Guide Chronicles: Reporting Live from the Lower Deschutes with Griff Marshall

Guide Chronicles: Reporting Live from the Lower Deschutes with Griff Marshall

Hey everybody! Miss me? Didn’t think so. Well, I’m happy to have a minute to write a little about what’s been going on in my life. But first, my new book, My Mistress Whispers and Roars is in its final editorial process and should be published in the next few weeks. It has been a nearly yearlong endeavor and has forced much of my other writing to the far back burner. I will surely alert yawl when we have the freshly printed copies in stock at Fly and Field as well as on Amazon.


Photo Courtesy of BlackStrap

The last couple weeks have been an incredible whirlwind with both guiding and -believe it or not- a brief bit of fun fishing. That’s where I’d like to start… I was asked by the guys over at BlackStrap, the badass local business making the finest sun protection SWAG, to join them for a media-gathering trip down to the lower Lower Deschutes in search of some steelhead. My old boss, Russ, owner of Mack’s Canyon Outfitters, would host us at his jet boat camp for a couple days. All expenses paid. Just bring a rod and a sleeping bag. That I can handle.

Along for the ride were Jessie, Alyssa, Jim and Justin. Jessie and Alyssa would be fishing while the guys were there with a ton of camera gear. There was a “shot list” to cover, but otherwise our only instruction was to fish. That, too, I can handle.

We got down there on a Monday afternoon and lolled around camp till there was some shade to fish a little ways downriver. I started off at the top of a long run with Jim hanging out, cameras at the ready. We chatted as I worked down the run, swinging a traditional fly on a “Dry Line”. The wind pushed upriver pretty hard the whole time, playing havoc with my casts. As is usually the case, that first run of a trip is just me trying to find a rhythm, get adjusted to the river’s current, let the mind ease into the moment and hope for a grab. After maybe a half hour, Jim announced that he was going to head down and check in on the others. He gathered his gear and went to find a trail. Then he spun around and said, “Griff! Man I just want to thank you for making the trip. Awesome to get to hang out.”

I looked over at him, just as my fly was ending its swing, and answered, “Oh hell yea, Jim. Thanks for the invite.” And right then, in the vicinity of my fly, there was a great swirl. The moment is so jolting in every conceivable way. Firstly, whenever swinging for steelhead, there’s always the chance that hours and days can leak away without ever touching a fish. And so when one of the anadromous beasts has the grace in its heart to engage, there’s the briefest instant of disbelief. Secondly, when fishing with a floating line and small fly just inches beneath the surface, the grab resembles a trout rolling on a dry fly, which, I suppose is what it is, only a really big, really pissed off trout. This take was as solid as it was sudden. Into the shaded canyon, one word was uttered, loudly: “STEELHEAD!!!”


Photo Courtesy of BlackStrap

The fish thrashed wildly right where it has eaten. Big, heaving, crocodile rolls, morphed into a mad dash for the middle of the river, where it sailed clear of the currents and crashed down in a huge splash. I was just barely into my backing and considering a trek downriver to get even with the fish. And then it did the very last thing I was hoping for…it just swam straight back to our bank about fifty feet below us. I told Jim we were too early into the fight for the fish to hit shallow water. You’d always prefer to wear it out in deeper stuff. But this one just bolted right into the knee-deep, riffling area. And sure enough as soon as its belly touched bottom, it want ballistic. In the span of maybe three seconds, this fish ripped open the surface of the river in the most hardcore series of moves that unsurprisingly resulted in the fly coming dislodged from its jaw. The strength and tenacity this steelhead produced was staggering. We all know how powerful they are, but after a summer of guiding for trout, this reality can be hard to predict. So the fly came unbuttoned, the fish swam off, and the world went suddenly still again. Jim was curious as to what had happened, how the fish had gotten away. The only truth to relate was that I had just gotten my ass kicked.

We moved to another run for one last swing before dinner. None of us hooked up as the wind eased, caddis filled the air and the river sang its song. Dinner that night at Russ’s camp was epic. There was good food, whisky, laughter, and all the stuff that makes a camp great. Those guys have an amazing camp for sure. Highest marks all the way around. I slept out under the stars on my cot, as has been my wont all season. Oh, there was a nice tent to sleep in, I’ve just grown to love the outdoors at night. Still haven’t slept in a tent since April!

In the morning, as we dug into pancakes and sausage, a light rain began falling. All of a sudden, in that first week of September, autumn came calling. The day felt “steelheady”. We motored a little ways down and I got dropped off again with Jim. Russ notified us with a slightly evil chuckle, “This is a fun wade, guys!” After the first several swings, as I worked down through the boulder-strewn run, I began coming to terms with the true difficulty of the wade. All the rocks were large, slippery and randomly spaced out. The heavy, grey sky obscured any clarity in the river. Each step was a prime opportunity to go down. Jim found out exactly how “prime” midway through. When he went to step backwards, he lost footing and fell pretty hard. As I spun to see what was happening, the only bits of him above the surface were his head and right hand, clutching his big camera. I was just far enough away that there would be no coming to his aid. He struggled back to his feet with that familiar wide-eyed look I’ve seen way too many times over the years. The realization that the day would be forever altered comes heavy. How much water made it into his waders would remain a mystery for a while, but he was no doubt wet and cold. But like the trooper he is, we stayed on point as the run unfolded cast after cast. It wasn’t much later that another drift was interrupted by the swirling grab of a fish. As was the take the previous day, this one was visual, immediate and solid. Sadly, this encounter was even more brief. The fish tore line out towards the middle of the river, then made an abrupt U-turn back, put some slack in the line and just threw the hook. You’ve no idea how much I’d love to substitute that truth with another; how much I’d really like to claim that some piece of equipment failed, that it was all somehow Jim’s fault, that the waxing September moon was to blame. But no, the bold and simple truth was, yet again, that I’d had my ass kicked.


Photo Courtesy of BlackStrap

After a brief break at camp, during which Joe gave me the stern instruction to not screw up the next fish, we motored upriver, still under a slightly leaden sky although the rain had eased. Russ again dropped Jim and I off together and took Justin and the girls to the other side. We were up near the top of “Sixteen Mile” camp. The water was a little skinny but had that perfect speed to it. Above was a large eddy of froggy water and then the heavy chute all the way at the top. As much as any of us “read” steelhead water, this just felt like a place where they might post up. Once again Jim and I got to talking as I worked down. Rarely have I enjoyed such cool conversation while swinging. Normally working a long run is quiet, solitary, Zen-like. But I was really digging hanging out with Jim while I fished. He’s a good dude, with a cool story. I’d never known much about BlackStrap aside from the great stuff they make. As I swung the run, Jim told me how the company got started, how much of what they sell is dyed and sewed in the States, explained some of the newer products coming down, and I got a feel for the culture they’re developing, all the while producing stuff that should help us from all ending up with skin cancer.

We were only fifteen or twenty minutes into the run when another tremendous swirl engulfed my fly. This one was right in front of Jim, who had posted up on a little beach. “STEELHEAD!!!” Great heaving headshakes and barrel rolls blew up the bouncing currents. My beautiful old Winston BIIX 12’6” 6/7 bent from the cork and absorbed the thumping. And then the fish simply took off. And didn’t stop. Till she leaped far above the river, way out there. Then she kept going. And going. Fortunately my reel has a ton of backing on it. But I’ll admit here and now that I’ve NEVER been that far from a fish I had on. In most places on the Deschutes it would have been game over. But as I scanned the distance, way down to where the fish now held its ground, it occurred to me that I could actually give chase. I mean, when fishing ten-pound Maxima there’s always the possibility of just reeling the fish back up river. But I wasn’t using ten-pound Maxima. And I’m too embarrassed to tell you what I did have on. Stupid Griff.

I looked over at Jim, who was filming thirty feet away and announced, “We’re going for a walk, buddy.” And with that began the longest trek I’ve ever taken with a fish on. I reeled as fast as I could for the entire distance. And I spoke to the fish the whole time. It was some ways down when I was finally across from where she held way out in the middle. The next few minutes were the really stressy part. Any of you who have battled one of these fish know how, even after all the fish’s efforts, a steelhead can blow up and end things suddenly, with an inconceivable heartlessness. But I continued to speak to her as she reluctantly finned nearer our bank. I was giving thanks and apologies and promising it would be over soon. At some point I was aware of Jim having emerged from the dense foliage behind me. He was breathing hard from the trek. I didn’t know if he was shooting video of pictures but he was there with camera at the ready. And in that moment I felt a great pressure to actually LAND this fish. I knew it would be important for Jim and Justin to come home with the goods, and of course, I could hardly bear the thought of facing Joe back in camp if the fish was lost! So a little extra authority was put into getting the steelhead to me. The knots held through a series of rolls and brief sprints. She was pooped now, sensing, no doubt, that things were getting hopeless. When she slid to my side, she was almost calm. I, on the other hand, was a mess. No net. Utterly unwilling to beach her. Not having handled a fish this large in a while… Eventually I just dropped the rod in the river and tailed her. We did get a quick shot of fish in hand and then she flopped free, disappearing into the Deschutes’ magical currents. Click here for a quick video

There followed a quick look to the heavens, a fist bump from Jim and the extraction of a Rainier Ale from the pocket of my fishing jacket.

I think sometimes we forget, after a long summer of chasing resident fish around on the mighty Deschutes, just how special these steelhead are. And while there are surely not as many as there have been historically, that the strain still exists is something worth celebrating. As the world changes, as dams are erected, as water is sucked mercilessly from the river, as man and wildlife conspire to deplete and destroy, the fish returns, against all reason, in the face of insane adversity, the fish still returns. And when contact is made, there is a transformation in the angler. I’m not sure how to describe it. But I think through the contact there is a greater understanding and appreciation; something as concrete as it is ephemeral. I’m not talking about how strong they are or how beautiful or how elusive. My experience is more having to do with the world THEY live in. Not ours. And the struggles, the journey, the universe as it pertains to THEM. That’s what I feel after cradling a wild Deschutes steelhead. That, and a great thirst for Rainier Ale.


Photo Courtesy of BlackStrap

I will report that an hour later, while swinging down to where Justin was posted up with camera, and pausing at the end of a swing to slide my BlackStrap up, with rod propped between my legs, another fish breached on my fly. This was by far the largest of the trip. And yes, I’ll spare you all the details but for the part when it came unbuttoned after a brawl during which I NEVER had the upper hand. It was a smack down of biblical proportions, one that will haunt me. One that made perfect sense.

In closing, I’d like to offer a massive thanks to the boys at BlackStrap for including me in the trip. And major props to Russ and Joe at Mack’s Canyon Outfitters for hosting a truly kickass camp. It would be cool if that became an annual thing. Just sayin’…


A few days ago I guided one of the more remarkable couples I’ve ever met as in the course of doing my job. Tom and Barb Burnett hail from Austin, Texas. He has recently retired after a long career with Apple. They sold their house, bought a really cool campervan, and are now embarking on a three-year trek during which they will fish each of the top one hundred trout streams in the country. Jealous much? At each river they hire a guide to get the lay of the land and some local technique understanding and then stick around to fish it on their own for another couple days. This is a program I approve of. In fact, everyone should do it! I happened to be in the shop the day they came in to inquire about guides. Without knowing much of their back-story I agreed to take them down for a day on the Deschutes. I was embarking on one of those ten-straight-days deals. So why not add another one?…

As with most trips, I never know how much I will or won’t “click” with a client. But with these two there was an immediate ease of conversation, a relaxed demeanor amongst us that I appreciated right away. They both admitted to being somewhat experienced as anglers but willing to learn. And so at our first stop we set to dialing in the presentations required to fool fish down there this time of the year. We were using my typical three-nymph rigs with the only recent addition being some big as the first fly. The October Caddis are already around. And believe it or not there have been some stoneflies migrating around the bottom and ending up as trout food. So along with the typical small stuff on 5 and 6X, there is a Jimmy Leg or Lex’s Improved on some 3X. And true to their word they both took advice and instruction really well from the first stop on. There were some beautiful fish landed, some beautiful fish not landed and even a steelhead came out to play with Barb at our lunch stop. We enjoyed a delicious meal in the shade of a small tree and I got to hear some hilarious stories of guided trips they’ve already had on this trip. The day wore into an exceptionally gorgeous afternoon as the fishing slowed and we set about luxuriating in the perfect autumnal sunshine. I can hardly remember a more relaxed, enjoyable day spent with clients on the mighty river.

We did an interview after lunch and here’s the link if you’re interested. This is a practice they’re doing with every guide along the way. Please visit their website for more amazing stories of their travels.

This is one of my favorite times of the year to be down on the Lower Deschutes. If any of you would like see why, let’s get a trip booked and get after it before this season comes to a close.

Peace and Love till the next time, folks.

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