I first started fishing the Grande Ronde river back in the mid eighties. I had heard and read about the fabled stories of multiple fish days on surface presentations. As the Wenatchee River was producing more anglers than fish, I figured it was time to head for greener pastures. The reading and the stories didn't prepare me for the spectacular setting of the Grande Ronde. If God only built one steelhead river, it would be the Grande Ronde. I am not going to belabor you with the descriptions of its rim rock canyons and abundant wildlife. I am here to talk about its steelhead fishing.
Genetically, these fish are a summer steelhead. There is the wild steelhead and also a hatchery component. These fish enter the Columbia River back in mid summer but really do not show to the GR until September. October is the month when the river cools and the best fishing is found in Washington waters. These fish have swum some 400 miles of freshwater! Fishing remains consistent through November, but the weather gets a little volatile at this time. These steep mountain roads turn to grease when they are wet. This is not the country for the wimp.
The river flows along a gentle valley floor far below these mile high rim rock canyons. The river is relatively shallow but the dark colored bottom is covered with large rocks, and they are very slick. Wading cleats are recommended and a staff is not overkill.
I remember a multiple day trip I was running with six guys. It was day one and I had just finished giving the lecture about the wading and fishing. My assistant was helping one the anglers with his setup, and I was headed out for a lovely pool with my three guys. One of the boys was pretty excited about getting onto the water. There is a type of wading I call "plowing" because the angler kind of leaves a wake as they plow their way out into a casting position. Nothing subtle here. So this guy plows his way into the river and right over his head, (his feet slipped) all in one motion. By the time I hauled him out of there he was pretty wet. Needless to say, everyone in the group was pretty careful in their wading from that point on. We didn't have anymore swimmers.
The Grande Ronde originates from Oregonís' Blue mountains and enters Washington waters some 30 miles from the mouth, where it enters the Snake River. For geographic purposes, I will divide these Washington waters into three fishing sections.
Bogans Oasis: As we travel south from Clarkston Washington toward the Oregon border, we ascend up onto a plateau past the little settlement of Anatone and down through a steep mountain pass called Rattle Snake Grade. Itís well named. This road winds you down to the valley floor and the GR at Bogans Oasis. There is a Steelhead imprinting facility just upstream, but fish really do not start stacking up here until early spring. There are two more hatchery facilities up in Oregon waters. It is a long river. The float from Bogans Oasis to the mouth is a four-day fishing float. Really fun - highly recommended. There is also a take out ten river miles below Bogans called Shoemakers Grade. This is an enjoyable float and has some really nice fly water in it. The only knock I have on this stretch of river is this is the favorite day float for the plug pulling guides. This is only my opinion, and I try not to sound like a flyfishing snob, heavens knows we have too many of those, but the GR is a little river, and this style fishing just feels totally out of place here. Enough said.
Shoemakers is reached from a set of gravel roads just past Anatone. The drop from the upper plateau down to the river can really heat up your brakes so take your time. If it rains this road goes to grease..... get out of there. If you have to travel it when its wet, be afraid, be very afraid. Fortunately, this region only gets 10 inches of rain a year. Shoemakers has a road that runs along the river for several miles. There is a lot of fine pools in this stretch......and everyone knows it. Bottom line, you won't be alone. The river continues downstream and leaves civilization (if you can call it that) for another two days float, which you will spend in the canyon. This is wilderness camping so plan accordingly. Some people just float from Shoemakers and spend multiple days in the canyon before floating out. Campsites are limited so be kind. Let others have a chance at too. There is some great fishing pools for both surface and subsurface presentations but I will get to that. Oh Yeah, There is some wonderful fishing for small mouth bass in the summer months but watch out for snakes. The water is all class 1 and class 2 until you are coming out of the canyon. The entire river then constricts down to an eight-foot shoot into a class 5 rapids, called the "Narrows". It eats boats, it will eat you. Unless you are highly skilled do not run this. Either portage around ( not easily done with multiple day camping) and line your boats down, take an expensive guide trip, or avoid this wilderness float all together.
The lower 4 miles has only one more drop but my recommendation is not to float this section. There is river access on both sides of the river and you are right at Hellers Bar and the confluence of the Snake River. Many anglers from all parts of the country will spend multiple days fishing and camping in this reach. Why? Because you can drive right to it. Because the Grande Ronde steelhead and other Snake River fish will hold up in these lower waters before pushing on to parts unknown. Because this is the waters where 20 fish days legends have come from. This is where Mrs. Brown fishes. (Not her real name)
The first time I met Mrs. Brown, I was just completing a multiple day fishing trip. I had three anglers fish down through a favorite pool. First guy with a skating fly, and the other two with marabou leaches. I am not known for leaving a lot of fish. The second angler lost a good fish but that was it. This lady just patiently waited until the third angler is finished and she wades out. It was easy to watch her because we were camped right above the pool. I remember I was sitting back after a long day on the water, waiting for Valinda to put the finishing touches at the dinner table. I looked up to see this woman was playing a fish. She played and released this steelhead well, and promptly headed right back out to the same waters. She had my attention now. I noticed she was fishing a floating line and a fairly long leader. Her fly didn't float. She fished her water well. Ten casts later she was into another fish. I looked at my other guide, he looks at me. She lost her second fish. The third one was not so lucky. I happened to help her land this last fish.
I congratulated her on her success and asked her if she always did this well, as I examined her fly and setup. She said it was the only fly she fished on the Grand Ronde. Not even her husband out fished on this river she simply stated. I didn't doubt it for a minute. I now consider Mrs. Brown part of the furniture, and I look for her every time I fish down in the lower river.
Presentation: Both floating line and sinktip presentations work on the GR. Personally, I don't think you travel all the way to the GR NOT to catch a steelhead on a floater. Both Bombers and skaters work well. Interesting oddity about this steelhead. These top water flies work best on bright sunny afternoons, and they must be floating. Evening shadows are prime time for floating line presentations but the GR fish prefer the fly grease lined in the surface, not on, at this time of day. The undertaker, Max Canyon, and Skunks all work well.
When the light is on water but in their face, nothing will out catch these fish like marabou leeches. I have to warn you. After you have taken a fish or two on the surface, fishing sinktips will feel like trolling. They will also move stubborn fish at mid day. Try them in blue, and Motorola green.
There is a special place in my heart for the Grande Ronde. I will bet Mrs. Brown would agree. Dennis Dickson