It’s a Saturday afternoon in late July and I’m leaving Maupin, OR to head back to Bend after a great Women for Wild Fish event. My phone pings from the passenger seat. I glance over and see a text come through from one of my close friends, Taylor Geraths. He’s the owner of Taylormade Outfitters, a premier guide service in Central Oregon. I open the text, “There are enough Steelhead in to make it worthwhile. When do you have time to go?” As any angler can attest, the prospect of fishing with great friends will always pique your interest. Within the next 10 minutes, I started figuring out how to sneak out of work for a day, along with all the logistics of getting myself back down to Maupin in 72 hours.
A few texts came through with photos of some beautiful steelhead Taylor’s clients landed on their most recent trip, along with pictures of the devastation left in the wake of the recent wildfires. My heart started racing at the prospect of catching my first steelhead. Simultaneously, the sadness of seeing our beloved river ravaged by fire was sobering. I guess I had to experience this all for myself. The draw of these magnificent fish of 10,000 casts and the witnessing landscape forever changed.
We added another awesome crew member to the trip, Bruce Berry. Taylor and Bruce have a long history, over 20 years of fishing and friendship. It was all coming together nicely. Taylor and I would meet Bruce at Deschutes Angler Fly Shop in Maupin and we’d put in at Mack’s for a 20+ river mile float to the mouth of the Deschutes. Up until this point, Bruce and I had only been in touch over the phone, talking fishing, Beulah rods, and how we’d have to get a group together and hit the river. You know when you meet someone for the first time and it feels like you’ve been friends forever? That is how it is with Bruce. We were telling jokes, sharing stories and our mutual excitement for some time in the wild. The boat was loaded up, rods assembled and the three of us cruised down the river in Taylor’s beautiful wooden drift boat.
The setting sun cast shadows on the canyon hillsides, making it difficult to tell the difference between where the fires raged and where another day was simply coming to an end. A faint smell of smoke lingered on the air, combined with the fresh, cool breeze coming off the water. Caddis hatches swirled around us and the sound of sporadic trout rising had my head on a swivel. I looked over at Taylor and he basically gave me the “we’re not here for trout, we’re here for steel” look and I tried to keep my excitement to myself. Let’s face it: most of us are still pretty damn excited when we hear that distinct sound of fish eating on the surface. I thought it was my drug of choice at this point. I was in for a big surprise.
Taylor rows over to the side of the river, sets anchor, and we lace up our wading boots. Bruce hands me a Beulah Platinum 7 weight Spey set up and we begin making our way through a maze of burnt blackberry brambles and six inches of ash. It was otherworldly. In some spots, you could see a salvaged grouping of green grass blades springing up. Others were so blackened, they looked like they could just disintegrate if the wind picked up in the slightest.
I fish a lot but the steelhead and two-handed or Spey style casting is very new to me. I acknowledge I have a ton to learn and, in all honesty, I think that is what keeps me so addicted. Fly fishing provides an opportunity to challenge yourself and continually be learning. I know I can’t ever master it (well, unless I was Bruce and can throw line with the least amount of effort or Taylor and you can read water so well, you might as well be a fish finder) because a lot of the variables are out of our control.
Taylor takes the rod from me and makes a few casts to refresh me on my off-shoulder Snap “C”. It was his fourth or fifth cast and he feels a tug, turns to me with eyes as wide as saucers and proclaims, “There are fish in here.” He hands me the rod and says, “Jenny, we’re burning daylight. Get after it.” I grab the rod and start making a few casts.
The wind picks up and Bruce steps in to offer me some coaching on my Snap “C”. Taylor heads downstream to check out a lower pool and I feel a slight tug on the end of my line, the one that every angler hopes for with each step/cast/step. The next thing I know, my reel is spinning and line is hauling down river. A million thoughts run through my mind I remember the fifty times that Taylor has told me over our friendship to NOT SET THE HOOK! I heed his advice and come back to reality: I’ve hooked my first steelhead! Bruce gives me guidance on how to play the fish, trying not to be too over-bearing and I’m holding on for dear life to the rod. Next thing I know, the fish is gone and I’m left with shaking knees, not knowing what the heck just happened.
I hang my head in disappointment in myself- what could I have done better? Did I put too much tension on the line? Did I not turn the fish the right direction? I reminded myself that I have so much to learn and that I was fortunate to even connect with a fish that early in the trip, let alone hook one at all. By this time, the sun had set, we had about another 10 minutes or so of light before we need to reel up, float, find and set up camp.
“One more cast, guys…okay?” I holler at Bruce and Taylor. They gave me the nod of approval and I walked a few more feet downriver, threw out a cast and watched the line slowly swing towards the bank into the glassy water. I paused, waiting for that same sensation of that subtle pull. Nothing. Knowing we had to set up camp, I slowly turned my reel a few times, simultaneously taking a step or two slowly towards the bank and hoping that a willing fish would be right at the end of my line. I exhale, accepting that we had another day of fishing ahead of us. Suddenly, I feel that grab, grab and then WHAPPP! I’m hooked up again! Still shaking from the first fish, I yell, “Guys! Guys! GUYSSSSSS!”
Bruce comes up and guides me up river, giving Taylor some room to help land the fish. It jumps and we get a good look at it. “Dude, it’s a donkey!” Tay yells. This fuels my excitement which in turn, makes me hold my breath, filled with determination to bring this fish to hand. I watch the rod bend, the reel scream and I’m praying that this moment will all come together. The next thing I know, Taylor is trying to get a handle on this beast with only a sliver of light left. I exhale. The fight was over and WE landed it, on a fly that Taylor had tied that afternoon.
I walk down to Taylor, barely able to utter words, tears start welling in my eyes from sheer joy and thankfulness for the experience. I look down at this beautiful chrome hen- this miraculous fish who has swam through treacherous conditions and thousands of miles- and it all clicks. Now I understand why “Steelheaders” are complete junkies. Feeling that grab and landing that fish will permanently be etched into my memory.
I hold the fish upstream and let the current run over her until she starts shaking her tail and disappears into the depths of the run. Turning to Taylor and Bruce, I give them both huge hugs of appreciation for their guidance. There is absolutely no way I would have been able to land that fish without either of them. I will eternally be grateful for their coaching and selflessness in that moment. They both could have been fishing. Instead, they allowed me first crack at this run, stood by my side to help, and celebrated like mad when it all came together.
When I was able to get myself together enough to walk, we reeled up and made our way back to the boat to find camp and settle in for the night. As we navigated towards the boat through the ash-covered trail, I knew I was forever changed by this experience- not only for the incredible privilege of connecting with this magnificent fish but for the friendships that were even more tightly bonded by that moment. There is no doubt in my mind some of the best people around are anglers and I was fortunate to have these two amazing guys in my corner.
That evening, we sat around in our camp chairs, dirty and exhausted, eating a minimalist dinner of salami, string cheese and Doritos, washing it all down with a cocktail in celebration. I’m sure you could see the perma-grin on my face from a mile away. In that moment, there was no other place I would have rather been than on that river, with those friends, hoping to experience more river magic bright and early the next morning.
Story by Jenny O’Brien
For more information on guided Deschutes trips. visit https://taylormadeoutfitters.com/