Two Days | Chasing Oregon Rainbows

Sport Fishing, American Angler, Salt Water Sportsman, Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Sporting Journal

The last 12 months have been a whirlwind of activity, jet-setting (literally) to work on projects across the country. I spent four months working in the Ozarks of Missouri before being transferred onto a project in Central Washington. All of this travel left very little time for me to spend with family, and the stress of work was leaving me frustrated. Finally, I decided to make a change. I found myself planning a two-week work trip to Washington State and had a free weekend to myself. Not wanting to sit around in a hotel room all weekend, I called up my dad and asked if he would want to meet me halfway between my project site and where my parents live in Meridian, ID.

As luck would have it the half-way point was roughly La Grande, Oregon, and the greater Grande Ronde Valley. In addition to being an all-around great town, La Grande has a gem of a river running through it, the Grande Ronde. The Ronde, as the locals call it, flows from the southern end of the Blues Mountains to the northeast before it connects up with the Wallowa River and eventually dumping into the Snake River near Heller Bar, Washington. I had fished the Washington stretch of the Ronde for steelhead when I was attending the University of Idaho, but I had never fished it up near La Grande.

We arrived in La Grande on a Friday evening in late May, and according to the river reports we read, the river was running high with a lot of turbidity. Knowing this, and following the recommendations Andrew lays out in his “How to Catch More Fish When on the Road” article, we stopped in and talked to the team at one of the local fly shops. The shop manager recommended, due to the river conditions, that we focus our attention on large and dark wooly bugger and leech patterns. He even suggested a few access points for the two of us to try out. We thanked the team and purchased a dozen or so of their recommended flies – remember the courteous thing to do is thank the fly shop for the advice by purchasing equipment or flies at their store! I find that if you follow up on your questions with a purchase, the clerk may be inclined to share a bit more information.

Day 1 – High Water and Limited Access

Sport Fishing, American Angler, Salt Water Sportsman, Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Sporting JournalMy dad and I woke up early on Saturday morning, and following the advice we received the night before, set out towards Wallowa. We spent the morning unsuccessfully tooling around the highway and on back roads, trying to find some river access. We traveled as far as Lostine, but the fishing reports were prooving accurate; the Wallowa River running high an dirty. The river was running high enough that in some areas it was overflowing its banks. We found wade fishing in most of the public access points nearly impossible, but we pressed on in hopes of finding decent access.

We eventually gave up and decided to head back downstream to Minam State Recreation Area. Driving in, we had noticed the combined flow from the Minam and Wallowa Rivers was quite a lot. The river widened downstream of the confluence, and we hoped that would mean more manageable wading conditions. Finally, after driving down the recreation area’s dirt road, we found some spots to wade in. The river level was manageable in this area, but after a few hours without a bite, we decided to move on.

Sport Fishing, American Angler, Salt Water Sportsman, Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Sporting Journal

We pulled out the map and found that we could access the Ronde near the Lookingglass Fish Hatchery. We set off and found a genuinely breathtaking stretch of river. The Ronde’s flows were a lot lower than the Wallowa’s, and we found it much easier to wade out. Unfortunately, we were not afforded much time to fish this stretch of water as it was getting late in the day and we still had an hour-plus drive back to La Grande.

Day 2 – The Rainbows Come After the Rain

Over breakfast, my dad and I debated whether we should head back to the area we fished the evening before near Lookingglass or follow the Ronde upstream along Interstate-84 and into the mountains. We knew we had finally found a fishable section of water near Lookingglass, but the short amount of time we had spent there didn’t result in any fish. We ultimately took a chance and followed the Ronde upstream.

The storm clouds were beginning to form as we left La Grande. We both leaned forward as we drove down Interstate-84, gazing at the clouds forming above Half-jokingly, we asked each other if we had the foresight to bring a rain jacket on the trip. We had thought to bring them, and that proved to be wise. As we followed the Ronde along the interstate to Hilgard Junction State Park, and then southwest along County Road 244, the rain intensified.

Sport Fishing, American Angler, Salt Water Sportsman, Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Sporting Journal
My dad sending tight loops near Hilgard State Park

The rain didn’t phase us. My dad gazed out the passenger-side window looking for riffles or pools that may contain fish, and I couldn’t help but do the same. It was looking like we had finally found wadable water to fish in and we were both excited. We pulled off at the Bird Track Interpretative Trail, donned our waders, and headed toward the river. The storm seemed to be moving to the southeast, and the rain was beginning to let up; I had a good feeling about this spot. The water quality of this section of river was much improved over the stretches we had fished the day before, so I tied on a tungsten bead-head pheasant tail and my dad tied on a gold-ribbed hare’s ear.

We had fished for a good 30-minutes when my dad exclaimed down to me, “Fish on!” Then, as quickly as it happened, the fish jumped and spat the hook, leaving my dad’s fly line laying slack in the water. Although he wasn’t’ able to land the fish, relief fell over me because we had finally gotten into fish! Wow, wait a second, now I had a strike, and like my dad’s it was off before I knew it.

Sport Fishing, American Angler, Salt Water Sportsman, Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Sporting Journal
Fish On!

After a few more strikes like this, and still no landed fish, we decided to pack up and head downstream. We ended up fishing a few more spots between there and Hilgard Junction State Park. Each stop produced strikes, but we could never get a fish to connect well enough to get one in the net. Each time we had small trout attack the flies at the end of a drift, only to turn and spit the fly.

Sport Fishing, American Angler, Salt Water Sportsman, Field & Stream, Outdoor Life, Sporting JournalThings continued this way until we settled in on the stretch of river that runs alongside the small town of Perry. We pulled off onto the frontage road and found an access point where the frontage road crossed over the river, just east of town. It was such a picturesque stretch of river that I decided to take some photos while my dad started fishing.

I was walking across the bridge when I heard my dad once more exclaim, “Fish on!” I thought to myself, “Maybe we can get this one to the net,” as I rushed back to look over to see my dad with a big grin on his face, stripping in the trout. I yelled down, “Do you need any help?” knowing fully well that the man who had taught me this sport was fully capable of landing the fish. I watched from above as he reached for his net and scooped up the trout like he had done this a thousand times.

We once more found ourselves in fading sunlight, and it was time to head back to La Grande. I wished we had a few more days to fish, but I had an early morning drive to make back to the project site, and my dad had to head home. I guess life has come to this; weekend fly fishing adventures in an attempt to maintain our connection with each other and remain grounded in the things we love.


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Beau Johnston is an engineer, writer, and photographer who is dedicated to proving you can find a balance between work and life. He is the Co-Founder and Publisher of Living Overland, and when he isn't working, you can find him exploring National Parks, fly fishing, and camping with his wife (Krista) and their two dogs.


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