Even though I have written about and known him for over 30 years and we’ve fished together on several occasions, I wasn’t sure Don Hamblin would submit to an interview and reveal to me, for this column, what has taken him a lifetime to refine. His knowledge about the lower Deschutes and the steelhead that lurk there is vast. He has more than paid his dues, taught by years of on-the-water experience as to what works and what doesn’t under varied conditions.
Fall chinook prospects look good
The lower Deschutes River opened for fall chinook salmon fishing Aug. 1, from the mouth at the I-84 bridge upstream to Sherars Falls. The daily bag limit is two adult chinook and five jacks (15-24 inches long).
According to Rod French, ODFW fish biologist, the Deschutes boasts one of the healthiest wild fall chinook populations in the Columbia Basin.
“We experienced the second-largest return on record last year with over 18,000 fish returning to the Deschutes, and expect another large return again this year,” he said.
The chinook salmon season will close Oct. 31.
Anglers are reminded that all wild (non adipose fin-clipped) steelhead must be released unharmed and that the use of bait is restricted to the section of the river from Sherars Falls downstream to the upper railroad trestle.
All other regulations listed in the 2013 Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations remain unchanged.
n Chinook on the Sandy
Strong expected returns of spring chinook salmon are buoying fishing prospects on the Sandy River this summer, according to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists.
“We have a good return of spring chinook this year and fishing conditions are excellent,” said Todd Alsbury, fish biologist for ODFW’s North Willamette Watershed District. Alsbury said an estimated 6,500 spring chinook are expected to return to the Sandy River basin this year. Of the total, approximately 4,000 are hatchery fish, identified by clipped adipose fins, and are available for harvest. Wild fish must be immediately released unharmed under state fishing regulations.
The Sandy is closed to salmon fishing above its confluence with the Salmon River. The best fishing is likely going to be between the mouth of the Salmon River downstream to Oxbow Park, according to Alsbury.
“The fish don’t seem to be holding in the lower river due to the lack of deep pools that spring chinook tend to hold in,” he said, “but you still might pick a springer on its way through to the upper river.”
Alsbury noted that the dynamics of the Sandy River chinook fishery have changed in recent years.
He said springers now return later than in years past. Despite this, the fish are in excellent condition, he said.
“People just aren’t used to fishing for spring chinook in the summer,” he said, adding, “This is a great time for an outing on one of Oregon’s most scenic rivers.”
Alsbury suggests anglers targeting these fish look for deep holes, fish earlier in the morning and later in the evening. He said effective presentations include a bobber and eggs/sand shrimp, spoons, spinners, and even wet flies in the long, deep riffles where chinook sometime lay.
For more than 42 years Don Hamblin guided clients to steelhead success on the Deschutes River, and although not a purist, he is regarded by many to be the most experienced fly fishing guide the river. Last year Hamblin turned his Deschutes guiding permit over to his son Tim, so Don will no longer be guiding steelhead trips on the Deschutes, which may be why he was willing to share his fly fishing secrets for this column.
Don’s favorite fly pattern for Deschutes’ steelhead is called the Purple Peril. For years Don fished a double rig, consisting of a size-2 Green Butted Skunk and size-4 Purple Peril. He says that they always took the smaller purple pattern, so he gave up fishing two. Besides, sometimes the fish would hang the second fly on bottom during the fight, resulting in a broken line.
Don varies the dressing size of his purple wonder depending on conditions. If the water is clear, he sizes down the tied pattern to as small as a 10 but still tied on a number 4 hook. According to Don, reducing the size of this fly pattern makes all the difference in clear water. If the water has a green tinge he steps up to a full-size pattern on the same number-4 hook. Revealing all, Don added, “This pattern works far better when tied on a gold-plated hook.”
The most popular fly fishing method for steelhead is simple enough: Cast out, let your fly drift through the holding water and after it swings in downstream from your position, cast again. Although strikes can happen at any time during the drift, at least 50 percent of the strikes occur as, or just after, your fly makes its last sweep directly downstream from your position, provided the water there is of reasonable depth.
According to Hamblin, “They just won’t follow your fly into shallow water (3 feet or less) very often.” Don capitalizes on this knowledge by making sure his fly always ends its swing in at least 4 feet of water. How? By wading into the river waist-deep or more. According to Don, “When I figured out this simple but important fact, our catches improved by over 50 percent.”
The next most important factor in catching more fish is to cover the water quickly and thoroughly. According to Don, the best way to accomplish this is to dead-drift your fly through the holding water on your first cast. Then, on your second cast, add action to your fly by twitching your rod tip slightly, while your fly swings through the same water. After making these two different presentations take one large step downstream and do it again.
The third most important thing to keep in mind is, well, be sloppy. Trout angling success is often measured by delicate presentations, making sure you don’t disturb the water with reckless casting or hard splash downs of your line and fly. While this rough presentation might put trout off, it seems to excite steelhead, who respond to it with savage strikes — perfect for the beginner or novice fly angler.
The Deschutes Canyon is deep, offering shade in some areas until mid-morning and again by afternoon. Don is adamant that fly fishing success is always best when the sun is off the water. In fact, he plans his entire day based on shade-covered water, usually breaking for a nap and lunch when the sun is high and then returning to his fly haunts late in the afternoon as the sun leaves the water.
Although Don is an accomplished fly fishing guide, you must know that he is by no means a purist. Although 70-percent of his guests were fly fishers, his job was to show his people how to catch fish even if their ability didn’t include fly-casting. For example, Don often instructed his clients on how to properly fish a spinner, plug, drift bobber, or work a steelhead fly behind a plastic bubble propelled into the riffle with a spinning rod and reel.
If biologists are correct, the number of summer steelhead passing Bonneville Dam will reach 300,000 before fall. Many of these hungry fish will visit the riffles of the Deschutes. This might be the year to try your fishing luck on the lower Deschutes, armed with a fly rod and Purple Peril fly tied on a genuine gold-plated hook.