Oregon's Fall River Rainbows

Oregon's Fall River Rainbows

Central Oregon's Fall River is what it is, a beautiful little spring creek loaded with trout that are most willing to pluck dries off the surface. Here's why you should give this gem a try now.

Photo by Justin Karnopp

By Justin Karnopp

It was a day no different than most winter afternoons on the Fall River. The sun was shining and the temperature was comfortable, few other anglers were around, and trout started rising to blue-winged olives, which littered the water's surface like so many tiny sailboats. There were thousands of them.

I tied a basic Parachute BWO imitation to a 6x tippet and tried to float my pattern through a regatta of naturals. Five or six fish rose around my fly as it drifted through the tailout, but my offering remained undisturbed. I gently picked up and cast again to the head of the run.

On the second pass, one fish misjudged the bugs above it and sucked in my BWO. At the sting of the hook, the rainbow launched from the pool, putting the other fish down and causing what few neighbors I had on the river that day to glance in my direction, albeit indifferently. By the time I landed the trout, other fish in the pool were once again rising to the flotilla of hatching bugs.

For the next couple of hours I landed seven hatchery fish and a wild redband. When the bugs stopped hatching, my work was done, and I jumped into my truck to make the 20-minute drive home.


I'm fortunate to live where I do. Not everyone can cut out at lunch (not that I'm regularly employed or anything) and cast to rising trout during the dead of winter. However, Central Oregonians can pretty much set their watches by the blue-winged olive hatch out on the Fall River every afternoon. The fish aren't big, many of them are planted, and the place does receive some fishing pressure, but these things are easily overlooked when one has spent the last couple of months cooped up indoors. I believe the term is "jonesing," and I am "jonesing" for some dry-fly fishing come January.

The Fall River is not what I would call a "river." It is the quintessential spring creek. The creek bubbles from the ground just southwest of the resort community of Sunriver, and winds under a pine canopy until emptying into the Upper Deschutes River a dozen miles later. The water is completely transparent and one could easily cast a double-haul across almost any stretch of it. The river below the falls is closed to angling at the end of September to protect the migrating browns that swim from the Deschutes to spawn, while the rest of the river is open to fishing all year.


In August 2002, a forest fire burning near the Fall River threatened homes within a quarter-mile of the river. The decision was made to go ahead and drop a load of retardant on the fire, even though the retardant might enter the Fall River. There were no roads going into the area of the fire, leaving the safety of nearby homes to the only option left to firefighters: Attack the fire from the sky, and risk killing some fish in the river.

Unfortunately, some of the retardant did enter the river a half-mile below the hatchery, killing an estimated 20,000 redband rainbows, brook trout, whitefish and brown trout. Fish managers say 15,000 of the fish were below the falls, which decimated the naturally reproducing population of brown trout.

Biologists studying the effects of the retardant predicted that the die-off will have a ripple effect on naturally reproducing fish populations over the next 20 years, and remorseful local anglers declared the river an absolute loss. Well, you know how rumors go.

Fortunately, nothing is or was as dire as those predictions.

In addition to the fish, the diverse insect life on the Fall was also affected by the retardant. However, biologists found renewed bug life within days of the accident.

With a stocking program in place, it's not likely the Fall River will run out of fish. Officials began stocking hatchery rainbows as soon as they felt the water could support them. Naturally reproducing browns, brookies and rainbows suffered the most from the retardant, but in time migratory fish from the Upper Deschutes and the Fall above the poisoned area will replenish those populations. — Justin Karnopp


The Fall River is generally spoken of in three reference points: the falls, the hatchery and the headwaters. Hatchery personnel distribute rainbows evenly amongst all three areas.

The falls is the lowest access point. A good trail leads down to the falls from a red cinder road a few miles below the hatchery, off Forest Road 43 (see sidebar). The water below the falls is very intriguing, featuring logjams and some big browns. Unfortunately, chemical fire retardant dumped into the river (see sidebar) did a number on most of those fish, but the population is rebuilding. Biologists say it will take a few more years for the brown fishery to recover.

Between the falls and the hatchery upstream, the river is mostly placid and meandering. Some chunky rainbows and a little solitude can be found on this section even during busy times.

The hatchery, by far the most popular place to fish on weekends, can be overcrowded. It offers easy access and plenty of fish and is, therefore, a good place to get your feet wet on the Fall before exploring elsewhere. There is a nice mix of glassy dry-fly pools, nymphing riffles and streamer runs to satisfy all brands of fly anglers. There are some big fish that hang below the hatchery, but they are tough to catch. A streamer and a sink-tip will turn those big boys once in a while. Private property begins just below the hatchery.

The Fall River campground, upstream a couple of miles from the hatchery, offers some decent fishing. A good walk starts at the campground and goes upstream to the headwaters. Much of this area consists of slow, glassy pools loaded with logjams. Look carefully in the shadows of the dams for the trout. There are some nice redbands in this stretch that love to come up for dries.

In front of the headwaters is a Forest Service building and a large parking area. The Fall River begins j

ust above this. There is a nice pool directly in front of the headwaters that can hold fish from time to time. It seems to be a seasonal place to fish, as the trout tend to migrate into the upper Fall. However, it's always worth a peek because when the fish are in there they are usually pretty easy to dupe.

The fish of the Fall River are a diverse bunch, although their diversity was greatly diminished by the fire retardant dousing. Brown trout, redband rainbows, brook trout and whitefish all inhabit the frigid water of the Fall. The river is stocked May through September with thousands of hatchery rainbows, and anglers are allowed to keep a couple of them for the pan if they so desire. Most anglers who fish here target the hatchery rainbows.


There are many methods of fishing the Fall, depending on what you want to target. However you approach the river, it is restricted to fly-fishing only, and anglers must use barbless hooks.

Matching the hatch is the norm for pursuing rainbows, and many of the local anglers who spend a considerable amount of time on the Fall know that a big streamer on a sink-tip line can produce some of the big fish that lurk in the depths of the river.

Like most spring creeks, the bug life on the Fall is diverse and dreamy. I am not one of those anglers concerned with entomology and Latin, preferring to speak in terms of Parachute Adams and Elk Hair caddis. I have seen bright pink mayflies hatch on the Fall River. I have no idea what they were, but the fish seemed to like the Adams I used during that hatch. From December to March, the majority of bug life consists of midges and blue-winged olives. I am not a big fan of fishing midge hatches, although I've caught plenty of trout on Griffith's Gnats and midge clusters. These patterns, in Nos. 18-22, are definitely worth having in the fly box for a Fall River trip.

The blue-winged olive hatch is what I come for. This hatch is incredibly consistent, and comes off nearly every day from January-April. I like it because I know exactly what I'm supposed to be imitating and I have fished it enough to gain confidence in my patterns and techniques.

Like most mayflies, BWOs love overcast days. When the clouds are building to the south of my home in Bend, it's time to drop what I'm doing (usually not too much) and head to the Fall River. The bugs usually start to hatch sometime in the early afternoon and come off for an hour or two, depending on the weather. When conditions are right, the little bugs litter the surface and trout go nuts.

Even so, these fish are educated and don't fall for sloppy presentations, big monofilament or ugly patterns. Only good slack line and dead-drift presentations will turn fish. Sometimes it is necessary to go to the dreaded 7x tippets when 6x gets refused.

I generally leave my own creations at home and just purchase some tiny mayfly patterns at a local shop. (I hate tying anything that small.)


Sunriver, Ore., is about 15 miles South of Bend on Highway 97. The Fall River is right in the back yard, about 8 miles from the Sunriver turnoff on Forest Road 43.

The quickest way to get to the Fall coming from Bend is to take the Vandevert Road turnoff two miles south of the Sunriver turnoff, and catch FR 43 from there. The road parallels the river for its length.

Anglers can pick up tippets, flies and advice at the Patient Angler in Bend (541-389-6208) or down the road in Sunriver at the Sunriver Fly Shop (541-593-8814).

Guides are available through Fly & Field Outfitters (541-318-1616) and Deschutes River Outfitters (541-388-8191), although the river is pretty self-explanatory for anyone with moderate fly-fishing experience. Food, lodging and other amenities are available in Sunriver or Bend. — Justin Karnopp


In addition to dries, BWO emerger patterns can be deadly. One of my favorites is the RS2 in Nos. 18-20. Present the RS2 like a dry, but just under the surface. Another good way to present this pattern is behind a dry fly as a dropper. Tie a length of tippet 18 inches long off the hook bend of the dry fly and attach the emerger to it.

When the fish just aren't coming to the surface, nymphing techniques can be productive on Fall River. Because of its fly-fishing only designation, no additional weight may be attached to the leader for sinking nymph patterns to the depths where the big trout tend to lie. The only way to get down to these fish is to incorporate appropriate weight into the fly itself.

Since most of the productive nymph patterns are tiny, the best way to do this is to tie some Zebra midges, Pheasant Tails, egg patterns and Hare's Ears with tungsten beads. Little No. 18 tungsten beaded nymphs are the best producers on Fall River. Fish them underneath a strike indicator in riffles and plunge pools.

This past winter my friend and I were having a tough day. There were a few fish rising, but the hatch was waning. John tied on an olive streamer of mine that looks like a little minnow. He hooked a number of nice fish working that pattern underneath the logjams, and the fish went crazy for it. I assumed that they may have been taking it for a small sculpin or something. Since then I won't go to the Fall without a 2-inch olive rabbit streamer.

* * *

The Fall River: It's a beautiful little spring creek loaded with trout that are most willing to come pluck dries off the surface. If that sounds like something that may interest you, then you may want to give this Central Oregon gem a try.

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