Last weekend my brother came to Oregon to chase sea-run salmonids — leaving straight from his job in Manhattan — JFK to PDX — and arriving at 11pm. I picked him up and headed to The Dalles. I assumed the West Side was blown out — better see what’s happening in the desert, so we spent the night at a Best Western drinking booze and talking shit about all the fish we were going to catch.
We rallied early the next morning, wolfed down a breakfast of chicken-fried steak and gravy, and set off for the John Day at Cottonwood Bridge. I had heard that big Idaho-bound steelhead would be making the trip up the Columbia and a fair number of them would be creeping up the John Day, just to check it out. It seemed worth a shot.
My local fly shop told me to expect crowds — John Day was supposed to be the only water worth fishing after the rain and close to Portland to boot — but when we got to Cottonwood, there was only one other car. The water was chocolate milk — but not too high. Undeterred, we walked down the bank to the only holding water on the run and drifted just about everything in my fly box through it.
At that point we had a choice, backtrack towards the mouth to the one access point downstream, or dive further into the desert with no idea where we were going or how to fish it or what the roads would be like. We chose the latter.
Some fishing reports said there were steelhead up to Kimberly, so we went for it. The country out there is so open and wild, snow-frosted and desolate. There were birds of prey everywhere — some I’d never seen before. Beautiful and right near the road. But I couldn’t stop to take their pictures because my brother was mocking me for being a birder, said we’d be birding next time he came out instead of fishing. So I passed up some awesome shots. I did manage to take a couple shots of the mule deer herds — they stand out in the winter like you wouldn’t believe.
As you can imagine, Kimberly was a bust. Water still looked like chocolate milk, and by the way, no gas station. So we ran up to Monument along the North Fork of the John Day and fished it (I’m pretty sure illegally) because, well, why not? We drove 4 hours, and getting cited would give us something to talk about.
No steelhead yet in the North Fork though — we cut our losses at around 3pm and decided to go west. Even if my home waters were blown out, they’d be better than this — plus they’d had all day Saturday to clear.
But we had an obstacle to face: Santiam Pass. We’d already skirted some ridiculous roadways — total sheets of ice going through the high desert in my 2-wheel drive Honda Civic. But that pass is almost 5,000 feet and those curves and grades scare the hell out of me. I hadn’t practiced putting on my chains in over a year. But it was that or drive another 6 hours back up to I-84 and down I-5 to Eugene.
Needless to say, we survived and I’m not going back into the desert in the winter without 4-wheel drive and a clue.