How far is too far to ride to catch some fish? With the memory of our latest outing on the Deschutes fading, I was itching to get a fish on the line once again. Looking back at routes we’ve ridden, we were looking for someplace we could get to in a day’s ride that would provide good fishing opportunities for Laura’s tenkara rod and my 4wt fiberglass rod. One possible place that has always stood large in our minds was the Nestucca River. The last time we rode there, I wasn’t really into fishing. I did vaguely remember the river and that the campsites had looked nice enough.
Waders, Crocs and fishing gear all in the basket.
Nestucca River Road (or Meadowlake Rd as it is called out of the quaint winery town of Carlton) is a lesser known way for cyclists to get to the coast from the Willamette Valley. A short portion of the road is gravel, which tends to deter heavy thru traffic and makes it ideal for riding. But, there is still the matter of the coastal range to get up and over.
We decided to head out on Sunday morning. With summer in full swing, we didn’t want to compete for campsites and with traffic so we headed out when most would probably be heading home. We cut out a lot of suburban city riding by taking the MAX out to Hillsboro. From Hillsboro we rode few miles West on Hwy 8 which has a wide bike lane to just outside of Forest Grove, where we took a series of small roads that paralleled Hwy 47 South. This is the heart of Willamette valley wine country. Every few miles, it seemed, there were signs for a vineyard or a tasting room. The topography, as you would expect for the area is a series of gentle rolling hills. Flat enough to keep up a decent pace even when loaded, but hilly enough to keep the riding interesting.
We got up around 6am to get an early start and by the time we reached Carlton, we were glad we did. The temperature was rising and so was the amount of traffic. School was out and it’s tourist season, so there was more traffic than we would have liked on some of those shoulderless country roads. For the most part, drivers were well behaved but there were a few instances when someone would insist on pushing their luck and pass us on a blind curve instead of waiting five seconds. By the time we got to Carlton, we were ready for a break. Thankfully, there is an AMAZING bakery in Carlton (I would almost brave the traffic again for those cinnamon rolls!) where we stocked up on some pastries and Stumptown coffee for the climb ahead.
From Carlton, we hopped on Meadowlake Rd and made the slow grind up and over the coast range. Most of the riding is at a reasonable 5-8% grade, but there were a few pointy bits that got into the double digits. If anything, the climb is more of a war of attrition with gravity than it is a series of steep ramps. Thankfully, the latter half of the climbing is under tree cover which kept us sheltered from the sun that was now at full force. Although it was long and tiring, we were climbing pretty well. It is funny how your memories of a ride from years ago can be so different from the present day reality of it. The climbing wasn’t as bad as we remembered and there were whole sections of the ride we had completely no recollection of.
The summit came just in time. I had run out of water and we were both feeling a bit fried from the heat. As we descended we stopped into a few of the BLM sites looking for a good place to camp. We were targeting Elk Bend, but when we got there the layout was less than the ideal with campers stacked on top of each other. Instead, we rode a little further and camped at Alder Glen and settled on a ridiculously awesome campsite with a tiny tent pad beneath the canopy of a tree and the perfect view of a waterfall across the river. The site definitely made the trip worthwhile.
We setup camp and filtered water. I took a quick dunk in the river to cool off. After sufficient calories were consumed (in the form of salami), I strung up the Butterstick to check out the water. We had nearly followed the entire length of the Nestucca river from the summit where it barely looked like a puddle to something more fishable. The stretch along the campsite looked promising with a decent current on the far bank with lots of structure for fish to hide behind. At its widest, the river was maybe 30 or 40 feet.
Fishing is a lot like walking down your neighborhood and knocking on doors to see who is home. I started knocking. It didn’t take long until I had a pretty little cutthroat on a dry. Not a big fish by any means at 6 inches, but apparently a pretty good size for this stretch of water. After a few more missed takes from small fish I walked back to camp. We were both pretty exhausted. The mileage for the day was 56 miles with 3600 feet of climbing with nearly all the uphill at the end of the day. It was the evening of the Solstice, the longest day of the year, but by 7pm with the sun still blaring brightly in the sky we were wondering if it wasn’t too early to go to bed. We managed to stay awake until 9pm, when we called it a night (even though it was fairly bright out) and slept to the sound of the waterfall from across the river.
We had set aside one full day of fishing for this trip, which I think is the best way to do it. Usually the first few hours on a new river are just about feeling it out and getting use to where the furniture is. There’s almost as much observation going on as fishing. What bugs are present? Are there any risers? Where are the deep pools? You look, you listen and then take some educated guesses.
We decided to pedal down the road a few miles and check out the river downstream. There were some promising spots, but there were also a lot of private property signs (something else we didn’t remember from our last ride). We eventually settled on a turnout that had a trail down to the river. After a little hike-a-bike we ended up on an idyllic gravel beach and decided to kill a few hours there. It was classic trout water with riffles leading into deeper pools. It should have been easy and obvious but the most we got were some half-hearted looks from fish too small to get excited about. At worst, we ended up having a nice picnic by a beautiful stretch of water with no one else around.
We rode back for afternoon siesta, made a little #coffeeoutside and waited until things cooled off. We fished the water along the campsite quickly and efficiently. Laura hooked into a small but fiesty cutthroat complete with aerial acrobatics that put a nice bend in the tenkara rod. Outside of a few minor exclamation marks in the day, the fishing was slow and the fish we did get were small.
It was easy to get a little disheartened when we started to do the calculations: 56 miles, 3500ft over the coast range in the heat for some small fish. I’ve found that it is best to get philosophical at times like this. We were camped out in some beautiful country and for the last three days the sound of traffic had been replaced with the sounds of the river. There was no cell phone service where we were, so there was nothing to do but the bare tasks at hand: make coffee, fish til dark, eat dinner and drink bourbon while staring at a campfire. I even tried to find some solace in the fish we did catch and the way they took a fly with a sort of heartbreaking innocence. Tomorrow we would climb the coast range again and ride through the valley in the heat of the day to get back into the city. There would be plenty of time for worries and frustrations. All the time in the world, in fact. But for now, we had this small river and these small fish.
Exasperated, I stopped in the middle of the mud field of a road. I could no longer shoulder my bike, after carrying it most of the way down the hill. But pushing wasn’t an option either, as the peanut butter mud clogged up the tire tread and chain and everything else in the bat of an eye. So I just stood there for a moment, pondering what to do.
And that’s when I saw Phil’s van, chugging up the hill on a rescue mission. I stuck out my thumb, amazed that he’d gotten enough traction to come after us. As we loaded up my muddy mess of a bike (and muddy me), Phil joked, “if everything went perfect, it wouldn’t be a good story!”
In Oregon, the part of the state West of the Cascade Mountains is known as the “Wet Side.” The Eastern part of the state, predominantly high desert and ranch land, is the “Dry Side.” There’s a reason for this – it’s usually exceedingly dry and sunny in the East.
The Dry Side also has spectacular gravel roads that wind their way through endlessly open and empty vistas – which is why we had crossed the mountains with a motley group of friends.
We were base-camped out of Treo Ranch, a hunting lodge that caters to cyclists in the off-season – and a slate of beautifully challenging rides had carefully been planned for our weekend.
Phil and Dan plotting ride routes for the weekend.
But Russ and I seem to be on a streak of having rainy weather on the Dry Side – and we woke up Saturday morning to a soggy landscape that had been pummeled with rain overnight.
We dawdled over coffee and breakfast, trying to pull up the weather forecast via weak internet and cell service, before deciding to just go for it. This was clearly not the weather we wanted, but there was no point in wasting the trip.
Dodging puddles as we pedaled away from Treo.
We followed the undulating ridge line out of the ranch. All of Eastern Oregon, it seemed, rolled out alongside us, a never-ending series of deep valleys and tall hilltops, all covered in sage and wild grasses. The storm clouds of the night before still lingered on top and around us, lending a surprisingly grey cast to the landscape.
Determined to ride, we ignored all the ominous signs.
Fantastically steep descent down Buttermilk Canyon.
After a few miles, the storm clouds seemed to lessen, and we descended into Buttermilk Canyon. The creek had long ago carved this narrow and winding canyon, and there was an old ranch spread out through the bends. Hundreds of swallows rushed out of their nests in the cliff walls above us – and, for a few miles, everything seemed perfect.
Then we started up the hill.
At a certain point, the good gravel we’d been enjoying turned into sticky muck. Mud glommed on to every possible surface, gumming up tires and chains in seconds. And it brought along the remnants of the gravel that should have surfaced the road, so that pebbles could be heard scraping frames and found clogging chain links to the point of cogs no longer turning.
There’s a bike under there somewhere.
When the mud got too thick on my tires, I walked.
When the mud got so sloppy that it tried to suck off my shoes, I carried my bike.
Cyclo-cross style, aka why I have a bruise on my shoulder.
Slowly, gingerly, we made our way up the hill.
At the top, I discovered that I had cell signal, so I snapped a photo and posted it to Facebook, laughing at the ridiculousness of the mud.
And then I heard the worst words you can hear on a ride: “I broke my bike.” In the fight of Russ vs the mud, the mud had won. It had ripped off his derailleur, which now hung from his chain in a sad and mangled ending.
Our 70-mile ride had been reduced to just 16, and the mud had left a few casualties in its wake.
Unable to make all the necessary repairs on the fly, Russ and his steed hitch a ride with a passing rancher.
There is something about Eastern Oregon that keeps drawing us back. The landscape is mesmerizing, with its big skies and rolling hills. You can stand on a hilltop and feel impossibly tiny, just as you will check that your eyes are open when it’s pitch black at night and that your ears can still hear when it’s stunningly quiet. Whenever there is an opportunity to ride around Eastern Oregon, I will take it, and it will never be enough.
But the allure of Eastern Oregon can obscure an important fact: you can easily get in over your head.
On a ride last fall, we climbed up a twisting gravel road and dropped into a deserted valley. Breathtakingly beautiful, and eerily easy to just disappear and never again see anyone or a hint of civilization.
I love the feeling of being completely independent and self-sufficient. But, I have to say, when things go wrong, when the road tries to swallow you alive, it’s nice to know that someone has your back.
Thank you Phil and your mud-conquering van.
We first met Phil roughly a year ago, and we were instantly impressed. A former rancher and mechanic, Phil has run a hunting lodge near Heppner, Oregon since the 1980s – and began to reach out to cyclists a few years ago to fill the gap during the hunting off-season.
Cycling caps now hang alongside hunting hats.
At Treo, cycling and hunting blend together under one roof, in a style that’s both odd and perfectly fitting. There are pheasants on the wall and cue sheets on the side table. There’s Bud Light for the hunters, IPA for the cyclists – and everyone gets a steak at the end of the day (this is Eastern Oregon, after all).
And that’s what makes Treo so inviting – rather than putting on airs, it’s a cozy slice of Eastern Oregon. It’s an opportunity to experience a place that’s vastly different from where most of us live, to rub elbows with the history and culture of this part of the West – and to cycle some of the most beautiful roads in Eastern Oregon, without a second thought about ‘did I pack enough water?’ and ‘what if I break my derailleur in the middle of a long ride?’
Helping cyclists blend into the surroundings and be a good neighbor.
The morning after the mud fiasco, we awoke to sun streaming in the window. Was it all a dream? It would be easy to believe that we had simply imagined all those miles of walking through muck – if not for Russ’ derailleur-less bike propped against the wall.
On a normal independent trip, we would resign ourselves to “not chancing it.” But the promise of van support on our planned 40-mile route meant that we wouldn’t have to miss out on the last day of (now dry) Eastern Oregon gravel. Russ could spin on his make-shift single-speed – and bail if it turned out to be a terrible idea.
In sharp contrast to the day before, we were greeted by a sparkling blue sky, dotted with a few perfect powderpuff clouds. Out through the ghost town of Hardman, down a roaring canyon descent, uphill again along a winding creek, and into the Ponderosa forest. Treo Ranch is located on a grassy slope, surrounded by rangeland – so the tall pine trees surprised and delighted us. And then they surprised us even more when they suddenly disappeared on the other side of the summit, and we followed a screaming descent through wildflower-dotted prairie-land.
Incredible views around every turn.
A much better experience in the sunshine.
The landscape and terrain of the route changed every few miles, a perfect welcome-to-Eastern-Oregon gravel sampler route. Up, down, narrow canyons, wide open fields. Constant wonder and surprise, on a deliciously warm and sunny day. It was exactly the ride that we had been looking forward to – made all the sweeter by the sheer inability to experience it the day before.
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.