Grande Ronde Steelhead
September 29, 2010
Flowing through portions of Oregon and Washington, the Grande Ronde hosts strong winter fishing for metalheads. Here's where to find them. (February 2006)
Photo by Dave Vedder
The upper Grande Ronde River is known for its fine trout fishery, mostly above the town of La Grande. In late spring and early summer, this section of the river has premier fly-fishing. But come fall, the action moves downstream -- way downstream.
Many maps do not even list the tiny town of Troy, Ore. Hardly a wide spot in the road, this is the central point for anglers who like fishing the lower Grande Ronde for steelhead in Northeastern Oregon's cold fall and winter.
To reach Troy, your best route is from the town of Enterprise, near the end of Highway 82 from La Grande. Once there, take a left turn at the post office onto Highway 3 and head toward Lewiston, Idaho. If you don't mind a few miles of steep gravel road, follow the signs and the turn-off to Flora. For those with a motor home, pulling a travel trailer, or who have a fear of heights, keep on the highway until you reach Boggan's Oasis. At least this way is paved, if not less steep, narrow or crooked.
From the Washington side, you will need to take Highway 129 from Clarkston until you reach Boggan's Oasis from the opposite direction. Turn upstream and in 14 miles, you will reach Wildcat Bridge. You will pass through Troy, but for the purposes of this article, I will start at the Wildcat Bridge, a few miles above Troy, and work downstream to the State Line Hole.
For this article, my source of information for the most productive fishing holes and methods was Mac Huff with Eagle Cap Fishing Guides from Joseph, Ore. Brad Smith and Bill Knox, of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Enterprise, are also a wealth of information for this region.
Mac suggests using a bobber and jig in the Wildcat Hole. Favorites with beginning steelhead fishermen, both the hole and the method are productive when used with the right skills.
"The bobber and jig is absolutely the deadliest technique," Mac said.
As steelheaders all know, a fish does send a signal that it has taken your offering, but you had better be paying full attention to your end of the line, or you will miss that signal. Not all fish will grab your jig or fly and dive for the bottom. Many will gently suck it in and never move from the location where they were waiting to ambush their next meal. You must keep the offering close to you and under your control, or you will miss the light touch of most steelhead.
Moving along with the current, we come to where Mud Creek enters the Grande Ronde River system. The hole here is slow enough for bobber and jig fishing, but is equally receptive to flyfishermen. Unless Oregon is in the midst of a drought, the current here should be fine for drift fishermen. At the writing of this article, the flow, given in cubic feet per minute, in the lower Grande Ronde was in the low triple digits.
People need to know that steelhead are basically big trout. However, this does not mean that they will take a fly or jig in the same manner as smaller trout. A key point to remember is that they are not going to hold up where a trout would, no matter their size.
"If you are standing in knee-deep water," Mac observed, "you're standing in steelhead holding water. Slower water is typically better than faster water, but every rule has an exception, including the basic rule: the lower the water, the higher in the hole steelhead hold. And vice versa: the higher the water, the lower in the hole you can find steelhead.
"I generally look for steelhead anywhere the water surface is becoming glassy, whether it's a pocket behind a boulder, an eddy along the shore or a well-defined pool. The glassy appearance indicates a slowing of water velocity; and since steelhead are not feeding, they tend to seek these sheltered waters to conserve energy."
The steelhead on the other rivers might like shade, but the Grande Ronde seems to require different things for these long-distance swimmers. Mac finds that the steelhead here are late sleepers and go to bed early, leaving the prime fishing between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. The rules are never hard and completely foolproof when dealing with nature, but generally, there is no reason to get up with the chickens unless you have to travel many miles to arrive at your favorite hole. Of course, with the lower Grande Ronde, even the locals have to travel quite a distance to reach these fine waters.
In March 1999, the National Marine Fisheries Service developed the biological opinion, or BIOP plan, on artificial propagation in the Grande Ronde River Basin. Under that plan, the ODFW started a broodstock development project to select fish that have traveled rapidly up the Columbia River and into the Grande Ronde system.
Because the ODFW needed an efficient way to catch up to 200 early returning fall-run steelhead for the Wallowa brood stock program, fisheries managers asked local fishermen to volunteer. In time for the 2004 season, 33 of them contributed more than 1,200 hours and nearly 10,000 miles of travel. The help of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) was also important in this project.
The decision was to collect the brood stock in October to coincide with the prime time for the fish run, good weather, and fishing conditions. Logistically it also worked great, since this fishing window falls between the local hunting seasons. This timing keeps volunteers from having to choose between helping or going hunting. If you're interested in helping with this program, contact Bill Knox or Brad Smith at the ODFW office in Enterprise.
Whether you decide to help, here are more of the fishing holes you'll find as you travel downstream.
Hatchery Hole -- Fishermen will find this to be a good hole for bobbers and jigs, spinners and, depending on water level and temperature, fly and drift-boat fishing methods.
Slide Hole -- This hole is good for all the different types of gear. With the low-water levels of recent years, it has been easier for flyfishermen to get to the depths needed to lure steelhead from their safe harbors. If the water flow is good, be prepared to try all your depth-rigging methods.
Kessecker Hole -- If you fish with a bobber-and-jig or other type of gear, the upper section is probably your best bet. As you move downstream, the water thins and gets a bit faster -- perfect for fly and drift fishermen.
Troy Bridge Hole -- As with every hole, some gea
r works better than others at different times of the year. This hole gets many different types of riggings thrown into its depths. Its location near the Shilo Inn Café in Troy is a benefit, as is its being near the RV park on the bank of the river at the lower edge of town.
If anything will sidetrack you from the steelhead fishing -- or give whoever lost the biggest- or most-fish-caught-bet a place to take you out to dinner -- The Shiloh Inn Café is it. Even many non-fisherman drive the distance to Troy just to have a meal in this fine establishment. Rumor has it that the Shilo Inn Café is the headquarters for the chain of motels. I have never tried to verify this personally; sometimes the truth just isn't as interesting as the story. After all, the story is the all-important thing for fishermen, is it not?
Being in Troy puts you at a halfway point: seven miles below the Wildcat Hole and seven miles above Boggan's Oasis, where you will find rooms available and a hot tub where you can rest and let your sore body recuperate from fighting all the steelhead you caught on the way downstream.
Moving on down the river, we find you another hole to cast your line.
Game Commission Hole -- Flies are often the best to use here, but every other type of lure will catch fish if it's your day to catch them. Drift fishermen will have a bit of a difficult time keeping things out of the rocks, but are often successful if they can keep their gear from hanging up on the way through.
Mallory Hole -- This is truly a hole where everyone stands an equal chance of catching a fish. Pick your gear, find a spot and yell, "Fish on!"
Cattle Guard Hole -- This is yet another hole where most gear will catch fish. Like everywhere, the gear used by the guy who's been catching fish since his first cast, is the exact same gear you left home because it never worked for you on previous attempts in this very hole.
Upper State Line Hole -- Located at the Bureau of Land Management boat-launch site, this hole can be productive but may require you to make some long casts to reach the channel on the far side of the river. Be sure to watch for drift-boaters and rafters as they start their movement downriver.
State Line Hole -- Like its near-namesake upriver, this hole requires some long casts that may favor the gear fisherman. Slow water on the road side of the hole takes some work, but fish can and are caught along the full expanse of the run.
These are the best-known holes on the river, but if you don't know the names of the holes or if the spot you pick is not in this article, don't let that stop you from unloading and wetting a line. Fish are in the river, starting at the confluence with the Snake River and moving up to the tributaries and their spawning grounds.
Remember that if you are fishing the part of the river outside your home state, you will need their fishing license as well. There is an oxbow below the state line that loops back into Oregon, so take a map and know where you are to avoid getting a ticket.
Also, before you venture off to fish some of the tributaries of the Grande Ronde River, check the regulations. The Wenaha is open upstream for only six miles and only for catch-and-release. A synopsis is free, and it's a good idea keep one in your rig or tackle box at all times to be safe.
Of the other tributaries of the Grande Ronde, the Wallowa is open to Trout Creek near Enterprise, but private property can cause some access problems in the valley stretches. The canyon reach, from Rondowa where the Wallowa and Grande Ronde meet to the edge of Smith Mountain near the town of Wallowa, has easy access, but also the fishing pressure to match.
Now let's consider some of your gear choices on the Grande Ronde River. When you're fly-fishing for steelhead, a variety of flies will get the job done: black Woolly Buggers, silver Hiltons, egg-sucking leeches are all good items to have in your fly box. Perhaps the flies most well known for success on the lower Grande Ronde are heavy on the purple end of the spectrum. Purple Woolly Buggers, the purple Perils, or Freight Trains seem to consistently catch more fish over other colors.
"The bottom line is that on a given day, steelhead are caught on a great variety of flies," suggests Mac Huff, speaking of the lower Grande Ronde River. "A properly presented fly, and the ability to detect the subtle take that typifies a dominant species like steelhead, will make much more of a difference than having the 'right' fly. A person with the 'right' fly who presents the fly improperly will not get any bites. Those who don't manage their fly line and drift properly will probably hook only the most blatantly obvious takes."
Winter fishing for steelhead is notorious for cold weather and hazardous conditions. The Lower Grande Ronde is not as bad for this as many streams, due in part to the canyon's elevation and the height of the canyon walls that hold in the heat, if there is any. One hazard here that needs to be mentioned is the risk of rattlesnakes. They can be, and often are, active in this area from February to November, if the temperatures are warm. Watch your step and place your feet only where you can see clearly.
The steelhead run rarely starts before October, when water temperatures are in the 50s and 60s. Mac calls this the "time for the locals to fish" since they don't have to worry about taking vacation time and getting on the river during the prime part of the season.
Fishing the river while temperatures are in this range means the most productive time is generally when they are heading down. Once the water has cooled to the low 30s, the productivity moves up again when the temperatures climb.
Water temperatures are seldom a good indicator of air temperatures, and as any seasoned steelheader knows, cold fingers and frozen noses are a part of the routine. Still, beware of the signs of hypothermia and take measures to get warm. If you notice your buddies acting more strangely than normal, slurring their words or shivering uncontrollably -- and especially if they stop shivering when it is still cold out -- get them somewhere warm and dry.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
You can reach the people and places referenced in this article at the following addresses.
Brad Smith and Bill Knox, with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, can be reached at the Wallowa District Office, 65495 Alder Slope Road, Enterprise, OR 97828; or telephone (541) 426-3279. If you want to e-mail them, Brad's address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and for Bill, use email@example.com.
Mac Huff, an Orvis Endorsed Fly Fishing Guide, can be reached at Eagle Cap Fishing Guides. His address is PO Box 865, Joseph, OR 97846; or telephone 800-940-3688. His Web site,
www.eaglecapfishing.com, gives a wealth of information on the Grande Ronde You can e-mail him from the site or via his e-mail address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Shilo Inn Café and RV Park- Gas can be reached at (541) 828-7741.
Boggan's Oasis, with its five rooms and hot tub, is at (509) 256-3372.