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Fishing the Deschutes

It’s 5:45 a.m. on a brisk autumn morn. I park my car and wander toward the river’s edge at the mouth of the Deschutes where it spills into the Columbia. The sun isn’t up yet and I can’t see the river, but can make out the shadowy forms of men launching boats illuminated by taillights and assume it’s near. I wish I were in bed. I do not like getting up early. I curse myself and wonder what the heck I’m doing, a lone female, wandering around in the dark before dawn with all these men hurrying and shouting at one another, when the smell of the river hits me, a heady mixture of gasoline, oil and mud. Rather than aggravating my senses, this calms me. I am walking into the familiar: rivers and boats.

Pat, my river guide and old friend from high school, spots me and yells. I follow his voice and climb into the 22-foot aluminum flat-bottomed river boat where I meet my fellow fishing mates, Tom and Dave. We are expecting someone named Don and so we sit in the boat and visit, waiting. Don appears, meandering at the water’s edge in his boxer shorts and a T-shirt, hair askew, like he’s just rolled out of bed, which he has, having slept a few yards away in his camper. Dave, his pal of thirty years from Vietnam days, hops out of the boat and tells him to get dressed, we’re leaving. Don returns a few minutes later, pulling on his neoprene waders.

All aboard, life jackets on, and situated in our comfy padded swivel chairs (with arms, no less) we head up river. Yes, in the dark. O.K., there are stars and a crescent moon and Venus still hanging huge and low on the horizon and the sky is getting lighter, but we are in the canyon. I have no idea what my fellow passengers look like – they are simply obscure outlines who were nice and friendly. I think Dave has a beard.

We speed up river and Dave asks Pat how the river looks. “Don’t ask me,” Pat replies, “I can’t see a damn thing.”

It’s my recollection of the lower Deschutes that there are rapids fairly close to the mouth. I am contemplating this when my memory is confirmed by a slight roar and a glimpse of white water glinting in the moonlight just ahead. I wonder how we get around the rapids, but before I can think it through, Pat, standing at the stern, revs the 200 HP Merc outboard. We are not going around them. We are going through them.

“No way,” I think, just as we slam into the first set, the water roiling all around. We pound on through in an exhilarating burst of power. By the time we hit our next set of rapids, the hills above are glowing in the rose-gold blush of daybreak. The ducks are awake, a heron cruises by us, low enough to touch, and I can finally see my companions.
Dave does have a beard.

We scan the hillsides for deer, an ongoing venture the entire day. We spot a few doe and couple of yearlings, but not a buck in sight. Somehow they know it’s hunting season. Pat dumps the guys at the first fishing hole and then takes me upstream to a beach where he noses the boat onto the sandy shore and we sit and talk. By now it’s nearly light. He asks if I want to fish – he has waders and everything for me. I’m a little wary. I’ve never fished standing in a river, only from the shore or boats. And the truth is, on the zillions of fishing trips I’ve been on, I mainly read. Oh, sure, I’d hold a pole if someone handed it to me and I do know how to cast, but I’m not real keen on jumping into the Deschutes at the moment. Pat says that’s fine, I can do anything I want. He rarely fishes anymore himself. He simply loves being out on the river doing nothing. Taking it in.

This is men’s secret. Most of us women imagine them out in the wilderness doing all this macho hunting and fishing business, but they’re really only wandering around looking at stuff or sitting drinking beer and visiting with each other. That they actually catch or shoot anything is incidental, if not accidental.

Pat uses the time to dream up inventions. He shows me his fly-fishing reel he’s patented – smooth action, a highly rated world-class reel made in America. Few fly reels made in America can compete in the world market, but his do. He also shows me his clever waterproof plastic sheath for tools he designed to keep his gear from rusting and tells me he’s about ready to quit the outdoor adventure business he has so many inventions in the works.

We talk for an hour or more while the guys fish and, now, in the morning light, I am ready to put on the neoprene waders and get in the river. Pat shows me where to go, with instructions not to walk off the basalt shelf into the current, then grabs his fly rod and sets off down stream. I wade where I am told, steady my footing, and begin casting. I am thigh deep in the river and it flows around me as though I’m just another rock. I am extremely happy.

We spend the whole day going from fishing hole to fishing hole. Nothing bites. Not even mosquitoes.

My casting gets better and better and I liken it to the rhythm and flow of batting practice. Steady and even. I could stand in the river and do this forever. Not a sound but the gurgle and rush of the river and the faint click and whir of casting. Sometimes someone’s close enough to talk. Most times not. I do not even think about how truly hideous my brown waders must look.

At our last-chance spot late in the afternoon, a place where the river runs full and lazy, Pat decides to spread us along the shoreline for about 150 yards at 20 to 30 yard intervals. We’re going to use these silly looking pink float devices called “planers” which actually catch the current and hydroplane out, taking the leaders and lure with them. They remind me of water skippers how they sit on top of the water and glide out into the current.

Dave goes first, then Tom. Don and I look at each other trying to decide what exactly the etiquette is. I demure and let him go in front of me. He casts and, naturally, just as I step into the river, he gets a fish on.

“Don,” I yell, “If you were a gentleman, that fish would be mine.”

He grins a Cheshire grin.

He lands his steelhead, a ten-pound beauty. We fish this spot for maybe 45 minutes more and give up for the day. On the way down river, we can see the extent of the rapids we powered through this morning. Three or four different sets of spectacular white water, some class four rapids. We approach and fly down them. I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.

We pull into the launch site, peel off our waders and say our good-byes. This was well worth getting out of bed for. It reminds me how I truly love the dawn. If only it would break around 8:30 or nine.

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