Randy Rice spotted a hoggish sipper about 12 feet ahead of me. We were up against a grass-shaded bank, the water as cold and quiet as a spring creek. Sight fishing on the Deschutes River, Rice had explained, was a lot like big-game hunting—a focused pursuit of a single target. I’d never floated the river before and was aching to catch a big trout on the surface.
I got this, I told myself, but, as I readied my rod, I could already feel my heart hammering. This baby was hungry. The fish rose and sipped, rose and sipped. “You get one chance,” Rice said. “You lose him the first time, he’s done. He’s not coming back.”
Terrific, I thought. My adrenaline surged. I’d never felt stakes so high for a single fish. I made a steeple cast to present the fly carefully. My Elk-Hair Caddis could have easily ended up in the tall grass, made a rustle, and goofed the whole thing. But it fell softly on the surface, about a foot above the trout, right along the bank. The fly skated across the water, and then the hog drank. My rod doubled. Here it is! I pulled up quickly. But the lunker was strong and I’d set the hook poorly. My rod tip flung up. The tension released. The line went slack.
I turned to Rice. “Give it another shot?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “He’s long, long gone.”
We climbed back into the boat and continued downriver. Rice, a 30-plus-year veteran of the Deschutes, was at the oars, while Amy Terai, my fishing partner, and I scouted for more trout. That sipper had set the tone for the trip, and I was hoping to spot another just like it. That first encounter had also been a quick lesson in how the Deschutes’s no-fishing-from-a-boat law ensures that you heavily engage with its waters. Once out of the boat, there was no time for idle thought. We were on a hunt, waist-deep and determined. This type of chase differs drastically from fishing in, say, Montana, where, from sunup to sundown, rafts full of anglers will drift flies through covetable stretches of water, without ever once shucking on wading boots. Before arriving in Oregon, I’d figured we’d be slinging bugs in a similar fashion on the Deschutes, especially since we’d planned to float 35 miles over just a few days. But no.
The Deschutes makes for difficult fishing in other ways, too. The river snakes through arid, rugged country, and drops through canyons and steep rock ridges. It’s known as one of the most challenging flyfishing spots in the West, but if you’re focused, it can be wildly generous. Terai fished a nymph rig that afternoon, and I never replaced my Caddis. We hit spring creeks along the bank, foamy back eddies, and rocky beds beneath overhanging trees. The day produced fish, to be sure, but I was still chasing that big sipper from earlier that day—the Big One—which had set the standard.
At nightfall, Terai and I got into some productive fishing, thanks to Rice’s well-trained eye. We were casting into a roaring back eddy, and it was so dark that Terai and I couldn’t see our flies. But Rice could. We landed fat rainbows with almost every drift. As long as there was still the faintest wash of blue in the horizon, we caught fish.
We hopped back into the drift boat just as total darkness fell. There were 12 of us in our group, including the guides and the kid they’d brought along to help set up camp and fry chicken. We camped beneath a railroad bridge, and sat around at dinner, eating well, laughing, and drinking wine by lantern light. Deep in the night, I woke to the screaming of a freight train boring past overhead, so powerful it felt like I was tied to the tracks.
Overcast skies greeted us the next morning, for which we were grateful. The cloud cover would be better for approaching undetected, better for hunting. We tied on dry flies, and the fish were hungry for them. In short order, I hooked what I assumed was a 22-incher, only to pull up a 16. I had heard that fish in the Deschutes are exceptionally wild and hard-fighting, even compared with those in other Western hotspots, and I wouldn’t disagree. An 8-inch trout fought more than a one-footer back in my Montana home waters.
I was fished that day with a guy named Jordan Mortimer, who knew the Deschutes as though it were his own son. To say he caught twice as many fish as I did would be giving myself too much credit. All day it looked as if it could rain, though it was hard to tell for sure. But when evening came it started to downpour. Nobody, not even Mortimer, who’d spent so much time on this river, had thought to pack a rain jacket on the boat. So we drifted downriver in the rain wearing trash-bag tank tops. As I scanned the water, I couldn’t help but think of yesterday’s fish. I wish that I’d had a stronger start here on this new river, that the whole thing had gone the way I’d imagined on the flight over. I needed another chance.
Our guide John rowed Mortimer and me toward a small island. In front, riffles rattled over vast flats, and behind, we could see deep, quick nymphing runs. John and Mortimer decided to hike to the rear of the island to nymph, so I was left alone in the heavy rain, rigged up with a Parachute Adams, the flats stretching in front of me. Here it is. I casted as though in a rage. In the downpour, there was something ferocious about the hugeness of the water. My first cast produced nothing. I took a deep breath and let the current carry my fly far out of the zone and downriver. I stood for a while, motionless.
I began casting again into the wall of gray. An irrational thought seized me: This is my last chance to catch a fish, ever. I knew it wasn’t true, but it felt true. The whole trip seemed to hinge on whatever happened here. Then I hooked into something. I didn’t even see a rise. My rod flexed wildly, rocking side to side. I didn’t have the fish; the fish had me. He controlled my movements, pulling hard. We struggled for five or six minutes, until he finally allowed me to take him in, to reach down and lift him. A 24-inch well-fed sucker. A band of crimson. A back so olive it was almost black. My pursuit was over. I released the trout and watched as it flickered in the current, vanishing into the darkness of the river, to be hunted again.