Originally published in Bunyan Velo Issue No. 05
People write and talk about the salmon fly hatch on the Deschutes River with near religious awe. It’s a time when strange, two inch, orange insects emerge and line the grasses on the banks of the river in biblical proportions, causing large and usually wary trout to throw caution to the wind and feed on the surface with the desperation of the last call at Old Country Buffet.
Or that’s what they say, at least.
While a hundred or so cyclists were voluntarily flogging themselves in earnest in the first Oregon Outback along gravel backroads not too far away, Laura, our friend Brendan, and I decided to go on a little gravel outing of our own, combining fishing and bikepacking. As we were gearing up at the parking lot at Deschutes State Park, Brendan even came up with a hashtag for our trip: #OregonTroutback. Our trip, in the current vernacular, was now legit.
As a fly fisherman, I had been hoping to fish the Salmon Fly hatch for some time. It was one of those “famous” hatches (if bugs coming out of the ground can be counted as something internationally noteworthy). As a cyclist, I had done day trips on the Deschutes River Trail but had never camped overnight along the river. This trip was meant to scratch both itches simultaneously with vigor. Even if the fishing wasn’t non-stop reel-scorching action, what is there not to enjoy about pedaling out along a gravel trail and setting up an idyllic camp by a river?
The Deschutes River Trail is an old railroad bed that is rideable for about 20 miles. It has become the de facto proving grounds of many a bikepacking rig for Portland area cyclists since it is a relatively quick drive from downtown. Along the trail you pass a few relics of the past; some wooden railroad boxcars and an old homestead that remain in surprisingly good condition. It is dotted with a handful of campsites, mostly used by rafters and hikers. While the grade is never really difficult, there are a few things out there that will keep you on your toes, namely goatheads and rattlesnakes. Goatheads will make short work of your tire and the rattlesnakes will make short work of you.
The goatheads on the Deschutes River Trail have been known to destroy many a tire. On our first ever outing there a few months ago I had underestimated their severity. When I stopped to fix a flat I had no less than thirty per tire. I ran out of patches and didn’t bring a spare tube and managed to ride out by pumping up the tires every quarter mile. It made for a long afternoon.
Our plan was to ride out to one of the campsites near the old homestead. It had a large flat area for camping beneath some trees and easy river access for fishing. We weren’t exactly the perfect picture of ultralight bikepacking with our Wald baskets and panniers in the rear, but we were carrying a fair amount of fishing and camera gear. Brendan brought along a fly tying vise to make a few streamside flies and I was packing a video monopod. We also had four rods between us: a 5wt, 6wt, and two tenkara rods.
We arrived at our targeted campsite in the early afternoon, only to find it had been claimed. There was a full on camo tarp city set up by two beer-bellied guys who clearly had no intention of sharing the space. We pedaled back a few miles to another site that unfortunately didn’t have as much shade or flat space. The problem wasn’t so much finding free space as it was finding a clearing to setup camp. The grass had grown to head high since the last time we were there and we were loath to tromp around for three days in high grass in rattlesnake country. Eventually we found a little clearing that had space for Laura and I to set up our tent and suitable trees for Brendan’s camping hammock.
After a hastily made lunch, we got down to the business of fishing. Instead of packing heavy wading boots and waders, we were planning to wet wade using neoprene socks and cleated water sandals. For the most part it worked beautifully. The neoprene socks kept your feet just warm enough so you could stand in the water for hours and the cleated sandals gave you some purchase on the slimy rocks of the Deschutes.
We strung up our rods and waded into the water. For me, the first hour or so of fishing is about calming down, settling into the river, and starting to read the water. The water was flowing at a good pace but was fairly shallow. You could walk out about forty feet and still be in waist deep water. I spotted a few obvious places that could hold fish: boulders that were creating some softer water, a few spots on the bank with low overhanging trees that made for good cover, and a few slow, dark, and mysterious runs. All the ingredients of good fishing were there, except for any obvious signs of rising fish and perhaps most importantly, the salmon flies.
Thinking that we hadn’t quite clued in on the schedule that the fish and flies were on, I tied on a hopper-dropper setup, which involves fishing with a dry floating fly and a small subsurface fly below it. For me, It’s a good searching pattern when I’m trying to figure out a stretch of water. Brendan was fishing downstream, working the bank over with some golden stone fly patterns he had tied the week before. We worked our way up and down the river, occasionally glancing over to see how the other person was doing.
It’s not that we didn’t get into any fish, it just wasn’t the white-hot fishing action we were expecting. I got into two medium sized white fish and a third mystery fish that
broke off. Brandon got into a few small sized redsides that he eventually let go. We debriefed over dinner and bourbon and planned the next day’s tactics.
That night a storm rolled in that would refuse to leave completely during our three days on the river. Fishing became a Sisyphean task of casting against 20mph winds. It was not exactly the delicate dry fly fishing we had imagined. I resorted to what was the equivalent of carpet-bombing the water. I switched lines to a shooting head, tied on a sinking tip, and swung flies through wide swaths of water, methodically covering every inch looking for fish. I looked over and saw Brendan, ever the optimist, double hauling dry flies through the wind to the bank. By the end of the second day we were exhausted, having tried everything but chumming the water to get into fish. It was then, when I was leaving the water to go back to camp, that I saw my first rattlesnake slithering across a footpath that I had used over a dozen times during the day. It was a slow and sinewy reminder to not get lazy in the backcountry.
On our final full fishing day we got on the bicycles and rode up and down the river looking for promising water. Everywhere we went felt like a fish ghost town. There were all the structures that make good fishing water, but no fish and no salmon flies. We chatted with some people hiking and fishing the trail who had no luck either. It was as if the hatch had already blown through like a mad tornado of two-inch orange insects a few weeks ago and all the fish were following it like kids and an ice-cream truck. We spotted hundreds of dried up husks of salmon flies on trees at one campsite that confirmed our suspicions.
We took it all with a grain of salt, and plenty of bourbon. That night at camp, Brendan produced an orange and some bitters and made some Old Fashioneds. It’s hard not to get philosophical when you go on a fishing trip and don’t catch very many fish. In fact, it’s probably the only thing you can do and keep your sanity. We all agreed that, at best, we came away catching a few fish. Not as many as we had hoped for (or as large), but neither of us got skunked. At worst, we had just enjoyed three days biking and camping on one of the iconic rivers of Oregon with nothing else to do but ride, cook over our stoves, and go fishing.
Incidentally, we did actually see a salmon fly. On the final morning as we were packing up, Laura said, “I think that’s it. That bug!” I looked over to where she was pointing and sure enough, sitting on my Keen sandal and looking a little worse for wear, was a solitary salmon fly. I pointed it out to Brendan who in a rare instance of losing his cool exclaimed, “Sonofabitch! Let’s throw it in the river!”
We are headed to Iowa! We had a chance to explore a bit of the state last year and are coming back to find some of Iowa’s most interesting riding experiences. If you’d like to join us for a ride or make suggestions about what to check out in the following areas, send us a message! Here are our riding dates:
Taco Ride (5/28) and the Wabash Trace (5/29-5-30)
The taco ride out of Council Bluffs, Iowa is so popular it was turned into a commercial for Jennie-O. We want to check it out first hand. We are also planning to ride the rest of the Wabash Trace to explore some of the cool small towns along the way. Last year we were super impressed by the tiny community of Imogene that turned a quonset hut into a makeshift bicycle hub!
Gravel Grinnell (6/1 – 6/2)
The quaint college town of Grinnell has played host to one of Iowa’s most legendary races, Trans-Iowa. This year was particularly epic, with peanut butter-like conditions that decimated the field. We’re planning to sample some of these gravel roads and find some interesting things to do along the way.
Decorah (6/4 – 6/5)
Iowa has the reputation of being flat as a pancake. Local riders in Decorah beg to differ. We are headed to this charming small town to find some of the hilliest (you heard us right!) in Iowa. After punishing the legs for a bit, we’re going to check out the very tantalizingly named Trout Run Trail (hello, #bikefishing!).
If you’d like to meet up with us and ride along, send us an email!
I feel like a complete goof. I’m standing in the Deschutes River, decked out in waders, rod in hand, as if maybe I belong there, but I have no clue what I’m doing.
An hour earlier, amid conversation at the fly shop, we let it slip that this is my first attempt at fly fishing. Curiosity ensues, and I try to explain what makes me want to wade into the river and swing for trout. As a feminist and marketer, it bugs me that fishing ads rarely show women. But that sounds weird and pretentious to say, so I go with the second reason – which is that, after years of watching Russ, I have simply started to wonder what the fuss is all about.
It’s over 80 degrees, sunny and dry, and the sky is swimming with giant insects. So far, so good.
We decide to keep it as simple as possible, so I use one of Russ’ Tenkara rods. No reel, no complicated cast patterns, I just have to land the fly in the right part of the water.
But first, I have to overcome my fear of water. As soon as I step into the river, I remember why I have always avoided fishing, and it’s the same reason why I avoid swimming in rivers or lakes or the ocean… I tend to panic when I can’t clearly see my feet. The river bottom is dark, and there are ripples on the water’s surface. I take a deep breath and step in, but I have to remind myself that I’m only ankle-deep and the waders and shoes will keep the river critters from brushing up against my skin.
Russ ties a fly onto the Tenkara line, the fly that the guy in the fly shop says I should rely on. I get a few pointers and throw the line into the water. Russ stands on the bank, watching and taking photos.
When it seems like I’ve grasped the basics, Russ strings up his own rod and steps into the river behind me. While he brings in a few trout, I snag a few trees.
Russ suggests that I move down the river a bit further, out from under the brush, but it’s too late. My fly has decided to dance with the tree branches. I wade down to where it’s royally tangled up, trying to make sense of the mess. And then I see the snake. Game over.
It rained overnight, so we wake up to a soggy campground and grey skies. The temperature is at least 20 degrees cooler than the day before. There are no giant clouds of enormous bugs. But we’re not leaving, so we load up the bikes and pedal down the gravel road.
The gravel is thick and chunky, recently graded. It’s not ideal for the tires we have, but I’d much rather be on a bike than picking my way through in a car.
Russ watches the river for rises while I take in the scenery. This stretch of the Deschutes is different from the stretch we usually visit.
Eventually we pick a spot. Waders. Crocs. Down jacket. Tenkara rod. Magic fly. I wander back into the river, thankful that the change in weather means I won’t likely see any snakes.
The morning wears on, I catch a few more trees. We take a break and chat with another fisherman. I feel completely out of my element.
And just when I’m beginning to think that fishing is completely the dumbest thing ever… I hook into a trout. I’m so shocked that I literally scream. The guys who had just boated across the river watch as Russ helps me land a beautiful 8” rainbow. I just keep saying, ‘holy crap, I can’t believe I caught one.’
Ten minutes later, I hook another.
Not long after my fishing triumph, it began to rain. And rain. All through the night and into the morning. We drag ourselves out of the tent, hoping for some clear skies for a few hours. I want to catch another trout.
We pack up our stuff, hop back on the bikes, and pedal back down the road to the magic spot of the day before. I get a strike only 10 minutes after getting into the river, and I’m so mesmerized by the sight of the fish coming up from the depths to grab the fly, that I forget to set the hook.
Clearly, I’m still a rookie. But at least I finally understand why fly fishing is so darn addictive.
We’re going to be honest here, when we think of Nevada, we usually think of Las Vegas. From a visitor perspective, Las Vegas takes on such a huge mindshare of our pre-conception of the state that it nearly eclipses everything else. It wasn’t until last year’s Bicycle Tourism Conference, where we chatted with folks from Travel Nevada and NDOT, that we learned about the wealth of outdoor recreation possibilities. We recently had the opportunity to do a breakfast keynote at the Nevada Bicycle and Pedestrian Summit, and we met with bicycle advocates, tour operators and State Parks to learn about the bicycle tourism opportunities in Nevada. We arrived unsure of what to expect, but left thrilled about the possibilities.
Nevada, much like Oregon (perhaps even to a greater extent), has very small, rural and isolated communities, many of which are seeing some tough times. What they lack in built attractions like golf courses, amusement parks and shopping districts, they make up in natural beauty and being nestled in a landscape of mind-blowing scale. We sat in on a presentation led by Bill Story of NDOT about bicycling economics, and it was heartening to see that they see bicycle tourism as a means to attract people to these areas of the state. Even better, is that they are fairly realistic about the challenges of promoting tourism in those remote areas.
Another surprise is how active State Parks is with bicycling. Dawn Andone, a park ranger in Lincoln County, Nevada helps run a yearly bicycling event called Park to Park Pedal Extreme, with the help of local Lincoln County residents as well as a Las Vegas-based bicycling website – BikingLasVegas.com. It first began as a way to increase visitation to the region’s State Parks. It is unique in that it ends in a big gourmet Dutch Oven cook-off, a Lincoln County specialty.
In speaking with Dawn, we learned that the local residents were absolutely crucial in pulling off the ride. During their first year, many stood on the sidelines curious about the strange event. A few years later, they were clamoring for another event to bring in more visitors. To that end, Dawn also organizes a gravel event, called the Beaver Dam Gravel Grinder which ends in a BBQ! Our kind of ride!
Speaking of gravel, we also sat in on a panel with Travel Nevada’s Greg Fine, where he unveiled some early plans for a bicycle gravel network throughout the state. If there is anything that Nevada has a lot of, it is gravel and non-paved roads. After the session, there was a lot of spirited discussion about what they should do next. It was really exciting to see the sparks fly as Nevada bicycle advocates, State Park employees and tourism professionals were in the same room talking with each other for the first time! In our research before visiting the state, we also learned about TransNevadaTrail.com, a group of cyclists that are currently ground-truthing a gravel route across the state.
While our visit to Nevada was short (we didn’t even get to ride!), it left us intrigued. As a state for bicycling, it offers a blank canvas. With the current trend in adventures by bike and bikepacking, it could be poised to be the next hot bicycling destination!
Rode Trip is our series of recommended bike travel ideas. If you have a route or a destination you think we should explore, contact us!
Cottonwood Canyon State Park is located right along the John Day River and is one of Oregon’s newest and largest State Parks. It is about a 2.5 hour drive from Portland through the Gorge, so unfortunately it is a bit challenging to get to purely on bike. However, it if you have access to an automobile, it makes for a beautiful place to basecamp for a few days to ride, hike and fish. The landscape is full of sagebrush and rocky basalt cliffs which cradle the John Day River. The park has 21 primitive tent campsites with a vault toilet and even 7 dedicated hiker/biker sites. There is potable water available as well as a large gazebo in the day use area which makes for a great place to hide from the mid-day sun. There are also remnants of an old ranch on the property so it gives the feeling of doing a farmstay when you are on the property.
We went, of course, interested in the mixed terrain riding possibilities. Often we think of State Parks as simply destinations on a bike tour, a place to pitch your tent then move on, but more and more we think they also make great basecamps for loops and deeper exploration (read our Gravel Getaway tour from Stub Stewart State Park). We arrived mid-morning on the first day and after dumping our gear, Laura, our friend Robert and I assembled our bikes and hit the road. We were tipped off to some interesting rides by Dave, the resident park ranger, who suggested we check out a few particular faint squiggles on the map.
Day 1 – Double Track Exploration
Every ride out of Cottonwood Canyon State Park begins with a climb (but also ends with a screaming descent) since it is at river level. After about four miles and 1000ft of elevation gain we turned on to Starvation Lane (they never name these roads Happy Unicorn Way do they?) which was immediately gravel. From here, the terrain is lumpy but not overly steep and the traffic is pretty non-existent. For the next four miles we rode through a windfarm beneath the giant spinning propeller blades. We didn’t notice it at the time (who does?) but we were getting a nice little push with a tailwind.
After about mile 9, the scenery really opened up. We started to get views of the John Day River and the canyon it has carved out over time. We started slowly losing elevation back towards the river. You can take Starvation Lane all the way down to the river with a screaming descent. We decided that since it was late in the day we would rather explore the ridge a bit more so we hopped on a bit of double track that looked like it would lead to an overlook. The surface was a little sandy but surprisingly rideable on the 35mm tires we had on the Warbirds. We decided to call it a day and backtracked back to the State Park. The little push we had gotten out was now a headwind, but the slog up the hill had turned into a glassy smooth descent. The roads are such that they provide good sight lines and you can descend with very little braking.
After we got back to the state park, I decided to take advantage of the remaining daylight and go fishing. This stretch of the John Day holds an interesting variety of fish from steelhead, to smallmouth bass, carp and catfish. This time of year, smallmouth is the fish to target. I recently snapped my 5wt rod so strung up my 7wt switch rod, hoping against the odds and swinging for the fences that I’d get into an errant steelhead. Supposedly someone landed one just last week. Swing and a miss, but couldn’t really complain about the view!
Ever the optimist, swinging for steel.
Day 2 – #Patchduro – a new kind of riding!
On the second day, our friend Adam joined us for more riding. There is a relatively well-maintained trail on the State Park side of the John Day that goes for about 4 miles downstream. On the opposite bank, there is a parallel but less well-maintained but still rideable trail. We took that one. While not as long or aerobically challenging as the ride the day before, the rocky surface kept us on our toes. Adam was riding the new Trek 920 with 29er tires and was doing pretty well. We were a little under-tired for some sections but were able to pick our way across.
The landscape was really something else! After a few bends in the river you get some great rocky canyon walls to one side and river views to the other. The terrain is constantly rolling and the surface is constantly changing. It alternates between hardpacked dirt, to loose chunky gravel, to grass, to babyheads with little rhyme or reason which keeps the ride fun and interesting. Unless you are on a fat tire bike, you HAVE to pay attention. After about 4 miles we passed through what looked like an old cattle holding pen and left the more established trail for some double track up Hay Canyon. We managed to get up about 2 miles on the double track when we all started to flat simultaneously. A quick look at our tires showed that they were riddled with goatheads. We tried at first to patch them and push on, but it became clear that this was an exercise in futility. My tire alone probably had about a half dozen punctures that were bleeding air.
At this point we decided to ride/walk back to the established trail and swap in new tubes there, rather than continue to flat on our last remaining good tubes. Needless to say, it is good advice to either run a tubeless setup with sealant if you plan to go exploring off-trail or bring a large supply of patches and tubes. The mileage of the day wasn’t very high, but the “fun” factor was.
Because Cottonwood Canyon is a new State Park and is fairly remote, it is a bit of an undiscovered gem. We sort of liken it to smaller Deschutes State Park with far less people. The camping is a little more primitive and you have to pack in all the food you’ll need, but there is potable water. It is a playground if you like to bike, hike, fish and take photos. As with any area in this part of Oregon, there are rattlesnakes and other critters to be aware of, but it shouldn’t deter you from exploring the area (just be aware and prepared). Although we spent two evenings there, we barely scratched the surface in terms of riding. We got tipped off to a pretty cool loop you can do at the right time of year (it includes crossing the John Day but connects two gravel roads) and some fishing advice for future trips. If you live in Portland and are looking for a new State Park to explore, we highly recommend it. There are lots of recreational activities to do out there. For us, we hope to return again in the Fall (after the summer heat cools down and the steelhead fishing heats up) armed with tubeless tires and steelhead flies.
Flats are a constant threat if you go off-trail. Be prepared and bring spare tubes, a pump and a patch kit. Or go tubeless (but I’d still bring a spare tube just in case)!
Be aware. You are in a remote landscape and there are some natural hazards like rattlesnakes and ticks, so exercise due caution.
If you plan on hammock camping, don’t. There are no trees in the camp area.
Exploring Starvation Lane and some double track.
Partial route of the river trail. Begins at the area where we diverged from the main trail. Total distance of the ride as about 10 miles.