CAMP SHERMAN — The river churned violently through the pine forest, then calmly settled into a picturesque pool of turquoise.
Though the river’s banks were well worn by the boots of fishermen and other outdoor enthusiasts, not a soul could be found there as I approached. And the only noise was the distant rapids and the chirping of birds.
Even in the depths of winter, the Metolius River does not lose its boundless beauty — or its ability to provide anglers a chance at hooking wild trout.
“This time of year tends to be a little bit quieter,” said Dan Anthon, head guide at The Fly Fishers Place in Sisters. “You have less of an audience. In colder temperatures, less people tend to get out there. The fishing is still really good, and that’s the case for a lot of spots in Central Oregon.”
But few of those spots boast the wild mystique of the Metolius, or provide the opportunity to hook native bull trout, in addition to rainbow and brown trout.
Bursting out of the ground from springs beneath Black Butte, the spring-fed river, limited to fly-fishing and catch-and-release angling, is a majestic product of the Cascade mountains. Located northwest of the town of Sisters, it flows 23 miles on a route north and then southeast to Lake Billy Chinook.
Because the Metolius is a spring-fed river, water temperatures stay somewhat consistent through the winter, keeping the fish active even during periods of below-freezing air temperatures.
Hiking along the icy and muddy banks of the Metolius last week, I found a spot just upstream from the Wizard Falls Fish Hatchery, where the rapids gave way to deep pools of clear, blue water. I tied on a blue-wing olive fly, one of the most predominant insect hatches of the winter, and tried my luck.
For all its untamed splendor, the Metolius is known as a challenging river for anglers. The limited hatches of midwinter make it even more so. But the well-prepared fly fisherman can find success.
“I think the river itself isn’t necessarily super difficult (to fish),” Anthon said. “I think it’s a matter of angler skill. There’s a lot of ins and outs and intricacies. You need a proper drift and presentation.”
Anthon recommended using 12- to 14-foot leader, reliable for all the different currents through which to drift a fly on the Metolius. He also suggested 6x or 7x tippet when dry-fly fishing.
Finding a fishing hole on the river is easy, as trails already trudged by anglers line the banks. According to Anthon, “riffly” water is a good place to find hatching blue-wing olives.
“You tend to find a lot of bugs in the slow, calmer back eddies,” he said.
When nymphing on the Metolius, anglers should employ a heavy stone fly or a triple-beaded Tungsten fly to get their line down deep in the water, and then add a pheasant tail, hare’s ear or copper john, according to Anthon.
Anglers hoping to land bull trout, which can measure up to 30 inches long in the Metolius, can find them throughout the river. Anthon said to look for bigger boulders and faster water that leads into deeper pools. Bull trout will often hang out at the bottom of such pools, where they feel more protected, Anthon observed.
“Sometimes, you can actually see them (bull trout) down deep,” Anthon said. “If you really take some time, you can spot the whites of their mouths. If you see that flash of white, it’s just a matter of getting your cast high enough so it sinks by that fish.”
Seven- or 8-inch streamers — large flies that imitate bait fish — can be used to tempt bull trout, Anthon noted, but the most common streamers employed on the Metolius are 3 to 4 inches long.
I stuck to fishing my blue-wing olive fly, hoping to tempt some of the native rainbows to the surface. As I continued to cast, the mystical river continued its journey through the remote forest.