Bill Seitz was showing a dozen members of Central Oregon Flyfishers how he uses a Czech nymph rig and a Japanese tankara rod to fish from the banks of the Crooked River when the white bobber he had attached to his line disappeared just below the water's surface.
“Strike!” a few group members screamed, signaling to Seitz that one of the Rocky Mountain whitefish or rainbow trout that call the river's fast-moving waters home had taken an interest in one of the three flies he had attached to his line. “Strike! Strike! Strike!”
Unable to get the fish on his hook, Seitz accused the group's members of being “wanna-be guides” and threw his line back in the water once more. He got another strike, hooked it and proudly announced he had caught a trout as the fish splashed around the surface to shake his line.
But Seitz's victory was short-lived, because after a few more splashes, the fish had somehow dislodged Seitz's hook and escaped.
“Guess you should have brought a net,” one of Seitz's friends said.
Thinking about how Seitz struggled to catch a fish in front of his friends temporarily boosted my spirits a few hours later when I was knee-deep in the Crooked River's waters, trying to catch fish with a fly rod I got four years ago and had never really used until now.
But then I caught something and that moment turned my first Central Oregon fly-fishing trip into a success. Something I'll probably brag about over a couple of beers with my friends and something I'd most definitely like to do again.
Finding the place
I can't tell you what prompted me to think, “Hey, it's been a while since I went fishing, why don't I head out there this weekend?”
I soon found myself looking at websites for guide services, local fly shops and outdoor adventure journals. I also found the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's website, purchased a license and got my first solid lead.
The agency's guidebook, “Easy Angling in Central Oregon,” features about 30 pages of information on fishing regulations, techniques and anything else you'd need to know when you head out on a trip. It also lists a dozen places on public lands where the fish are likely to bite.
I figured this book would be a great place to start because its cover shows a 6-year-old girl holding a trout that's about the size of her torso. If this little girl can catch a fish so can I, I thought to myself, knowing I'd feel really, really dumb if I didn't catch anything.
“This stretch of river supports robust trout and whitefish populations with good fishing year-round,” reads the guidebook's description of the Crooked River just below Bowman Dam. “Trout range in size from 10 to 13 inches with larger fish occasionally caught.”
The guidebook's description was enough to grab my attention and I looked for more information about the Crooked River, particularly an 8-mile section below the dam managed by the Bureau of Land Management. The river there cuts through a canyon of 600-foot-tall basalt cliffs.
Further research led me to Seitz and the Central Oregon Flyfishers, a group of about 250 mostly retired men and women who were holding their annual Crooked River Cleanup on the same weekend I thought about going fishing.
Tagging along with this group would give me the perfect chance to get a few last-minute pointers before I set out to see if I was a better fisherman than that 6-year-old girl. It would also give me a nice shoulder to cry on just in case I wasn't.
My dad taught me how to fly fish at some point when I was in high school or college and we'd often head out to the rivers and streams back East to see if we could catch anything worth keeping. We never did, even when we hired guides to show us where the fish were supposed to bite.
Those fishing trips got less and less frequent as time went on and almost ceased completely after I lost my fly rod six years ago in a move. My dad got me a new one the following Christmas, but we only went fishing once after that.
“Most of us started (fly fishing) when we were young and our parents took us out,” Seitz said, adding that he's worried about the sport's future because while a lot of people start fly fishing when they are young, other activities can get in the way as they get older and they may stop.
That's why Central Oregon Flyfishers runs the Kokanee Karnival and other programs that teach children how to fish. It also has classes for adults that study fly-fishing techniques, fly-tying and the insect life of stream ecosystems to keep them interested in the sport as well.
Seitz appeared to be master of those last two subjects because had several boxes of hand-tied flies that were sorted by what rivers they worked the best on, or what stream insects they most resembled and where those stream insects were known to frolic and get eaten by fish.
This little bit of knowledge is especially important because throwing the wrong type of flies at a fish is about the same as throwing hamburgers at a group of vegetarians — not only will they avoid what you're offering, but they'll also get annoyed and swim away.
Seitz said the best type of flies to use on the Crooked River are those resembling a blue-winged olive mayfly or the Mother's Day caddisfly, two common insects that have been found on the river's surface and in the stomachs of its fish.
He used these flies in his Czech nymph rig, a series of three flies that attached to a small weight so they stay just below the water's surface where the bugs usually feed when they are young, and attached it to a bobber that let him know when he got a strike.
“The water's a little high,” Seitz said. “But it's got a good color and we should be able to catch some fish.”
In the water
My equipment wasn't nearly as sophisticated as Seitz's. Rather than turn to a vast selection of hand-tied flies I collected over the years, my choices were limited to seven dry and wet flies I picked out after telling a guy at Orvis where I was planning to fish and when.
“You might not want to try the Crooked River,” the guy at the Orvis said, noting that this early in the spring the water coming through the dam would be moving so fast that I might end up swimming downstream if I waded into it. He suggested I try Fall River near La Pine instead.
My lack of equipment, the fast-moving water and the huge amount of time that had passed since my last fishing trip weighed heavily on my mind as I trudged out into the Crooked River's knee-deep waters wearing a pair of waders while carrying a 9-foot-long fly rod in one hand and a camera in the other.
But once I made it out far enough to get a few casts in without hitting nearby underbrush or tree limbs, I looked around and realized I was standing in the middle of a river that had carved a 600-foot-deep canyon into layers of volcanic rock that had been there for 1.2 million years.
At this moment I put my fly rod down and started taking pictures in every direction I could.
“This is perfect,” I thought, realizing that I may never have seen this canyon if I didn't set out to prove I was a better fisherman than a 6-year-old girl. “Even if I don't catch anything today, it's been a pretty good trip.”
Once I'd taken enough pictures, I threw my camera strap back over my shoulder and threw out what would be one of my lasts casts for the day. Right before I started to reel it in, I felt a slight tug on my line and noticed the tip of my fly road was shaking.
“Strike!” I thought right before I hooked an 8-inch-long rainbow trout, reeled it in and let it go to swim another day. “Strike! Strike! Strike!”