Editor’s note: In August 2021, after this story went to press, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife closed steelhead fishing in the lower Deschutes River downstream of the Warm Springs Reservation, owing to record low returns.
THE RESERVATION IS ON FIRE. Two hundred thousand acres are already gone. Smoke covers the scrublands, chokes the valleys, fills the sky. And yet, as Matt Mendes races over Oregon’s high-desert hills this dark autumn morning, his thoughts are dominated not by fire but by steelhead. And not just any steelhead but wild, pure-blooded steelhead—fat from gorging themselves at sea and currently charging up the Deschutes River. He grips the wheel of his silver F-250; tribal war chants boom over the radio. “We fished hard yesterday,” says the 31-year-old fly fishing guide. “We got blank.”
And Mendes hates catching blank more than just about anything else. It doesn’t matter to him that getting blank is a foregone conclusion for most anglers fishing for notoriously hard-to-land, and increasingly scarce, steelhead. Because most anglers don’t know the Deschutes the way he does. “I do 70 trips in a row once steelhead season starts,” he says. “Very rarely do I get blank two days back-to-back.”
Six foot three, with long black hair, Mendes belongs to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, a three-tribe, 3,000-member coalition that governs the Warm Springs Reservation, 100 miles southeast of Portland. Perched on the Cascade Range’s arid eastern side, the 640,000-acre tract is bound to the east by the Deschutes, one of the Pacific Northwest’s last decent steelhead rivers and arguably the most famous. Mendes guides for trout throughout the spring and summer, but the peak of his year spans from September till New Year’s, when steelhead ascend the 252-mile-long river to spawn.
Over the past two decades, the number of steelhead passing through the Warm Springs Reservation has plunged by roughly 86 percent—down to 1,230 fish, according to one 2020 count. The situation is equally dire downriver. It’s estimated that anglers caught fewer than 1,700 steelhead in the Deschutes’ lower 43 miles in 2019, when the state last issued such numbers.
Despite the downturn, Mendes has earned a reputation as one of the Deschutes’ premier steelhead guides by regularly bringing to hand 12-to-15-pound trophies. He takes customers out more than 200 days a year, for both trout and steelhead. But this week he has two rare days off, and he wants to redeem yesterday’s blank and catch a wild steelhead himself—wildfires be damned. “We’re going to be hopping around a lot, chasing shade,” he warns as his truck thunders along a dusty gravel road, headlights cutting through the darkness. “A lot of quick hits, to beat the sun.”
In other words, this will be no leisurely jaunt. This will be sunup-to-sundown steelhead madness. “Clients leave here sore,” Mendes tells me. “I fish the hell out of them.” And today, free of customers, he has zero intention of letting up or going soft, not with a blank hanging over his head, not with wild steelhead blitzing upstream.
The Slow Burn
At first light, Mendes wades along a narrow, muddy bank across from an alfalfa field. Fourteen-foot Spey rod in hand, he whirls a gigantic loop of line around him, then launches it 40 yards across the river. His streamer cruises through the current, swift and dark; at the end of the drift, Mendes strips in, takes a step downriver, and fires again. He repeats this over and over, anticipating a pull.
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Mendes’ steelhead fixation began at age 13, when he took a job shuttling drift boats for his maternal grandfather, Al Bagley, an ornery lumber-mill worker turned fly guide. An 1855 treaty with the United States accords the Confederated Tribes exclusive access to roughly 22 miles of the Deschutes’ west bank. Bagley capitalized on this protected access when he opened the reservation’s first fly fishing guide service in 1997, offering outside anglers a chance to fish the reservation’s prime, largely untouched steelhead runs. At the time, Bagley knew nothing about fly fishing. “My clients taught me everything,” he says.
Mendes, for his part, spent his days bouncing up and down river roads in an old F-350 nicknamed the Green Monster. As he waited for Bagley’s drift boat at the takeout, he would fish for trout and steelhead in back eddies, using pointers gleaned from his grandfather’s clients. After three years, Mendes graduated to guiding, then worked for Bagley for another decade or so before buying out his business in 2016. “Matt gets a big head sometimes,” says Bagley, now 78. “He always had the attitude that he was the best on the river.”
After 20 minutes of casting along the alfalfa field, Mendes wades back to shore. Blank. “Let’s roll.” The truck rumbles through thick scrubland, the sun now hammering down. “Swinging flies for steelhead is about the hardest thing you can do,” Mendes says. “Back when I was a kid, it wouldn’t be out of the ordinary to have a 14- or 15-steelhead day.” Nowadays, one fish is great, he says, and two or three is outstanding. “Last year was the toughest steelhead season I’ve ever been part of. Steelhead just aren’t coming up anymore.”
The Deschutes is a major tributary of the Columbia River. Before white settlers arrived, at least 16 million salmon and steelhead a year migrated up the river from the Pacific Ocean, and a good many of them continued to the Deschutes. In the 19th century, agriculture, commercial fishing, and logging chipped away at the region’s vital fish runs, which had sustained local tribes for millennia. But the biggest blow came in the 1930s, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, followed by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and utility companies, began damming the Columbia and its tributaries—almost entirely cutting off steelhead and salmon from their upstream spawning grounds. The Columbia’s yearly returns careened downward, from about 10 million fish in the late 19th century to 2.4 million by the early 1940s. The number had fallen below 1.5 million by 1975. The returns now average around a million fish a year—a 94 percent drop from historical levels.
The Deschutes has fared little better. In 1964, the utility company Portland General Electric (PGE) completed the Pelton Round Butte hydroelectric complex, a sprawling three-dam project partially owned by the Confederated Tribes. Located on the boundary of the Warm Springs Reservation, the project, and the three reservoirs it created, blocked adult steelhead from reaching nearly 200 miles of spawning grounds and prevented smolts from migrating downriver.
When the dams went up, “ancient runs of sockeye, steelhead, and chinook were lost forever,” says Mark Metzdorff, a Deschutes specialist for the nonprofit Native Fish Society. Ultimately, “The runs failed because smolts couldn’t get downstream from their spawning beds. They can’t make it through three reservoirs and find their way back to the ocean.”
To address the problem, in late 2009, PGE installed a water-withdrawal system, commonly called a mixing tower, at the complex, to lead smolts to a central area in one of the reservoirs for easy collection. That way PGE staff can trap the juvenile fish, truck them around the dams, and then release them downstream—a desperate, artificial way to revive the runs. But the mixing tower initially did little to help fish collection, and at times passed warm, poorly oxygenated water with high pH levels into the lower Deschutes.
Steelhead returns, meanwhile, dropped from more than 7,000 a year to fewer than 2,000, according to counts near one of the complex’s three dams. “Ever since that mixing tower was put in,” Mendes says, “it’s been the downfall of the Deschutes.”
Myriad factors affect steelhead returns, and PGE disputes that the mixing tower had adverse effects on the river’s fish and water quality. But it does admit that it has “improved” how it uses the mixing tower since it was installed. In time, PGE aims to restore self-sustaining salmon and steelhead runs above the complex and to phase out trucking. But “we won’t see that in the next decade or two,” says Megan Hill, PGE’s Deschutes fisheries manager. And there’s no serious talk about removing the dam complex in the meantime, a tactic that has revived steelhead and salmon in Washington’s Elwha River and elsewhere.
The Deschutes’ increasingly dismal steelhead returns represent something of an existential threat to Mendes. “It’s scary,” he says. “I don’t know what I’ll be doing 10 years from now.”
Should steelhead numbers decline further, he struggles to imagine a scenario in which he and his family can afford to stay on the reservation, with jobs already scarce. In 2018, the reservation’s main employer, Kah-Nee-Ta, a 200-room resort and spa, went out of business. Two years before that, the lumber mill where Mendes’ grandfather once worked, which had for a time grossed $30 million annually for the tribe, ceased operations. Most of Mendes’ childhood friends have already left the reservation to work elsewhere. It pains him to think about having to do the same, to abandon his home. He and his wife, Sophia, have worked hard to raise and set a good example for their four young children on the reservation. When Mendes isn’t on the water with clients, he’s usually fishing with his kids. “They think I’m a freaking superhero,” he says.
Mendes pulls up to a spot called Moody Bucket. “This is my grandfather’s favorite hole,” he says. It’s no great mystery why: A gravel bar affords 35 yards of relatively safe, easy wading—a luxury in the notoriously treacherous Deschutes. “I’m going to skate right here, dude,” Mendes tells his buddy Arian Stevens, who’s tagging along for the day.
Mendes ties on a blue-and-purple surface pattern of his own invention, wades out, and casts. Blank. He steps forward, into calf-deep water, and launches his fly into a fast, deep run along the far bank. The fly skates across the surface, zipping near the shore. Then, more than halfway through the drift, a black nose flashes to the surface. The fly vanishes. “That’s a big bitch!” Mendes yells.
He angles his rod toward shore, staying tight. The fish bolts, unzipping line. Mendes eases the steelhead to the shallows. It runs again, diving toward deeper water; he eases it back. “He’s going to freak when he sees you,” Mendes tells me. I am standing 15 yards downriver with the net. “Be ready.”
I am not ready.
Mendes steers the fish toward me; its fins break above the water. I lower the net as the fish hurtles ahead. I reach. The steelhead gets half in, and I lift, hoping it will roll in…or something. But the steelhead slaps its tail and contorts and flops to freedom, leaving me staring down at rushing water.
“OK, OK,” Mendes says. “Get the net low.” He steers the fish back; it rockets forward. But I trip on some impossibly slick stones, an infamous feature of the Deschutes, and can’t get close enough. I’m at the edge of the gravel bar now, one step from going in over my waders. “All right, all right, back up,” Mendes says. “Move downriver. I’ll lead it to you.”
His reel locks up—a freak thing—then whizzes free when the steelhead barrels forward. The very real possibility that I’ll ruin this for Mendes, then have to ride around with him the rest of the day, is paralyzing. But reflexes kick in. I plunge the net deep, burying my arms in the current. I feel the fish’s heft and lift the net. Water sprays. The fish’s muscled body writhes in the net, pink and chrome scales catching sunlight. “Yes!” Mendes yells.
He unhooks the fly and lifts the steelhead for a photo, holding it beneath the belly. Strong and full of color, the fish weighs at least 12 pounds. Mendes guides it back into the water, where it shimmies once and vanishes.
Mendes wades to shore and tosses the net into the grass. It’s not even 8 a.m., we’ve fished a grand total of two spots, and already Mendes has hooked up. And yet he doesn’t radiate the satisfaction you’d expect after landing a steelhead in what’s surely record time. “Well, that’s the biggest fish of the year so far,” he says. “But it was a hatchery fish, and a hatchery fish is just a science experiment.”
Since 1999, when Deschutes steelhead were declared threatened, state and federal agencies have released countless such hatchery-raised fish into the river, and throughout the Columbia Basin, to buttress the collapsing wild population. The problem, Mendes says, is that hatchery fish have weak genes. “We want that wild Deschutes bloodline to stay strong.”
Race Against Time
After the Moody Bucket, we pile into the truck and venture deeper into the backcountry. With clients, Mendes usually covers 12 miles in his drift boat, but today he thinks the pickup will let him scoot up and down the river more quickly. He fishes three spots in quick succession. Blank. Back to the truck.
At noon, we reach a wide and shaded bank across from a sandy hill. Mendes wades out 20 yards. “Fish will be hanging out in this sort of walking-pace water,” he says. He casts three times, raising his rod as his fly moves through the run. On his fourth cast, as his fly swings, he freezes. A pull. He waits for the fish to bolt. A half second passes, but nothing happens. Mendes jerks up, hoping to tighten on the steelhead. Again, nothing. His line falls slack.
Mendes doubles over, as if he’s just been gut-punched. “Dang it!” he yells. The steelhead must have run straight at him and spit the lure.
The rest of the afternoon passes in a blur of heat and hunger and hustling from the truck to the river and back again. At some point, after missing the second steelhead, Mendes decides to upshift from regular quick fishing to “speed fishing,” a blitzkrieg tactic that will leave me exhausted for the better part of the next week but is more or less Mendes’ default operating mode. With only two days off, he’s craving another steelhead—a wild one—and covering as many miles as you can endure tilts the odds in your favor, however slightly.
Mendes hits a half dozen more spots, nearly running from the truck to fish each run as fast and thoroughly as he can, careful never to throw a shadow on the water. His cast never turns sloppy; his gaze never strays from his swinging fly. I haven’t seen him take a sip of water all day; his container of pasta goes untouched in the cooler.
Dusk finds him wading chest-deep across from a set of train tracks. He casts a dozen times, the moon reflecting on the black, swift Deschutes. Darkness creeps over the country. “I’m going off feel at this point,” he says after half an hour. “I can’t see shit.” He isn’t discouraged, though. Night affords big steelhead that have been resting and feeding during the day a chance to sprint upriver. Mendes wants to be ready when they arrive.
The Fire Still Burns
At 6 a.m. the next day, Mendes pulls out of the driveway of his tidy, white-painted home and speeds toward the river. It’s his last chance to hook a steelhead before he has to resume guiding clients.
Smoke again settled over the reservation overnight, and as dawn approaches, the gray silhouettes of mountains sharpen above the scrubland and the plains of tiny yellow desert flowers. Deep down, Mendes doubts he could ever bring himself to leave this place, no matter the state of the steelhead. He says he couldn’t function if he didn’t live along the Deschutes. His grandfather guided on the river for two decades; Mendes wants to log twice as many years before retiring. And he wants to expand his business—maybe buy a motorized drift boat so he can zip down and fish as steelhead enter the Deschutes’ bottom 25 miles each July and August. That might be his only choice one day, with the conditions on his piece of river unlikely to change anytime soon.
Over the past decade, PGE has successfully trucked more than 1.5 million smolts downstream of the Pelton Round Butte complex. Still, “Short of removing the dams, I don’t know how they’re going to revive the runs,” says Metzdorff of the Native Fish Society. “The best hatchery is a wild river.” Complicating matters, the dam complex generates electricity for 150,000 homes, including those on the reservation, and the Confederated Tribes lack an alternate power source.
The morning passes without a pull. At three o’clock, Mendes arrives at Al’s Hole, a spot named after his grandfather—and today’s last spot before Mendes needs to return to town and prep for the booked-solid three months of fishing ahead of him. The river drops off sharply, leaving little room to wade. He makes a dozen big roll casts, each unfurling smoothly. A locomotive clangs past across the river. Mendes moves downstream. His line, 40 yards out, drifts through a run. Then stops. “Here we go!” he yells. He holds his rod parallel to the water, waiting for the fish to jet. A second later, a tiny splash on the surface. Mendes lets the fish shake off.
“Trout?” yells Stevens, sitting on the bank.
“Yeah,” Mendes says, lowering his head. “It felt so good to be pulled way the hell out there. There was so much weight on the line that I thought it might be a steelhead.”
He wades to shore. Surprisingly, he doesn’t seem irked. “Steelheading ain’t easy,” he says.
We crest a hill on our way back to the truck. Somewhere in the distance, wildfires still burn and smolder, and the heat shows no sign of waning. Tomorrow, Mendes has two clients from New Jersey. They won’t like the hot weather or the smoke, he says, but he has no plans to let up or go soft. Not with a blank hanging over his head, not with wild steelhead blitzing upstream.