Fly Fishing The Grande Ronde with Dennis Dickson
The Grande Ronde
The Grande Ronde in Southeastern Washington is a tributary of the famous Snake River, flowing through a series of canyons that make a spectacular backdrop to the river. I am tempted to call it idyllic but although that is the true through much of its course, on my early October fishing trip there with Dennis Dickson from Dickson's Fly Fishing Steelhead Guides, I found out that is not always the case. My first time ever seeing the Grande Ronde was on a three-day wilderness trip with Dennis as guide and friend Blake Steadman as a fishing partner. Normally Dennis takes three fisherman on the trip, but one of our group had to bow out at the last minute due to illness. I was on one of the nine 3-day expeditions Dennis did this year. He has been floating the wilderness section of the Ronde since 1990. Many of his trips are an annual affair with the same anglers year after year, but new anglers are always made to feel welcome, just as I was on this one.
The Trip of a Lifetime
So here I am, four weeks after one of the best fishing trips of my life, finally writing about it. You would think it would mostly be forgotten, but because it was such a memorable event, it is still fresh in my mind, as if it happened yesterday. You are probably thinking that I am going to be writing about all the big fish and the great battles that we had with them, but that is not just what made this trip memorable. Yes there were big fish caught, but I would be selling you short to just talk about those.
I wrote a few weeks ago that this was shaping up to be the trip of a lifetime. I meant that when I said it, but I guess you might think now my perception of the experience was tainted by that expectation. I can assure you that it was not. When we headed down into the canyon with our pontoons atop Dennis' expedition raft, I had high expectations about the river, to be sure, but the minute I put my little pontoon boat in, I was taken aback not just by the by the beauty of the scenery, but by the look and feel of that water. You could tell that it was a river that held great promise. Every inch of it looked like it should hold fish. That is something I had not witnessed until then, but couple that with knowing I was headed out with one of the best guides in the business and a great guy as a fishing partner and I was already having a great time. But, having said that, I soon found out that everyone who has fished the more popular sections of the Grande Ronde have visions of grandeur - ideas of a river full of steelhead and only you fishing for them. Sadly, it doesn't work like that. All the pools of the Ronde did look wonderful to fish, but I marveled at how many pools we simply bypassed on the trip. Even in the ones we fished, Dennis would say, "Now you just fish from here down to there". When I asked him about all the other great looking waters, he simply said, "they don't hold fish". Dennis' ability to know where the fish would be under different water and light conditions was uncanny. He confided it took him the first 10 years to really get a handle on where the steelhead would hold in a river section, and why.
Heading Out On the River
So we prepared to head out. One thing that I like about trips with Dennis Dickson is that he makes each one a total experience. I have not been on a trip yet with him where we have fished for just one species. One can almost always have the fun of catching something on a fly even when fishing for the other might be slow. This was primarily a trip for Summer Steelhead, but the Grande Ronde is also noted as a good Smallmouth Bass fishery. The plan as we started our first drift was to fish for Smallmouth with a grasshopper pattern along a stretch of water with some deep undercut banks and structure. So here I will admit my first mistake - I had tried to think of everything, but of all things, to forget, I had left the line grease at home. No problem, though. Dennis took care of it without making me feel at all like the idiot I really am. Mistake number two...I had a little getting used to with my little pontoon boat. I had purchased it several weeks before, but never got the opportunity to take it on the water until then. My first experience rowing two oars forward, was not quite the same as rowing with one oar in a canoe or two backward in a rowboat. I spent a little more time then I would have liked, messing with my oars on the float when I could have been fishing. My recommendation... Don't hit the river without a little practice first.
First Steelhead on a Surface Fly!
It wasn't long though before I would experience what turned out to be the highlight of the trip for me. ...My first steelhead ever on a surface fly! After fishing the banks for Smallmouth, we put in on a rock strewn bank to wade a section that Dennis identified as good steelhead water. It was a long stretch with a fast flowing channel running over good structure - lots of good pocket water around partially hidden boulders. So we got out to wade, and after fumbling my attempt to tie on a Crystal Caddis with a riffle hitch, Dennis tied one on my leader for me. ...a different version than the way I thought it was tied, but I could see how it would be more effective. The "hitch" was tied over the deer hair collar, rather than just behind the eye of the hook as I had practiced. I learn something new every time I fish with Dennis Dickson!
What followed, was one of the most amazing things I have ever encountered while fly fishing. Dennis coached my casts and mends to keep the Crystal Caddis in the good pocket water for as long as possible. As he put it, I wanted to let them get a good look at it for as long as possible as it floated through their window. On about the third cast, I was reaching the right water, my mends were slowing down the fly and we watched as it slowly waked behind a good boulder. Dennis knew though he could not see a fish, that it was in a good window, saying out loud for the first time, "He's looking at it," then a little louder, "he's looking at it." Then wham! A beautiful wild steelhead broke the surface and nailed that fly. And I mean nailed. That fish left no doubt that he wanted a meal. I was so taken aback that Dennis knew the moment that fish would hit, I could barely keep my bearings. All I could do was keep laughing as I played that fish. It is a wonder that I didn't lose it. But after a good fight I guided it to Dennis' net. By that time, Blake had made it over to see all the hoopla , snapped a couple photos and shared some more laughs about Dennis' prediction of the moment the steelhead would hit. As it turned out, though, there were many more laughs to be shared on this trip.
Evening Fly Fishing
That first evening we set up camp on the bank and enjoyed a great meal of barbequed ribs and fixings prepared by Dennis. The old adage that nothing tastes as good as when you are camping might well be true, but this was a pretty hearty meal and very tasty non-the-less. Before the sun had a chance to set, we walked downriver to a couple spots that Dennis knew were good steelhead stretches. I had the honor of communicating by walkie talkie while Dennis went further down river to show Blake another good run. As the air cooled and the evening sun began to set, the hills started casting shadows on the water. I cast my Crystal Caddis and waked it across a promising lie, mending and slowing its progress. Remember the lesson, I kept telling myself. Give them a good look. Splash! Then nothing! Geesh, that was a nice fish, but being the rookie I am, I remembered the lesson for presentation but forgot the other lesson Dennis tried to teach.
That night, camping under the stars, I realized what the trip was all about. It was the fishing and camaraderie to be sure, but more than that it was about being in a place where was not another soul in sight, not another sound, except the rushing water of the river, and where the night sky was undisturbed by the lights of the city. Every single star in the night sky was brilliantly illuminated, muted only by the cloudlike Milky Way. As I stared mesmerized by that night sky I felt like I was camping out in a giant planetarium. Something I hadn't experienced since I was a kid. I would also find out on this trip though, that camping is very limited. Most of the canyon is on private property and aggressively enforced. If you are thinking at all about doing it, I should caution you that you better know where you are.
I have to admit here that the next two days belonged to Blake. We fished surface techniques, nymphing (without a bobber) and sinktipping, but different pools (and anglers) lend themselves to different techniques. I raised a few more fish to the Crystal Caddis and caught my share of Smallmouth, but it was Blake who was the master of the wet fly, taking three very nice steelhead and just missing a couple others. I spent more time fishing surface flies than wets, partly because I had more difficulty with the wet fly technique, but also because I really liked the greased-line fly fishing. I think Dennis recognized that too. On our final day, I fished once through a run with a wet fly. I had a couple bumps, but no takes, so we knew there were steelhead there. Dennis had me go back through the run with a Crystal Caddis to see if I could raise the fish and while I fished back down through the run, Blake caught up with us in his pontoon. He banked the boat, started to fish behind me through the run with a different wet, and before long had a nice fish on! He played that fish beautifully, as he had the other steelhead he landed, and eventually brought it to Dennis' net. Meanwhile, I stopped what I was doing to get back there and snap a couple photos.
To end the story here would do it a great injustice, because the probably the noteworthy part of the trip was yet to come. It was on the last day that we had to navigate the narrows, and I soon found out, that The Narrows are dangerous! This is where the river banks suddenly narrowed and the gradient steepened dramatically, transforming the river from a Class 1 to a raging torrent. On both sides, the narrows were strewn with large, misshapen boulders. making it treacherous to navigate on foot. Our job was to portage the single man pontoons over that rock to a point below the rapids where we could put in and float safely the rest of the way, but not before we guided the expedition raft with ropes through that raging torrent. This was the most physically demanding part of the trip, and not the most pleasant. The portage was tough with two men carrying the pontoons. Dennis quipped that he some of his younger clients had just about sprinted across those boulders, but for Blake and I, it was a difficult haul. I was partly to blame, though. My pontoon was weighted down with some extra cargo and it was the heavier of the two. We were probably lucky we didn't fall or turn an ankle, but unlike what younger men might have done, we thought that caution was definitely the better part of valor. The next time too, I will travel lighter. ...Another lesson learned. Next we lined the expedition raft through with ropes. ...Highly technical and should only be done by experts! We survived though. I am sure due to Dennis' experience with navigating the narrows and instructing his clients how to do it.
After we had successfully guided the expedition raft through the narrows we all once again boarded our pontoons and floated to the next stop where we we planned to have lunch. After that, there were still a few wild rapids to navigate, and that was a little crazy, but again for me, it was worth it. For the most part though, the rest of the trip was peaceful and a time to reflect on how enjoyable the whole experience was. I hate to end without telling you despite my cautions, how much fun this trip really was. I failed to mention all the good laughs we had, many at my expense - like when I was talking in my sleep the first night, or when I took a good dunk; and for some reason a Freudian slip had me confusing Dennis and Blake by saying "I just hooked a Walleye" instead of Smallmouth. But there were also laughs for other reasons and some serious discussion as well. The most valuable aspect of the trip though, was as always the expert instruction and mentoring from Dennis Dickson. I always come away a little smarter and a better fly fisherman after going on a trip with him.
Saying Goodbyes - Memories of the River
That evening we said our goodbyes and Dennis began preparations for his next three-day outing. How he does it is beyond me, but I think it is the Grande Ronde that has something to do with it. It is a river that has everything. It has natural beauty and a wildness. It is tranquil one minute, raging the next. I know it sounds corny but you get the feeling that that every rock and boulder holds a secret. It reminds me of the last words from Norman Macleans, A River Runs Through It/ "Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters." I will be haunted by those waters until I can return again next year with Dennis Dickson.
Most anglers who float the wilderness do it only once after they go three days of not finding the steelhead, and then have to deal with the Narrows and their gear. My advice is simple to go with an expert. The Grande Ronde is not that big. You could go down the wilderness with a party of six like some do, but your fishing water is split with the others in the group, and that is if other outfitters like Dennis are not sharing your float. Dennis doesn't even advertise the wilderness float. On Flyfishsteelhead.com he usually only the promotes the Cabins and Campout Expedition his son Mike does unless he is looking to fill a few openings. Dennis runs an intimate trip with only 3. It's a no-frills, participatory trip, but if you enjoy river side camping and day long steelheading, you would do no better.
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