Here, in 1865, Thomas Condon sat on his horse, captivated by landscapes painted in ocher, jade, vermilion, amethyst and charcoal.
A few miles from the present-day town of Mitchell, the pioneer minister and scientist discovered climate change beyond measure, the fossilized remnants of an ancient jungle.
Here, the fleshy, treeless contours are composed of hard claystones, volcanic ash, ancient soils and lake beds. Layered, leached, cemented, compacted, crystallized, eroded, they form the undulating ascents we call the Painted Hills.
Sometimes one color dominates. Rich in iron oxide, the hills appear to hold streaks of rust. Elsewhere, varied combinations of elements paint hillsides in yellows, blends of iron and magnesium oxides. Manganese oxides create black stripes. The hills never appear exactly the same day to day, as moisture content and light reflection change the tints of greens, tans, reds and yellows.
Last week, we followed Condon’s trail down Burnt Ranch Road through the Painted Hills. The road takes its name from the ranch, formerly a stage coach stop burned by Indians during the fighting in 1866. Besides the irrigated valleys, little has changed.
Jeff Perin and Dan Anthon of the Fly Fisher’s Place in Sisters led the way to Canyon Creek Ranch, high in the headwaters of the John Day. Where the water runs clear and cold, you can find that native of the Great Basin, the redband rainbow and its cousin the ocean-going rainbow.
Perin, on the Burnt Ranch Road, mentioned the remnant rainbows in Bear Creek and a few that, he suspected, had made their way into the lake at Canyon Creek Ranch.
A riffle blew on the 14-acre lake as we put the rods together and shook line through the guides. My oldest daughter has been fly-fishing since she was knee-high to a kindergartner, and knows the difference between a roll cast and an upstream mend, but she doesn’t fish more than a half-dozen times a year. She makes progress each trip, but sometimes has to relearn a few things.
One of the best moves I made as a fishing dad was the moment two years ago when I decided I wasn’t tying hooks or leaders anymore. I had almost tied on a Bloody Mary – that’s a trout fly – for her, when I remembered. She tied an improved clinch knot. We were in business.
Perin hooked the first fish, a bright 12-inch triploid with a flair for acrobatics. My line, an intermediate full sink, put the fly down in the kitchen and I felt it tighten. At the same time, Tiffany’s line trembled and she set the hook.
She brought hers to the boat, but mine stayed down, shaking its head. After Tiffany had landed hers, I brought mine to the surface and saw it turn, its red stripe brilliant against the sun. Perin netted it for me and we admired it before the 18-inch rainbow kicked away.
We took turns netting each other’s fish and then another big one hammered my olive Woolly Bugger. It wallowed then burned line from the reel on its first run. Tiffany netted it, a little bigger than the last.
Peggy Long, who, with her husband Terry, owns Canyon Creek Ranch, walked us down to the bass pond, a shaded two-acre reservoir tucked up against a hill. We caught a few small bass. While Dan Anthon was pulling in a six-incher, a four-pounder grabbed it. For a moment there was a real battle, then the big fish let go.
Casting a Clouser minnow, I hooked a bluegill as big as a man’s hand. Five bass streaked from the shadows to try to eat it, then the hook pulled out. Tiffany tied on a purple leadhead streamer and tangled with a bass as long as her arm. It wrapped her leader on a rope and left her a little smarter. Progress.
One trout defined the day. Tiffany waited longer for her beadhead nymph to sink. She twitched the fly, her line tightened, she set the hook. When she gained line, it charged. Tiffany plunged the tip all the way to the ferrule to follow and then swept the rod around the bow. We saw the fish at the surface on the other side.
Struck by sunlight, its vermilion sash was bright against olive flanks, back spotted with charcoal. One more run and Perin netted it. We were captivated by the best fish of the day, a painted native redside. Rainbows defy statistics. No one thought to measure it.