Life, Death, and Steelhead

In his relatively short guiding career, Joe Randolph became one of the greatest steelhead fishermen on the Deschutes River.

Deschutes River.
The lower Deschutes River in central Oregon is world famous for its annual run of wild steelhead.Rick Adair

He eased the drift boat into the awakening river. A chinook crashed the surface. Chukars on the far bank cackled. The rising sun gradually lightened Mack’s Canyon and opened color in the water that had streamed black in the predawn. The current carried us to the first bend, and Joe Randolph angled the oars for the turn where the Deschutes widened before us, wild and swift. The river pulsed beneath the hull. It was like riding a beast, sprung from its cage.

“How’s your wading?” Randolph asked.

“Not bad,” I said.

“O.K.” He steered toward the left bank where I would first wade across the river’s muderously slick rocks. “I’m gonna kill you right off the bat.”

Jeff
Before Jeff Perin took a chance on Randolph and hired him to work as at guide at his shop; before Randolph became this larger-than-life character—not to mention one of the most sought-after steelhead guides in the country; before their arguments about money and their falling out, and the lies and theft that followed; before Perin had no choice but to turn Randolph in to the police; before Randolph, 49 years old, walked out of a bar, got into his truck with the garden hose he'd stolen from Perin stashed in the backseat, and drove alone into the woods one November night; before any of this, Jeff Perin and Joe Randolph were good friends.

They met in 2005, the year Randolph moved to Sisters, Ore. Randolph became a regular at the Fly Fisher’s Place, a charming little shop in town that Perin owns. He would strut in, wearing flip-flops, board shorts, a faded T-shirt, and that beat-up Patagonia hat, and make his way to the fly case where he’d bullshit with anyone around. Perin always loved having Randolph around the shop. He thought he was a "super nice guy" and so easy to get along with. Before long, the two were fishing buddies.

Randolph’s talent on the water stunned Perin, and every time they fished together, Randolph only seemed to get better. Plus, Perin thought Randolph was a blast to fish with. Knowing Randolph didn’t have a job, Perin couldn’t help but imagine what a great guide he’d make. And so, in 2007, Randolph started his career as a guide for the Fly Fisher’s Place.

*****

I traveled to Oregon in Sept. 2011 to chase steelhead—a fish I’d dreamed of catching since I was a teenager, ever since I first heard its superhero name. I booked a two-day trip on the Deschutes River through the Fly Fisher’s Place, and I was told that my guide, Joe, wanted me to meet him at a hotel parking lot in Maupin, a town 90 miles north of Sisters, at 4:30 a.m. Afraid I’d oversleep, I pulled into the lot around 10:30 p.m. the night before and planned to sleep in my car. Little did I know there’d be an outdoor wedding reception at the hotel that would go to damn near 1 a.m. A deejay with a fondness for Def Leppard and Journey and a dance floor of hammered guests kept me awake the whole time.

The next morning, right on time, I watched a pair of headlights come down the dark road and turn into the hotel lot. The vehicle stopped about 20 yards in front of my rental. The headlights blinded me, and I couldn’t get a look at who was behind the wheel. A door opened, and I watched a dark ghost of a silhouette climb out and swing the door shut. The figure considered me, for a moment.

“Colin?”

In the light, somehow, Randolph looked more tired than I felt. This made sense when, as the red Chevy crawled along the gravel road toward the put-in at Mack’s Canyon, Randolph mentioned that he and a friend had crashed last night’s wedding and kept things going afterward. He laughed when I told him that he was the reason I couldn’t sleep. As we neared the launch, Randolph asked if I’d ever caught a steelhead. "No,” I said. “Always wanted to, though.”

Then he asked if I’d ever cast a Spey rod, and I told him that would be a first, too. He smiled and nodded, as if realizing how difficult his job for the next two days would be. He assured me that he could help with the casting part, but what he needed most from me only I could control. “I need you to be determined that there’s a steelhead on whatever rock you’re casting to,” he said. “You have to believe there’s a fish.”

Joe Randolph, steelhead guide
Randolph drifts down the Deschutes River to the next hole.Mike Harley

Florence
They met on a blind date in Monterey, Calif., in 2002. Florence Belmondo was shy back then, but Randolph made her feel comfortable right from the start. He was outgoing, charming, and fun. He took her dancing that night. About a year later, with no one else present but a judge, they were married on a beach.

As a couple, they rode quarter horses through the Carmel Valley. They traveled: to Mexico where he surfed and she boogie-boarded, and to Oregon where he snowboarded and she skied. They both fell in love with the state.

They loved how quiet and less crowded Oregon was compared with California and how far money could go toward a home. Randolph especially loved all the rivers, streams, and lakes; he used to tell Florence about how much he enjoyed fishing as a kid, but work, family, and life in general had made it hard for him to find time to fish as an adult. The idea of starting over again in Oregon thrilled him.

They bought a house in Sisters, and after they settled in, Florence surprised her new husband with a guided fishing trip on the Deschutes. He was never quite the same after he caught his first steelhead in that river. Florence remembers he came home rejuvenated, almost like a new man. “He fell in love with flyfishing,” she says.

Florence and Randolph had both been married and divorced and had children from their previous marriages. Her kids moved with them to Oregon from the start, and Randolph’s—his son, Hank, and little girl, Maddi—arrived one year later, in 2006. Florence remembers how terribly Randolph missed his kids and how ecstatic he was to have them again.

As a family, they lived on a big ranch with horses and dogs and plenty of space for kids to be kids. Randolph coached the children’s baseball and basketball teams while Florence cheered from the stands. As if life wasn’t good enough, Randolph now lived near more water than he could fish in a lifetime.

*****

Randolph lit a Marlboro and stepped out of the anchored drift boat, clenching a 13-foot 3-inch Spey rod. He waded into the river and stopped maybe 15 paces from the bank and pushed up his fleece sleeves. His forearms were chiseled and deeply tanned, and on his inside left arm was the tattoo of a Freight Train—his favorite steelhead fly—inked so the hook pierced his skin. As he stripped line off the reel, he walked me through the basics of Spey casting, though I didn’t absorb much. I was too busy trying to keep my footing on the slick rocks, and once he started casting I was too awestruck to hear a word he said.

He pointed the rod tip downstream and, with energy from the current, loaded the rod and manipulated the line into graceful loops, arcs, and shoots, launching a Green Butt Skunk a country mile before it landed into the river with the gentlest drop. Even the sounds his casts made—the air whooshes and water streaks—seemed natural. He made a dozen casts, each more artistic than the last, before he handed me the rod.

“Your turn.”

Fishing for steelhead
The author, brand new to Spey casting, follows his fly through a run.Colin Kearns

Brenda
Her voice is tender as she tries hard to remember moments together with her only son. She hasn't known him in a very, very long time.

She remembers he was born Nov. 28, 1963, in the same New Orleans hospital where she was born. She remembers how outgoing Joey was as a little boy, always greeting folks he passed as he walked down the street.

She remembers taking Joey to fish in the park where he’d bring biscuit dough for bait. She remembers times when Joey would be fishing with friends and he was the only one to catch anything.

She remembers Joe, now in high school, catching this one big bass. She remembers having it mounted for Joe and how proud her son was to hang it inside his bedroom. She remembers when Joe worked as a gas-station attendant and his boss would sometimes call asking why he never showed up for his shift. She remembers thinking, Well, he's probably gone fishing.

Kay
Her only brother was the middle child. Kay was the big sister by about 13 months; his little sister, Fran, was three years younger. Their parents divorced when Joey was in fourth grade, and all three kids stayed with their father at first. He was a Navy pilot, and they lived at Naval Air Station Lemoore, south of Fresno, Calif.

Kay and Joey were close as kids and spent a lot of time outside. They built tumbleweed forts and declared tennis-ball-cannon wars on the neighbor kids. They dug trenches and filled them with water or fire, then made “Evel Knievel jumps” over them on their bikes. One of them always seemed to be in trouble, and when their mom or dad didn’t know whom to blame, they’d blame the both of them—because they knew Kay and Joey would never tell on each other.

The kids moved around a lot, mainly up and down California, including time in Fresno with their mother. When Joey was in junior high, he and his sisters moved to Mississippi with their father and stepmom. He and Kay grew apart during that period. Sure, they’d gone their separate ways, as siblings at that age often do, but Joey had changed, Kay remembers. He would get angry and act hostile, particularly toward his stepmom. “He wasn’t nice to her,” Kay says, matter-of-factly. His behavior reached the point where it was best for everyone if he moved back to Fresno to live with his mother.

About a year later, Kay moved back to California to attend Fresno State, and she and her brother became close again. He was in high school—old enough to go by “Joe” now, but still too young for a driver’s license, so Kay was his ride to the river. She’d help him load the flat-bottomed boat he’d built himself from plywood and fiberglass into the back of her small pickup. “I need to get out there on the water,” he told her. “Fishing on the shore isn’t good enough.”

She’d drop her brother off at the San Joaquin River or Millerton Lake and a few hours later, when Joe came off the water, she was there to bring him home.

*****

Steelhead fishing in Oregon
Land one steelhead, and you might never fish for another species again.Brian Grossenbacher

I can hold my own with a fly rod and I assumed that skill would transfer to a Spey rod. I was wrong. At the first few holes, I was a disaster. Every other cast, it seemed like the fly either smacked the rod blank and died mid-cast or snagged the bank behind me. Time after time, Randolph had to untangle my line or retie my rig entirely. He never put me down, but I could tell that he was getting frustrated. What good is it to be the first on the best water on the river first if you can’t even make a decent cast?

I’d only known Randolph for a few hours, but already I liked him. I admired his talent with such an intricate skill and sensed that any frustration he might’ve felt did not stem from impatience with me. He’d be there to help me all day long. But he needed me to get better at Spey casting, because until I did he couldn’t help me catch my first steelhead—a fish that I was beginning to believe Randolph wanted as badly as I did. For the rest of the time we spent at that pool, I erased the idea of catching a fish just yet. Instead, I focused only on the casting—the motion, the timing, the rhythm—so I’d be ready for the next spot.

Jeff
After Jeff Perin hired him as a guide, Randolph would go fishing alone, for days at a time, to master the rivers and creeks of central Oregon. Randolph discovered the best holes, figured out how to run the roughest rapids, and waded boulder to boulder till he found that magic drift. He taught himself skills with a Spey rod that took other anglers seasons to master. "He'd go practice, practice, and practice until he perfected it," Perin says. "He absorbed everything. Joe was one of the best steelhead fishermen I had ever seen—certainly the best steelhead guide I'd ever worked with—and it didn't take him much time to get to where he was."

As to how Randolph became so good so fast, Perin has a few ideas: For starters, the guy was a natural athlete. Randolph, who went to junior college on a basketball scholarship, stood 6-5 and could easily wade the deeper holes where steelhead often hold. A former surfer and scuba diver, he was fearless in water—an advantage in a river as dangerous as the Deschutes. In his 30s, while living in northern California, Randolph taught himself golf and became skilled enough to work as a pro at one of the world’s most famous clubs, Pebble Beach. The rhythm and power of his golf swing surely translated into a fluid and far-reaching Spey cast, one of the most beautiful Perin has ever seen.

Randolph fished by a maxim that Perin came up with on a trip down the Deschutes: Wade deep. Cast far. Fear not. Randolph understood as well as anyone that steelheading demands determination. Determination to get up before dawn to reach the best spot first. To meet dangerous waters head on. To make one more cast, then one more, then one more…and never stop, because that determination fuels the unteachable, unconditional belief that on every single cast a steelhead is going to strike. "Eventually, I can give up on steelhead," Perin says. "Joe never gave up."

Randolph was even more determined when he had a client in his boat, and did whatever was necessary to catch the most steelhead on the river—even if it meant committing a mortal steelhead sin: nymphing with a Spey rod. Perin says Randolph was one of the first guides to adopt the cheeseburger rig—a Double Bead Peacock Stonefly and Lightning Bug dropper fished beneath a strike indicator—and every time one of his clients cast that meaty monstrosity with a sophisticated Spey rod, it was a symbolic "fuck you!" to the purists who believed steelhead should only be caught on the swing with a traditional wet fly. Randolph’s aggressive tactics no doubt pissed off other guides, but they paid off, too. Because on a river where catching just one fish a day is often considered good, Randolph was upset if his boat didn’t land a dozen, and when a guide puts up steelhead numbers like that, word spreads fast.

“I’ve been lucky to fish with guides from New Zealand to Russia, and a lot of places in between,” Perin says. “Joe was one of the most popular guides I’ve seen anywhere in the world. He had a following of customers like you wouldn’t believe.”

Coach
Standing in the parking lot outside a grocery store in Sisters, Mark Few noticed a tall guy come out carrying a case of PBR. Few watched as the stranger set the beer into a trailered drift boat, then called out: "Where are you going?"

“Steelhead fishing,” Randolph said.

“Steelhead fishing?”

At that, Randolph turned and realized that the guy he'd been talking to was Mark Few—as in the Mark Few, men's basketball coach at Gonzaga University, one of the country's elite teams. Randolph was a diehard college hoops fan, and Few had fished his whole life. The two hit it off instantly.

It was early in the steelhead season, and Randolph was going out to scout. They exchanged numbers, and Randolph promised to call once the fish arrived. Later that summer, Few got a phone call. “Coach,” Randolph said. He always called Few coach. “They’re in.” Few met Randolph at Mack’s Canyon, and they caught close to 30 steelhead—in one day.

“The most unbelievable day of fishing I’ve ever had,” Few says. “It was unreal.”

Few respected how Randolph wasn’t afraid to try new things to catch more fish. He was impressed by how well Randolph knew the Deschutes. And he loved how positive Randolph always appeared—how his attitude brightened the life around him, including the steelhead. “Joe had great mojo with the fish,” Few says.

After that trip, Few never fished the Deschutes with any guide but Randolph.

*****

Joe Randolph, aka Stealhead Joe
Before he started guiding, Randolph stayed at home with his kids and stepchildren.Florence Belmondo

The Thingamabobber above my cheeseburger rig dunked under the water at Steely Flats, and I tried to set the hook. When I felt nothing, I tried again. Then a fish jumped.

Any doubt that I’d come tight to a fish vanished when I heard one of the loudest, most guttural cries in my life: “STEELHEAD ON!” Randolph’s shout might’ve stopped my heart if I weren’t already terrified enough of losing my first steelhead. I’d never seen someone come to life like that over a fish—especially a fish someone else caught. I landed and released the wild steelhead, but before I could think about celebrating or resting, Randolph told me to get back to fishing. One steelhead a day wasn’t enough.

Florence
In the beginning, Florence was excited for her husband. She could see how much he loved guiding and how good he was at it. He was funny and personable and a patient teacher, and he'd always taken a deep interest in helping people. "Guiding was perfect for him," she says.

After a while, though, Florence began to see that the job wasn't perfect for them. Guiding is one thing when you don't have a family, but she and Randolph had a family—a pretty big one, too. "When you have all these kids, guiding just doesn't provide enough money—and there's no medical coverage, none of those things," Florence says. "That was the beginning of some issues." To make matters worse, the more popular Randolph became on the river, the less time he could spend at home with his family.

Jeff
To go with the athletic talent and raw determination, Perin can point to one other factor that made Randolph, his ace guide, such a great steelhead fisherman—and it might have been the most significant factor of all, certainly the hardest to explain. Randolph was, quite simply, as fishy as they get. His instincts, so in tune with the waters and the fish, were so sharp that the people who know fishing, and knew Randolph—people like Perin—struggle to describe him any other way. "Joe was just fishy." Randolph was fishy everywhere he fished, but nowhere was he fishier than on the Deschutes. He knew every rock, seam, and crevice. He knew where the steelhead held and what they'd bite. He lived for that river.

“Joe felt a connection to life when he was on the Deschutes,” Perin says. “That river had a pulse that somehow beat with the same pulse of Joe’s heart.”

*****

When we broke for camp at Harris Canyon, I was more than ready to get off the water. My knees hurt from too many slips on the rocks, and my hands and arms ached from too many bad casts. I was tired and cold and just wanted to rest. Randolph let me sit long enough for a swig of Fireball and a few sips of beer before he told me to get back on the river and fish the stretch that ran along camp.

Even though Randolph was only trying to give me more time on the water so I could hopefully catch another steelhead, I resented him for staying back at camp, relaxing and drinking. At least he’d finally let me use the one-handed fly rod that I’d brought along. Compared to the Spey rod, it felt like a feather and was easier on my arm. But I must've gotten used to the bigger stick, because my casting went to shambles and soon my line was in a mess of a knot. I was struggling to untangle the tippet when, impulsively, I turned around: There was Randolph, holding a Spey rod for me to use. I don’t know how long he’d been watching, but for the rest of the way, until I finished the run, he stayed by my side.

Florence
In summer 2008, Randolph's kids, Hank and Maddi, moved back to California; their mother had regained custody. Once they were gone, the man Florence Belmondo thought she would grow old with was never the same. "He went into guiding 100 percent," she says, "and let go of everything else."

Coach
A day on the Deschutes is never leisurely—but it was even less so when Coach Few and Randolph fished together. The night before a trip, Few would drive down from Washington. If he made good time, he'd reach the Mack's Canyon launch by 3 a.m. and unfold a cot and sleep until Randolph arrived. By 4:30 a.m. they'd be on the water. Twenty-six miles later, around 10 p.m., they would take out at the mouth of the Columbia River where the Deschutes ends.

For just about every other guide on the Deschutes, the trip from Mack’s to the mouth would be spread across at least two days, sometimes three. To float it in one day demanded a guide who was bold and devoted—but also smart. Randolph was that guide, and Few loved him for it. “We had the same mind-set when we fished,” Few says. “We tried to have a great time, but we fished hard. Really, really hard.”

Competing guides would see Randolph haul ass past them in his drift boat, and must have simultaneously cursed him for getting to the next hole faster and questioned him for skipping so much good water. What those guides might not have understood was that to cover so much water in one day, Randolph had to be hyperselective in the holes he fished. During a day float that long, he had time for maybe six stops—but they’d be the very best six stops, and Randolph would fish them for all they were worth. An angler like Coach Few could pull tight on 10 steelhead in one hole. “If you went with Joe,” Few says, “you hooked *a lot *of fish.”

When the mouth of the Columbia River finally appeared, Few would go home—but not Randolph. It was nothing for him to schedule three, four, or five Mack’s-to-the-mouth trips in a row. As soon as one ended, he’d drive all the way back upriver that night. If he was lucky, he might get to sleep for a few hours before he had to be on the water again at 4:30 a.m.

Alex
Randolph saw something in Alex Gonsiewski. Gonsiewski was hired on as a guide at the Fly Fisher's Place in 2009, and Randolph took a quick liking to him. Like Randolph, Gonsiewski wanted to turn over every river rock to see what was under it. Like Randolph, Gonsiewski wanted to float the whole river in a day, trailer the boat, run back to the dock, and do it all over again. Like Randolph, Gonsiewski had made up his mind that fishing would be the most important thing in his life.

When the two had time off that coincided, they’d fill the cooler with beer and PB&Js and hit the Deschutes for days, and on those trips Randolph taught Gonsiewski the river. He showed him how to float Mack’s to the mouth in one day. He shared some of his best spots. He helped Gonsiewski become a better guide—and he did that by letting Gonsiewski know how much he believed in him.

“Joe thought I had it,” Gonsiewski says. “I think that’s part of the reason people liked fishing with him so much. He was good at making people feel really confident about themselves.”

Florence
All her husband seemed to care about was fishing, and the only place he seemed at peace was the Deschutes. If he wasn't guiding, he'd disappear—for days, even weeks, at a time. He'd come home for a spell, then leave again. Sometimes he'd call to check in; other times not.

“Fishing was his escape,” Florence says. “That way he didn’t have to think too much about the fact that he wasn’t with his kids. Some people think they can escape by doing something they enjoy. But you can’t be doing that 24/7. You have moments where everything else comes back.”

They divorced in Jan. 2009.

Alex
It took him a bit longer, but Gonsiewski saw something in Randolph, too. Spend as much time with a person as Gonsiewski did with his friend and coworker, and it would've been hard to miss. Gonsiewski saw a guide who was burdened and stressed by his high-profile clients who'd gotten too used to catching 10 steelhead a day and now demanded too much of Randolph. He saw a father who, as much as he said he missed his kids, made little effort to get them back or stay in touch; a man who regretted things that had happened in his life off the water, who lived with plenty of heartache. He saw that for as much confidence as Randolph gave others, he had very little of his own.

“Most days, if you looked in his eyes,” Gonsiewski says, “there wasn’t a lot there.”

Steelhead fishing
Randolph, with friend and fellow guide Alex Gonsiewski, prepares to release a steelhead.Alex Gonsiewski

*****

After breakfast, we floated down to a small island very close to camp. Randolph tied a Cold Medicine—a big, bright streamer with hollowed barrel eyes—on my line and told me to swing it through the current, then take two steps down after each cast until I reached the end of the run.

It was 8:15 a.m. when I was standing in the middle of the pool, and a burst from the river scorched all the way up my fishing line like a lit fuse before it reached the reel and exploded in my right hand. I hardly had a chance to react before I heard, once again, that gorgeous cry.

“STEELHEAD ON!”

Brenda
She remembers moments when she wasn't the best mom. She remembers her own battles with depression, and she thinks about how they must have impacted her son. She remembers when Joe, after he'd moved out, began to distance himself from her. She remembers how, on the rare occasions she might see her son, he was always warm and cordial, but their past was never far behind.

Kay
Joe moved to Oregon without ever saying goodbye. To this day, Kay still doesn't know why her brother, as an adult, pushed her away. "Maybe it was pride," she says. "Maybe it was something else." She thought that the two of them—as close as they'd once been—could've worked through any problem together. Joe was never willing to try, but she was. She'd call him in Oregon, and sometimes he'd actually pick up. She'd ask how he was holding up, and mention the idea of coming to visit, because it would've been so nice to see him and because she loved the thought of her brother taking her husband and son fishing. Joe never got back to her on that.

*****

My casting had gotten better. I no longer felt like I had to focus on every little motion of every single cast. As the actions came more naturally, my thoughts drifted. I thought about my wife of only a few months and what she was doing back home. I thought of work and what would be waiting for me. I thought of something Randolph had said when I asked him why he loved coming to the Deschutes.

“Because you don’t have to think,” he’d said.

Jeff
For some guides, the end of the steelhead season each winter meant the chance to do something new until next year's run. "For Joe," Perin says, "it was like the end of the world."

Come winter, Randolph’s home was no longer the river but his house, where he was alone and where troubling reminders of his divorce, estranged children, and increasing debt consumed him.

One day in 2011, around Christmas, Perin noticed some of the camping gear the Fly Fisher’s Place used for guide trips was missing. And one of the drift boats was gone. Perin called the shuttle driver, who confirmed what he’d feared: Randolph had taken the boat. State police dispatched search crews in a Cessna and jet boat and found Randolph riding the Deschutes, alone in the cold.

This was the second winter in a row that Randolph had given Perin and other friends in Sisters cause for alarm. But unlike his first attempt, this time Randolph had not left a note. When Randolph was back safe in town, Perin asked him point-blank: “You tried to kill yourself last year. Did you go down the river to try and do it again?”

“I went down there to think about doing it,” he said.

*****

We hadn’t gone downriver very far—a mile at most. It was already past noon, and we still had plenty of river to go before we reached the mouth. Randolph decided we should make an aggressive move to Power Line Hole. We’d have to skip some good water to get there, but he promised it’d be worth it, as long as we were first. “We could pull 10 fish outta there if no one’s messed with it,” he said. “Could be one fish, but it’ll at least be one.”

Once we arrived at Power Line Hole, something seemed off. The water was fast and up to my chest—but not so much faster or deeper than other spots I’d fished so far. And in those spots, while I might’ve slipped here and there, I could at least stand still. At Power Line Hole, though, I could not. It felt like I was skating on the boulders, and because I was positioned near the ledge of a deep dropoff, that wasn’t a good feeling. Meanwhile, Randolph was chilling in the anchored boat, smoking and drinking.

“Wade deeper!” he yelled.

I didn’t dare move. One wrong step, and I feared that I’d lose my balance and be swept down current in a river that claims a few lives every year. I tried to cast but failed miserably. Whatever comfort or rhythm I’d found earlier had vanished. I was terrified. Not even Randolph’s promise of one fish—maybe 10—was enough to keep me on that ledge.

Gingerly, I took one step backward, then another, and another until I was in safe, shallow water. Randolph didn’t say a word to me as I trudged back. I could tell he was disappointed. After I climbed into the boat on my own, I looked at the bottom of my boots: The rock-gripping felt soles on both had completely worn off, claimed by the Deschutes.

Jeff
In 2012, Randolph moved from Sisters to Maupin—a decision Perin believes Randolph made to get away from the support group of friends that had come together to keep an eye on him. "I think he finally decided he didn't want us on top of him," Perin says. "The best way to do that was to move a couple hours away." Whatever the reason, Randolph's troubles—the loved ones he missed, money he owed—followed him.

That summer, in mid July, he was scheduled to guide three trips in three days for the Fly Fisher’s Place. After the first trip, those first-time clients—not knowing any better—tipped Randolph just $25, which he drained into his gas tank. When the second trip ended, the clients told Randolph they’d put his tip on their credit-card bill with the shop instead of giving him cash. Randolph raged. As he sped home that night, he left furious voicemails for Perin, saying that he had no money and nothing to eat. He accused Perin of holding back tips. The day of the third trip, Randolph stood up his clients.

Perin scrambled to find the clients a replacement guide. Then, fed up, he fired Randolph, the greatest steelhead guide he’d ever known.

Alex
Gonsiewski also left the Fly Fisher's Place in 2012—but on good terms. He went to another outfitter where he could get more clients, earn more money, and keep making a name for himself as one of the best young guides on the Deschutes. He and Randolph remained close friends.

Gonsiewski and Randolph used to kick around the idea of starting their own outfitter, but as exciting as the prospect was, Gonsiewski never took it too seriously because he knew Randolph too well. “Joe was good on the river, but the other stuff that comes with having an outfit—the bookkeeping, running a website—was not Joe’s forte,” Gonsiewski says. “He didn’t have the drive or ability to get better at those things. He knew that, and I think it bothered him.”

After he was fired, Randolph began guiding illegally on the Deschutes, taking clients on the water without insurance or a permit. Breaking the law must’ve seemed easier than running a business.

Jeff
Shortly after their falling out, Perin learned that Randolph had been stealing clients. Randolph was contacting former anglers of his, convincing them to cancel trips with the Fly Fisher's Place so he could guide them instead. Perin fumed. He said he lost thousands of dollars and couldn't afford to let Randolph continue. A few other Oregon outfitters who learned of Randolph's actions took Perin's side. Together, they alerted state police of Randolph's renegade outfit. Randolph was ticketed and ordered to appear in court, where his life as a steelhead guide would've likely been suspended, if not abolished.

Randolph never spoke to Perin again.

For years, Randolph had distanced himself from people who for one reason or another he wanted out of his life. Now, through acts all his own, the Deschutes River and guiding—the only things in his life he seemed determined to keep as close as possible—had been taken away from him.

*****

Colin kearns steelhead
The author hold his biggest steelhead, a 10-pound wild hen.Colin Kearns

I asked Randolph if my busted wading boots would limit where we could fish.

“Yeah,” he said. For a time after that, I didn’t hear a word from him.

We had to skip Triangle Hole because it was too deep and slick for me. At the next hole, Randolph literally had to hold my hand as we walked across the boulders. I was humiliated. We tried a few spots that were shallow enough for me to wade, but I could tell that Randolph’s heart was not in it. At this point, we were just killing time.

Alex
One rare day off between guide trips last November, Gonsiewski heard that Randolph was missing. He knew Randolph had gone on floats before and just not told anyone, and he hoped that was the case this time. But knowing Randolph as well as he did, Gonsiewski couldn't help but worry.

Gonsiewski left his friend a couple of voice messages, asking where he was. He waited as long as he could, hoping to hear back, before he had to leave for another multiday trip on the Deschutes.

*****

I hated the thought that I’d disappointed Randolph, after he’d worked so hard to put me on fish. He could’ve used my wardrobe malfunction as an excuse to end the trip early—and, honestly, I wouldn’t have argued. I was too tired and defeated. I was ready to give up on steelhead. But Randolph wasn’t ready, because there was still river to fish.

He never gave up on me and he never put me down. Instead, he did what only the best guide would’ve done: He found safer water, stuck the rod in my hand, and told me to keep fishing. And an hour later, after the Spey rod buckled under the strength of my third wild steelhead, Randolph was there to help me release it back into the Deschutes, alive and strong.

Alex
The day Gonsiewski got off the river from his trip, he checked his phone to see if Randolph had called. Instead, he found a message from his old boss, Jeff Perin, who called to let Gonsiewski know that police had found Randolph.

He was dead inside his truck, parked near a patch of woods outside of town with a garden hose snaking from the tailpipe into his vehicle.

*****

That last steelhead seemed to bring life to Randolph. He plowed downstream, racing the surviving daylight, until we reached Grasshopper Hole. I started swinging a Cold Medicine through the run without any instruction from Randolph until he called out and pointed to a boulder sticking halfway out of the water a hundred yards downstream. “As soon as the end of your line touches that rock—” he yelled, then mimed calling it quits.

I nodded, but as I worked my way downriver something changed. The closer I came to the boulder, the farther away I wanted it to be. A few hours earlier, I would’ve given anything to reel up and abandon this river. But now I wanted to stay. Because here, at our last stop, everything that Randolph taught me had taken hold. My rod traveled the same orbit on every cast. My line glided through the guides. My fly unrolled and dropped gently in the current. And so I went from taking two steps after each cast, to one step. Then from one step to a half step. I believed my steelhead was out there, on whatever rock I was casting to, and I was determined to catch it. So I kept casting and casting and casting—more and more hopeful after each that my line would pull tight—until finally, after my fly was swinging far past the boulder, I accepted the last cast and gave up.

I walked back to the boat where Randolph was waiting at the bow, smiling. He didn’t say so, but he must’ve noticed that I’d fished farther than I was told. Maybe he didn’t say anything because he understood why I couldn’t stop. Maybe he let me keep going because he didn’t want to leave the Deschutes either.

“Good job,” he said.

“Thanks.”

Jeff
He misses those early days—before Randolph's rise to steelhead fame, before they worked together—when Randolph would come into the Fly Fisher's Place and hang out and laugh. He misses the days when they were just friends.

Brenda
She remembers her son's heart, his sweet heart. She remembers him as loving and vulnerable. She remembers, and misses most, those big hugs.

Alex
The first time Gonsiewski floated Mack's to the mouth again was hard. Not seeing Randolph at the bar is hard. Days off, when Gonsiewski likes to fish, are real hard. "He was my fishing buddy," Gonsiewski says. "I was always good at just having one fishing buddy because you don't need more than one."

Kay
She wants her nephew and niece to know she'll do whatever she can for them. She wants them to know how much their father really did love them.

She’d want her brother to know his son and daughter are doing O.K. “They’re great kids,” Kay says. “For all they’ve been through, they’re great kids.”

Coach
Mark Few isn't sure what this fishing season will be like. He loves the Deschutes too much to stay away for very long. When he does return, he'll bring with him all he learned from Randolph—the nymph rigs, the casting lessons, the knowledge of the river. And he'll always bring that belief.

“Coach,” Randolph used to tell him, “it’s great to fish with you because you just know you’re gonna catch a fish. You’ve got that belief.”

Florence
It's happened a few times since last November: She'll be in town and notice a tall guy wearing the same style of hat and board shorts that he used to wear, and instantly in her mind—before she has a chance to remind herself that he couldn't be, that he cannot be—she sees him.

*****

Deschutes river
A stretch of Deschutes River rapids.Colin Kearns

He eased the drift boat into the blackening river. The sun had fallen, and the river was quiet and calm until the current carried us to Rattlesnake Rapids, one last test before the mouth. Chop slapped the hull as the boat began to bob and gain speed. The white-capped water pulsed beneath us. He pulled back on the oars, and just as he had so many times in his life—with new clients and old friends, with the people he loved and the ones he kept in his heart—Joe Randolph rode the Deschutes to the end.