to check the river level and you own more GoreTex than neckties, you my friend are probably a Steelheader. 

It’s a small family, we who like bad weather and the thousand casts between stone cold Steelhead who don’t want to move to a perfectly presented wad of feather offerings, but then again most cousins all stem from the same DNA.

This time of year, the wiles of Northern California’s classic Steelhead waters call for the strong willed and cold blooded Spey chuckers who can’t think of anything they’d rather do. I’ve had the sickness a very long time, and last weekend I enjoyed spreading the germs to Joel.

For mid-winter between rains, we did well. Fish down there are shorter and more shouldery than their North Umpqua and Deschutes cousins that make for electric experiences. Certainly, Joel connected with nearly every sliver of silver and red that graced the runs as you might expect. However, unlike so many other tales ours also involved lunch at a yacht club, landing the largest fish at dusk with a mile of river and a class three rapid yet to float, and the hindsight knowledge that seven spey rods, 50 mph, and magnets don’t really do well in the same committee.

All aside, its winter and time to download and study your river levels. There is no better way to catch winter Steelhead than to know your home water- or call a cousin.

Jason A. Atkinson served 14 years in the Oregon Legislature and has just produced the national documentary “A River Between Us” and the book Inside Out (available at Royal Treatment). He is a Rodel Fellow with the Aspen Institute, a commentator and speaker on a wide range of issues. For more: and

Last Cast at Otter Run

Joel La Follette - Saturday, November 27, 1999

Fall is over and winter has begun. Officially I guess winter is still a few weeks away, and the weather is still fallish, but for me fall is over. The end of this, my favorite season, signals the end of my trips to the Deschutes in pursuit of steelhead. I have forsaken my trout rods since September so I might chase after this noble fish, but now the chase is done. It is only the middle of November, but other commitments will keep me at home until December. So this is my last day to fish for steelhead on the river until next year. I have tried to prepare for this day by planning trips to other locations that provide good sport during the months when steelhead are not in the Deschutes or the weather is poor. I hate to see this day come, but it is here. I will fish it and enjoy every minute until it is passed and I am heading home.

I do not mind fishing alone, especially on this day. It is easier to decide when the day has ended when you are alone and do not have to worry about another’s schedule. I have shared a few special days on the river this year with fishing partners I have gleaned from my list of friends. A fishing partner is not chosen lightly or without some consideration of the qualifications. Good companions do not require undue attention and are well equipped. They are self-sufficient, but will ask and give advice willingly. Understanding that the most important thing is just being on the river is another quality and probably the most valuable in a good partner. They are never late. Today though, I fish alone. The way I started the fall season and the way I shall end it.

When it is the last day of the season one chooses carefully the places to fish. They may have been productive all season or provided the most challenge. They may have the best view of the canyon walls as the sun sets, or placed where the sun leaves the water sooner providing more productive fishing time. The places I had fished on this day were a combination of all of these things. One spot remained. Otter Run I had named it, a name I alone use to identify this unremarkable section of river. A friend who guides this river had first brought me here, but he had no name for this place. I have on several occasions been run off by the family of otters that call it home. So Otter Run it became. Once the big male swam right up within a rods distance and snorted his displeasure at my interruption of their family outing. Many evenings I sat watching as they played and hunted crayfish and trout. Many evenings I had hooked steelhead here before being run off, but my score for fish landed at this spot was zero.

I had saved Otter Run for last; my last cast of the season would be made here. Undoubtedly I would be on the river after trout during the colder months, or looking for winter steelhead on another stream. Maybe a trip to warmer climes for bonefish or tarpon like the winter past. My rods would not sit idle, but the fall season would end here. I stepped in at the head of the run with a sense of anticipation, peace, and sadness.

As I worked down through the pool I tried to convince myself that I was glad this was the last time I’d be doing this for a while. I’d been up since before daylight and been in waders the whole time. My feet felt cold and clammy, and I wondered if it was from a leak or just perspiration. I would take care to check that during the off-season. There were many little projects to be done before heading out again. Reels and lines that needed cleaning and fly boxes to fill. I had broken a bootlace this morning and needed to replace those. Yes, I was glad to put an end to the Deschutes steelhead season. Many evenings I had left my trout rods in the truck; with trout feeding all around me I cast for steelhead. “Why do I do this?” I asked myself out loud. I had not had so much as a bump or boil to my fly all of today nor last evening for that matter. Yes, it was good to end the season, today, at this spot.

Halfway down the run I stopped and sat on a boulder that lies just below the surface of the water. As I inspected the fly attached to my tippet I noticed the last rays of sunlight were painting the top of the canyon walls letting me know that time was passing and this day would soon end. I cut the fly away and opened my flybox to deposit it and select another. I had fished it through some good water without a take and with little time or water left I wanted to have a fly I felt good about at the end of my line. As the Chinese would say, “This had been the year of the skunk,” green-butt skunk that is. This pattern had accounted for every steelhead landed and all but one hooked during the season. I had fished many others, but it was the one I was always using when the fish gods smiled. I choose one I had tyed the morning I left on this trip, normal except the wing was a mix of polar bear and arctic fox, a chilly combination.

The spey rod has become quite popular with steelheaders on this side of the pond, and we have adapted it well to the Deschutes and its run of summer steelhead. The rod I held was a far cry from the rod I used on my first steelhead, it’s at least seven feet longer for starters. Casting this fifteen-foot blend of graphite and cork has been a learning experience for me, and one I have not yet mastered. This last day of the season would be good practice if nothing else. With robotic motions I continued down the run. Lift, sweep, back cast, tap out, and mend. When I had cast all the line I could handle I’d reposition myself and start again. Lift, sweep, back cast, tap out, and mend, working to the tail of the run.

With daylight running out and the end of the season in sight I had resigned myself to another fishless day. It wasn’t the first, and no doubt would not be the last. That was not important. It had been a wonderful day to be on the river and had been a fair fall season of steelheading. I had set a new personal mark with a sixteen-pound summer fish in September and had finished off the season with several nice native fish. Now it was time for the last cast.

Lift, sweep, back cast, tap out, and mend. I followed the path of the fly line as it swung toward shore. The final cast, the last day. Tug. Tug. I let the loop of line slip from my fingers, tug, tug, tug. I raised the rod to the shoreline and set the hook. What followed can only be appreciated by someone who has been in this position. A chrome bright steelhead erupted from the water in cartwheels, seeming never to re-enter the water. Each explosion was followed by another as the fish headed back toward the Pacific, several hundred miles away. It seemed as if she’d never stop as the line melted away and the backing started through the guides. Gaining speed she stayed in the water for a brief run straight away then continued her airborne trek to the sea. Then she stopped. Holding in fast water it now became a matter of endurance. I gained line slowly, very slowly. Now she was off again in giant arcing leaps upstream as if trying to ascend some unseen waterfall. With each jump I lowered the rod taking care to not let her come down on a tight line. She was closer now and I was gaining line. Soon she would be carefully beached and the hook she tried so hard to shake would be removed. After a picture of her lying in the shallows and a few moments of admiration she would be allowed to swim free. I would have won this battle and ended the season as it should be ended.

With the tip of my rod now at the leader I led the fish toward the spot I had chosen for her surrender. It had been a gallant fight, but I had won. My prize would be a photo and memories of a splendid evening on the river during my favorite season. Hers would be freedom. I could see every ray in her fins and tail. A pink stripe that ran from her cheek down her side highlighted her chrome bright body. She slid toward the shore yielding to the pressure of the fly rod. Suddenly she bolted toward the center of the river leaping high in the air again in cartwheels above the water. Frantically I lowered the rod to keep the line from parting, but it was too late. I had felt the tippet part with the first jump, but the fish continued to leap, not knowing she was free, freedom on her terms.

It may seem hard to believe for some, but I did not curse or vocalize my feelings. I made no sound at all. As the last ripples that marked her departure faded I stood smiling at the turn of events. My question of why had been answered. One never knows what will happen when steelhead are the quarry and fall is in the air.

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