It has not been a good year to be a skier in the Pacific Northwest, but it has been a fine one to be a fisherman. Keeping with this theme, and in celebration of our first anniversary together, Taylor had arranged for us to spend a weekend in Joseph, OR, at the foot of the Wallowa mountains. The aim was to do some backcountry skiing, but she’d made her toe angry in a ski race the week prior, and it could hardly tolerate a boot. We left for Joseph with skis but little hope to use them.
Joseph sits in the far Northeast corner of Oregon in a no-man’s-land that is a four to five hour drive from both Portland and Boise. To its South are the Wallowa Mountains, aptly called the Oregon Alps, as they’re a wild range of impressive peaks rising out of the gently rolling hay fields below. To the East, Hell’s Canyon and the Imnaha river roll down to the Snake on the border with Idaho, while to the North is the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. In Winter, the road into Joseph is more or less also the one out.
Driving into Joseph, the highway follows the curves of the Wallowa River for a time. There was fine bank access, good-looking water, and a few fisherman in the river. The thought of fishing actually hadn’t crept in on our ill-fated skiing plans, so our car was regrettably devoid of any rods, waders, or flies.
After checking ourselves in to the Jennings Hotel, we wandered down the snowy main street and dropped in to the Joseph Fly Shoppe, which was oddly open on a Friday evening. A trim, silver-haired man behind the counter looked more the part of a rancher than a fisherman, but he was happy for the company and soon I was asking him what fish were targeted by the fisherman we’d seen earlier.
The Wallowa River, it seems, sees a run of summer steelhead beginning in September and October, and extending into January. In February and March, a few fish still linger high in the river, waiting to make a final push into spawning tributaries. The river is also open year-round for trout, and hosts a population of rainbows and browns.
This was disappointing news for a pair who’d left their fishing gear at home. We talked on about his past as a potato farmer, his glee at being a liberal rancher poised to goad his conservative contemporaries, and his incredibly history of endurance motorcycling in the deserts and mountains of Africa, Asia, and around North America. For being solidly seventy-something, he was still rolling strong.
I don’t recall whose idea it was, or who first brought up the idea of borrowing some gear, but it was not long later that he returned from some back room with two 7-weight rods with mismatched reels and line sizes. As he chatted with us, he assembled a couple of leaders, and recommended some flies. Two hours after wandering into the shop, I paid a very reasonable $20 for a pile of prince nymphs, some split shot, and a few indicators. He told us to “get the rods back to [him] at some point, lean them against the door or something”. Off we went.
The next morning, we hit the Wallowa River hard. Before the sun reached canyon bottom, frigid air iced our lines and guides, but the river was too enticing to wait much. We spent the early morning getting skunked, but enjoyed the beautiful river and impressive lack of other anglers for a Saturday morning.
Shifting to another riffle and run, we started hooking into whitefish after whitefish. While I’m not a big fan of whitefish as a game fish, since they usually give up after one tug on the lip and lay over in surrender, some of these whiteys had a fair bit of fight in them. On a five-weight, it would have been good fun.
Finally, after a day of drifts, I hooked into a steelhead on a fishy-looking straight run chock full of boulders. So many boulders, in fact, that I’d been snagging left and right trying to keep my nymphs on the bottom. When I set the hook, I thought I’d caught another boulder, and it was several more seconds before the boulder began to swim about and put a good bend in the rod. Taylor helped to land the fish, a nice hatchery hen full of roe, and the day was christened a success.
Taylor kept working that run for steelhead as I moved back upstream to clean our stash of whitefish and the steelie. After finishing the slimy and cold work and leaving the fish to chill in the snow, I figured I’d target more whitefish for the fun of it. Taylor had also missed a steelhead here, so maybe I’d find that too.
Some time later, I lit into another fish. Too big for a whitefish, too small for a steelhead, and built like a sea-run cutthroat. Seeing that it was wild, I abandoned thoughts of further filling the cooler, and after admiring it briefly in the water, gave it a gentle release. Only later did I discover that this was my first encounter with a Bull trout, a protected species and a rarity in Oregon.
Content with a full day of fish, we returned to Joseph for the fine ales of Terminal Gravity brewing. The rods were left stashed and we called in a voicemail thanks to the fly shop owner. What a guy. The kind of guy who makes a fella feel good to be a person among people.
On our last day, we managed a few turns of skiing in some delicious Wallowa Mountain powder. Not much, but enough to ensure that we’ll be back.