Redband Rainbows of the Mountain Wilderness

Redband Rainbows of the Mountain Wilderness

Angling on Oregon's Donner und Blitzen River

  • By: Norm Zeigler
Southeastern Oregon's high desert is a region minimalist in its adornments. To a new visitor it seems a meager and marginal environment, an improbable landscape for a first-rate trout river. But first appearances belie the reality-the gleaming silver ribbon of the Donner und Blitzen drainage twisting down through glacier-gouged canyons. As a longtime journalist, I have a near-congenital aversion to the word "unique." But as far as trout streams go, the Donner und Blitzen is about as close as it gets.It is not the upper Missouri or Beaverhead; the reward is not many large fish. It is special fish, spectacular countryside and absolute solitude. It was a brilliant late-September afternoon when my buddy Bob Tully and I pulled up in front of the historic Frenchglen Hotel (in the village of the same name) for information and soft drinks. From the porch we paused to view the striking panorama of rugged, arid country. Ten minutes later we drove another four miles and checked in to our cabin at Steens Mountain Resort, a tidy collection of cabins and campsites a short walk from the middle reach of the river. Tully and I had planned the trip in the spring, but timed it to avoid the summer heat. Now, with nights turning cool and the days getting shorter, the river's renowned redband rainbows would become more active. We were eager to see them. The Donner und Blitzen River (the name means "thunder and lightning" in German) was named in 1864 by an Army officer whose unit encountered one of the region's fierce mountain squalls on the river's lower reaches. Today the upper river and surrounding countryside remain largely as they were 140 years ago, protected as the Donner und Blitzen National Wild and Scenic River within the 500,000-acre Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area. More than 74 miles of the river and its tributaries are protected. One of the driving forces behind the preservation of this priceless wild fishery and high-desert wilderness was Josh Warburton, Steens Mountain Resort's owner. During a 10-year tenure as district manager for the Bureau of Land Management, Warburton helped engineer the acquisition by the federal government of 50,000 pristine acres. He was also instrumental in helping craft the concept of the cooperative protection area, which includes privately owned tracts as well as several categories of public lands. It is a rugged, brutally harsh but fragile landscape. Warburton is justifiably proud of the part he played in saving the Donner und Blitzen and Steens Mountain from development. "I love the mountain. She's been good to me and I'm gonna be good to her," he says. The Donner und Blitzen and its tributaries-Fish Creek, the Little Blitzen and Indian Creek-tumble down from the forbidding slopes of Steens Mountain. At 9,733 feet high and 30 miles long, this massive basalt formation-the largest fault-block mountain in North America-dominates the skyline for hundreds of square miles. And it serves as a repository for the scant moisture-most of it falling as snow-that is the watershed's lifeblood. For those who know and love the river, it is simply known as the Blitzen, but it is really two different rivers: one with a personality as headstrong as the region's wild mustangs, the other as gentle as a saddle mare. The upper section of the Blitzen, from its Steens Mountain headwaters down to Page Springs, is a rollicking freestone stream coursing down through one of the wildest, harshest landscapes in the Lower 48. It flows through a spectacular narrow gorge-more than 1,000 feet deep in places, and it is a tough place to get into and back out of, accessible only with care on foot or horseback. For long and twisting stretches along the upper river, steep, jagged taluses angle sharply from the base of vertical cliffs. Marginally more benign slopes allow occasional access but, at their best, these sections of canyon wall still make for treacherous footing. But there is one more reason to step carefully here: This is rattlesnake country. Below Page Springs Campground the Blitzen abruptly changes personality, slowing, broadening and deepening out as it flows through the grassy lowlands of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge toward Malheur Lake. Here access is no longer an arduous trek but is as simple as a stroll across hay fields and marshland dotted with cottonwoods. Below the confluence with Bridge Creek-about three miles downstream from Page Springs-the river is closed to fishing. I am not one who collects notches in my fly rod for unusual species, but all of us enjoy new angling experiences. The Blitzen and its redband rainbows offer a glimpse back to the days of untracked wilderness and abundant and varied native trout species. And a stunning glimpse it is. One of the intriguing things about dry-country trout streams is the sharp distinction in landscapes. The first morning we hiked in on the upper Blitzen, a brilliant sun highlighted the river and gorge, though cliff shadows still lingered. Cottonwoods, willows, wildflowers and green meadows lined the river course, squeezed between the stark canyon walls. Big old, gnarly junipers-rooted in gravel and fractured rock-punctuated the riverbanks. Gray and brown detritus from the spring runoff festooned some of the bushes. It would be difficult to design a more striking freestone stream: Pools, runs, riffles and sluices meander down a bed of boulders, cobbles, gravel and sand. Undercut banks, deadfalls and overhanging brush offer the fish havens from predators. Much of the river is easily wadable, varying from calf- to chest-deep, but there are deeper spots, many of them scoured boulder pockets. The pleasing dilemma on such perfect water as the Blitzen is where to start. The answer is, anywhere. Tully and I simply began fishing. And catching. The Blitzen drainage is viable trout habitat largely because its geology is frugal with its water, releasing the meager 12 to 13 inches of annual precipitation slowly from seep springs and uncounted fissure trickles. The Blitzen's redbands are no pushovers. But they are numerous and hungry. Success, as anywhere, depends on the right tactics for the weather and time of day. We all know the general rule for trout fishing and sunlight: Less is more. The Blitzen is a prime example. In the high, bright light of midday the river's few shallow, flat pools can appear sterile. But drift a hopper with a dropper through a rock shadow in the pocket water and you have a good chance of a smash-and-splash encounter. The odds are equally as promising when floating a fly in close past an undercut bank or under low-hanging branches. On this first morning there was no hatch, so we tried a variety of flies before finally getting consistent action on a foam hopper with a beadhead Pheasant Tail dropper. In many pockets the combination provoked multiple flashes and hits and we hooked and landed good numbers of fish. Early fall is a time of cool nights and warm days on the Blitzen. That morning the air temperature had been in the 40's, but when we sat down for lunch in the welcome shade of a big juniper it was 81. I checked the stream and found it an ideal 60 degrees. The time and effort required in getting to the upper Blitzen make it prudent to stay a while; there is no easy stroll back to the vehicle or campsite. This means carrying in at least basic gear and supplies. We brought sandwiches and snacks and, of course, water and sports drinks. Equipment included the standard items for hike-in fishing: knives, matches, rain parkas and space blankets. The high sun and warm air of early afternoon make a good siesta time on the Blitzen when the fishing is slow and much of the river is in bright light. Around 2:30 the sun ducked behind the highest crags and we bestirred ourselves to get back on the water. There was still no hatch, but working the cliff shadows brought near-continuous action. Most upper-Blitzen redbands are between 6 and 14 inches, not big by trophy-angler standards. But they are numerous and hard-scrapping, as untouched by civilization as Steens Mountain's forbidding slopes, and as hardy and distinctive as the area's famed Kiger wild mustangs, reputedly descended from the first Spanish conquistadors' mounts. As the river became engulfed in shadow, we caught more and more fish. We spotted a handful of caddisflies and PMD's, but there was still no substantial hatch or rise. With the high, brilliant sky overhead and reflected in the river's sheen, the gorge became suffused in a soft, silver light; the best light of all for trout. The sterile pools of midday came alive with fish chasing our flies, sometimes two or three at a time. We fished until the sunlight disappeared from the canyon rims and twilight began creeping in overhead. Just before we quit, Bob caught a plump 15-incher, the fish of the day. It had been a tough enough hike in that morning, but now our rubbery legs cramped in protest at the even harder route up and out. But it had been worth it. We had caught dozens of fish and never seen a sign of another human on the river. The next day we slept in and gave our bodies a break by fishing the lower river in the afternoon. This stretch, from the P Ranch to the Bridge Creek confluence, calls for different tactics. It is a series of wide meanders and long, lake-like pools, wider and much deeper than the upper river. In recent years the lower stretch has been the beneficiary of extensive river-improvement efforts, including the creation of boulder dams and sluices that vary the flow. Wading is minimal on the lower Blitzen. In many places it is only possible to cast from atop the banks-often five or six feet above the water-but here and there the banks are sloped enough to maneuver down to the water's edge. It is possible also to fish from the boulder dams. Be sure to first prospect the edges of the structures from a distance before stepping out onto them. Many fish hold just above or just below the rock piles. This stretch holds good numbers of big fish, upwards of five pounds. The best chances for the big ones are in the spring with streamers. We fished a number of flies until dark, tempting no trophies but landing half a score up to a foot long. Again, the hopper and dropper worked best. I stuck with the Pheasant Tail and Bob used a beadhead Gold-Ribbed Hare's Ear. Our last day, we headed back upriver. This time we hiked in to the Fish Creek confluence and fished up. It was another brilliant high-desert day. This day the fish were keyed on different flies. Bob steadily caught fish on a Prince Nymph and Gold-Ribbed Hare's Ear combo, both beadheads. I tried a hopper and Flashback Hare's Ear dropper for the first hour, but switched to a parachute Adams and beadhead Prince Nymph. We fished at a leisurely pace, leapfrogging each other every half hour or so, never going more than 10 minutes without a hit. Of the dozens of fish we caught, only two were on my dry flies. Nearly all the others were on the Prince Nymphs. By the time we hiked back out it was nearly dark, and a sliver of a moon was suspended over the juniper-topped ridge to the west. The next morning, before we left, Tully and I stood out in front of the cabin with Josh Warburton, scanning the panorama of mountains, ridges, high-desert plains and the lower Blitzen, winding northward into the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Warburton spoke again of his love for the landscape and the river. Many of us long to leave a legacy larger than ourselves. And Warburton certainly has. But when reminded of it he became self-conscious and steered the conversation toward less serious terrain. "This is some of that land I bought for you guys," he said, grinning and sweeping one hand around half the horizon. He did admit that, "It's nice to look back and think you've left a few footprints." When we left he shook our hands. "l'm glad I met you guys. See you down the trail," he said. Tully and I vowed that he would. For further information on fishing the Donner und Blitzen River contact Harney County Chamber of Commerce, 541-573-2636, www.harneycounty.com. Or for accommodations contact Josh and Denise Warburton, Steens Mountain Resort, 800-542-3765 or 541-493-2415. www.steensmountainresort.com.