Vermonter tries his luck in Oregon
Marshall Curler was waiting for me at the Portland (Ore.) International Airport when my flight arrived at 11:15 p.m. on the last Thursday of July. We waited the usual time for my luggage. Much as I prefer to travel without checked bags, it’s tough to take a weeklong fishing trip with only carry-on. Waders and wading shoes alone would fill a little rolling duffle. Then I need rods and reels; on a long trip, I travel with two of each in case one breaks. Plus flies and a vest and sleeping bag. And clothes are nice too.
The important stuff — rod, reel, flies and waders — stay with me on the plane. I can go a week without clean clothes if I need to, but arriving without a rod and reel would ruin the trip.
Everything arrived. We drove 15 miles east before pulling over at a cheap (in both senses of the word) chain motel to get a few hours of sleep. We got up at 6 a.m. on Friday for our 300-mile drive east up the Columbia River Valley to Minam State Park in eastern Oregon’s Wallowa National Forest.
The drive was enjoyable for both the scenery and conversation. We were awed by the beauty and variety of the landscape as we drove first through the Columbia River Gorge, which had ridgelines lined with tall windmills, and then across grain-filled plains, and finally over a steep and beautiful pass into the canyon carved by the Wallowa and Grande Ronde Rivers on the edge of Hell’s Canyon. At one point, Hell’s Canyon lays claim to being America’s deepest river gorge.
We had plenty to talk about in addition to the beautiful landscape. I’d known Marshall since he was about 2 years old. He enjoys fishing, hunting, and the outdoors as much as or more than I do. The son of my friends John and Penny Curler, Marshall grew up in Middlebury. Wanting a taste of life outside of Addison County, about two years ago he followed his sister and brother-in-law west to Oregon and got a job working at a golf course in Eugene. He’d spent time camping in places like Montana and Wyoming with his grandfather Harley Grice (also of Middlebury), but had not yet explored eastern Oregon. As for me, I’d only been in Oregon twice in my life. I’d never fished there.
We arrived just after noon at a small and relatively secluded Minam State Park on the Wallowa River. The Wallowa has a pretty good run of salmon and steelhead, which make the amazing annual run several hundred miles up from the Pacific. Unfortunately, we were too late for the spring run of Chinook salmon and too early for the fall run of Chinooks and steelhead. We were there for trout.
We set up our tent, ate a quick lunch, and hit the river. The park sits on the west side of a 10-mile a stretch of the river with no road access, upstream of its confluence with the Grande Ronde and immediately downstream of the confluence with the Minam River. It had only about a dozen campsites, with water and a picnic table at each, and a single bathroom in the middle. The cost was $9 per night, and amazingly they took credit cards.
The west side of the river is too steep for hiking. The east side is just wide enough for a little used rail bed. Our plan, suggested at the Blue Mountain Angler two hours east in the town of Pendleton, where we stopped to buy groceries and a few flies, was to walk down the tracks as far as we wanted, and fish our way back upriver.
The river was swift and the bottom slick, so finding a place to cross took some work. But we managed, and from there we hiked about a mile and a half downriver along the tracks, past several good-looking runs. Water temperature at 2 p.m. was a balmy 72 degrees, a little on the warm side for trout.
But we managed to find a few deep holes and landed some trout, mostly on nymphs and a couple on grasshopper patterns late in the day. I also landed about a 27-inch carp that took a small midge nymph and put up a healthy fight before I could net and release it. There were a few other anglers on river, but spread over a mile and a half we had plenty of space to ourselves.
That night, we cooked a simple meal as we watched as a thunderstorm lumbered past the edge of the valley, and a young and tame blacktail deer wandered through the camp looking for handouts. The next morning we got a much earlier start. Long before the sun had crested the edge of the canyon, we had hiked about two and a half miles downriver, several corners past where we had gone the previous day.
We found an incredible looking corner of the river with about a hundred yards of beautiful runs and pools, but caught only one fish between us over the first three hours of fishing.
On the way back upstream, however, I noticed that what looked like a sheer ledge on the opposite shore actually had a deep undercut in the rock with a few notches just large enough to land a fly in. In next 30 minutes, I landed four nice trout by dropping a fly into these notches in the rock. Two took a stone fly nymph, one took a woolly bugger, and the largest — a 16-inch rainbow — came to the surface and gulped down a grasshopper.
Marshall didn’t have as much luck in the morning, but that evening — after sitting out a hail storm — we fished the Wallowa about 10 miles upstream of the park at a roadside pull-off. While I landed only three fish, and had my fly broken off by a big trout that would have been the fourth, Marshall landed a half-dozen nice fish on dry flies. Relatively new to fly-fishing, it was by far the most successful evening of fly-casting in his life.
Sunday morning was our final outing. We tried the Minam River, which was colder, clearer, and much smaller. We caught a heap of small rainbow trout upstream, and then a couple more big ones at the confluence with the Wallowa that was muddied from the previous evening’s hailstorm.
Back home, Marshall is now eager to return to this river and try it again, maybe in the fall when steelhead are running. He’s hoping for some friends or family from Vermont to come out and visit him and give him an excuse. I, meanwhile, had to catch a late afternoon flight over to Missoula, Montana, for the remainder of my fishing trip — and that’s a story for another day.