MAUPIN, ORE. – This little town perched on the edge of the other Deschutes River is a pretty sleepy place from October through the middle of May.
Then – seemingly without notice or reason – caravans of cars, trucks, campers, motor homes, four-wheelers and even bicycles wheel into town and rip up and down the dusty, rocky road that follows the Deschutes River canyon.
An armada of driftboats, pontoon boats, rafts, kayaks and even float tubes bob down the river and bounce around in the big, meaty rapids.
But this invasion isn’t the start of the summer white-water rafting season. No – it’s much more important and weird and crazy.
All this is about the salmonfly – a huge, 3-inch-long bug that lives under the river rocks for three years – then crawls out of the water, splits the skin along its back and emerges as a clumsy, sex-mad flying insect.
Millions of salmonflies emerge this time of year, and it is an understatement to say that the Deschutes’ plentiful and big wild rainbow trout take notice.
The biggest trout of the year – thick, long, broad-tailed monsters that will rip up your tackle and break your heart – stuff themselves with salmonflies.
And all those boats and cars and trucks and bicycles and 18-wheelers – I’m not kidding – carry anglers seething with the need to hook a 20-inch wild rainbow trout on a dry fly that is an unruly catastrophe of elk hair, foam, rooster feathers and rubber legs.
It’s time, once again, for Salmonfly Madness on the Deschutes River.
I visited Maupin last Saturday, and the first salmonflies – and their cousins, the slightly smaller golden stoneflies – were just emerging from the water. More bugs were clambering out downstream, as this titanic, nutso hatch moves upstream a little bit every day.
Yes, it’s about to blow wide open on Oregon’s Deschutes River – just in time for Memorial Day weekend. This is a mixed bag of good and bad.
For many anglers, salmonflies and golden stones are the hatch of hatches, the Holy Grail, the pinnacle of the fishing year.
Thousands of beady-eyed anglers careen up and down the river in search of The Spot – the place where the trout are just discovering squadrons of salmonflies and golden stoneflies falling from the sky onto the surface of the river.
You know it’s The Spot, as the fish hammer the clumsy salmonflies – which fly like a helicopter missing a couple of rotors – as the bugs fall to the surface. Big trout blow spray onto the banks as they eat big chunks of protein.
So anglers race up and down the river for days – quite often during the Memorial Day weekend – and turn the river into a flyfishing circus. Imagine Memorial Day weekend at one of your favorite outdoor spots – and then double the people and craziness.
But success during Salmonfly Madness is fleeting.
The Spot becomes Yesterday’s News very quickly, as the fish get stuffed with big bugs – or hooked and released. Released trout are understandably shy about whacking a bug that bit back.
Yet, those same fish, in a day or two, forget their full bellies or bad experiences and start walloping the big bugs again.
And this is the sweet secret of Salmonfly Madness – which is to not get involved at all.
Smart anglers creep – casually, casually – to the river a week or so after all the craziness starts. By then, the hatch of bugs has moved upstream dozens of miles – Oregon’s Deschutes is more than 100 miles long – and all that is left are the surviving bugs and, of course, the trout.
There usually still are thousands of big bugs crawling all over the banks, clambering and mating on trees or ratcheting out over the water to lay eggs.
And the fish are still eating all of those bugs.
Smart anglers walk the banks and chuck big dry flies in the shade of trees that hang over the river. The bugs often fall out of the trees – even while in the throes of mating – and the trout mercilessly eat them.
Trout hanging out along steep, rocky banks in the roiling pockets of a near-shore rock garden or in slowly swirling backeddies eat the bugs.
But one thing – actually a lot of things, such as cars, trucks, motor homes, campers, tents, boats and, of course, people – are missing.
They’re upstream a few miles and still rocking on Salmonfly Madness.
Others are downstream, tossing big, rubber-legged flies into Yesterday’s News – and catching fish in the peace and quiet of one of the West’s most majestic rivers.
Chester Allen: 360-754-4226