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Author: Ed Lawrence
Steelhead and chukars - nothing goes together better for a fall cast and blast.
At some point, between New Year's day and the Daytona 500, I was informed by Captain Judy that I had lost control of my right foot, which was suffering a case of toetap-itis.
"You've also become very testy," she added. Coincidentally, I noticed that my trigger finger was feeling itchy and I was unconsciously practicing a false cast. Given those conditions, the best alternative seemed to be a retreat from winter's prison to the great outdoors.
But, where the devil would I find a bird hunting, or fishing, opportunity in the dead of winter?
Ever heard of Condon, Oregon? It only took four calls to locate John Ecklund and Kris Svenson, fishing and hunting guides with operations in Central Oregon who specialize in chasing winter steelhead and hunting wild birds. Ecklund focuses his steelheading on miles of the John Day River from October - March. Svenson has 36,000 acres of prime hunting land, including a preserve that operates from September - March 31. That stretches the seasons well beyond the holidays.
Though Condon is a small dot on an Oregon map, it's easily accessible by plane and pickup. It's a two-hour drive from Portland along the Columbia River, the same route followed by the wily steelhead.
A tributary of the Columbia, the John Day is the second longest free-flowing stream in the Lower 48. Bereft of hatcheries, its 200 miles are considered the largest river for wild fish in the west, according to Tim Unterwegner, biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. For the fifth consecutive year, the number of steelhead making the trek upstream is well above the 10-year average.
Located in a high desert, it flows from the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness through canyons filled with lava boulders that separate vast expanses of rangeland. One section of the river has been designated a Scenic Waterway.
Beginning in October, when the most productive steelie fishing and wingshooting season begins, the weather is mild. By January, temperatures are dipping into the 20's, so longjohns and two layers of fleece are adequate most days. Several sections of the stream, ranging in length from 4 to 8 miles, are in the neighborhood, as are a number of public access locations. Local landowners can be pretty fussy about anglers walking above the high water mark, so paying close attention is important.
Because it's only class II - III water, an easy method of exploring the stream is aboard a pontoon boat on a one-or two-day trip that could include overnight camping; an option is to float with a guide. Either way, we cover more water than bank fishermen, a key with steelies, and avoid pockets of fishermen.
That the steelie are such wily prey is felicitous, considering the obstacles they face on the journey to maturity. After spending their first, or first two, summers swimming 200 miles from the headwaters, they travel 270 miles down the Columbia River, negotiating three dams and avoiding encounters with osprey and eagles. Then, they spend one, or two, or three summers in the ocean, avoiding whales, sharks, and other predators, before making the return trip. Though the number seems paltry, it is one of nature's miracles that 2 - 4 percent of the little nippers actually complete the trip.
The Official Central Oregon Method of catching steelies, according to Ecklund, is to "cast across and downstream into a run, make an upstream mend, and ignore the line as it floats aimlessly downstream. Absorb the wonderfulness of the surroundings. Think deep thoughts." Theoretically, the fish will tap at the swinging imitation, then return to strike.
Following Ecklund's instructions, we spend a day thinking deep thoughts, making a retrieve, taking four steps downstream, and repeating the process. The Oregon Rule of Thumb is that every 1,000 casts produces a strike. We didn't keep track of every cast, but can testify that on several occasions we did not have hits between the occasional coffee break.
The good news is that the thrill of actually hooking, and landing, a steelie is worth the effort. Once on the business end of a fly line, these wild fish have the energy and stamina of a Tasmanian devil, jumping and thrashing around above the surface, refusing to swim blithely to a net. We release fish out of respect as much as for the obvious reasons.
At day's end, when three of our casts had resulted in hookups, we headed for the Condon Hotel; a historic hostelry located in small town America at it's best. Lying in the center of an agricultural community, it's a place where the locals are old-style friendly.
The hotel, which has recently undergone a multi-million-dollar facelift, offers prime lodging at reasonable prices. Rooms are large, mattresses are firm and cable television with ESPN and CNN is available for those who need a video fix. Not your local diner, the dining room is a white tablecloth space in which guests are presented with an array of delectable choices. Plus, just off the lobby is a nook where you can get an honest shot of bourbon. If you're up for a game of pool, a cowboy saloon across the street is a likely candidate.
After a good night's rest, we began the hunting festivities at Katherine's Cafe, where we mingled with friendly locals while working through plates of eggs, hash browns and sausage. Then, under drippy skies in the middle of a sagebrush-covered plateau, Kris unloaded his two favorite dogs, Gunner and Babe. A 1-1/2 year old English Pointer, Babe was so excited that her entire body was one big shiver.
As any experienced bird hunter knows, and we were quick to learn, chukars are as shy and wily as the steelie, to the point we wonder if they're soulmates. And, as with steelies, he who covers the most ground wins. So my two compadres and I spread out three wide, covering a 150-foot swath of side hill an excavator would call a 12 percent grade that was overgrown with pods of wheat stubble, and sagebrush.
"So, Kris, where are the birds?" we asked.
"Oh, depends. They could be down in that drainage, or along this sidehill, or up there on that ridge. Or, they might have moved across the river," Kris responds. The hunt definitely mirrored the fishing.
No matter, the birds were there. With Babe and Gunner running miles with their snouts glued to the ground, we hiked for hours, flushed several birds, and even managed to bring a few to earth. And, I got a decent shot at a jackrabbit.
Too soon, I was back at the grind, recalling memories of a pleasant, though tiresome, outdoor experience. Winter will be shorter next year, since the Oregon experience will fill time between New Year's and the 500.
When you head for Central Oregon between October - March, your safest bet is to dress in layers. The weather will turn chilly in early fall, chilly and wet in late fall, and c-o-l-d in January - February.
On the stream, we typically fish wearing heavy layers of thermal underwear, a couple of layers of fleece, and a Gore Tex jacket to break the wind. Plus, gloves and a hat. Neoprenes or GORE-TEX waders work well.
Fishing gear should include a seven-weight rod with a large arbor reel; leaders typically taper down to a 6 to 8 pound test tippet. Your best bet is to contact the locals for information on fly selection, but be certain to include a supply of 'Green Butt Skunks', the old reliable for steelheaders.
Hunters need to add a shooting vest and hat to their wardrobe, and a pair of boots warm enough for the tootsies and sturdy and comfortable enough for up and down hiking. Much of the terrain you'll cover will be on a slope.
Svenson recommends a 20-gauge shotgun, but a 12-gauge, with size 7-1/2 to 8 shot and a modified choke will also work.
Two more items: bring handwarmers and a camera. The landscape can be spectacular.