Steelhead Fishing on the Grande Ronde River
The Grande Ronde River of extreme northeast Oregon/southeast Washington is famous for steelhead. It is hands-down one of the most reliable, beautiful, and wild steelhead rivers in the northwest. More specifically, there are four major characteristics that draw anglers here from all over the region and country:
- The Ronde is “Goldilocks Sized”, neither an intimidating monster river, nor a tiny “shooting fish in a barrel” stream.
- The character is open and classic for all types of fly fishing, with lots of long, glassy tailouts and runs for swinging and tight, concentrated slots for nymphing.
- Numbers. The abundant A-run (one-salt fish, or one year in the ocean) is the most common catch, and while they run smaller (average around 4-5 lbs), there are a lot more of them. There are also enough B-run (two-salt) fish in the river to keep things interesting, and they run to 15+ lbs.
- The steelhead here have a particular liking for dry flies. If you’ve ever dreamed of steelhead detonating on a surface-waking, skittering dry fly, this is the place to do it. Pack your October Caddis, Muddlers, and Bombers.
Throw in desert canyon scenery, reliably sunny weather (or at least more so than on the west side), and abundant wildlife, and you get a river that’s easy to love. Being a river though, the Ronde can be volatile in terms of flows and clarity, so some research in advance of your trip is always valuable (for more advice on fishing the Ronde in general, check out my other articles on Smallmouths and Trout here). The magic cutoff for flows seems to be 2,000 cfs or less; prime time is around 900 cfs.
The Ronde can get muddy quick, but this isn’t always a bad thing for steelhead. Super clear water is often a kiss of death. The fish will see you coming a mile away, and scrutinize everything you throw their way. Water the color of a mocha will make it hard to be seen. What you want is something in between (about 2-3 feet of visibility). In my experience, the water is perfect if I’m standing in chest-deep water and can just barely see my feet.
Some Biologic Considerations
Before I jump in, I recommend you check out this much more detailed article on The Golden Rules Of Steelheading. There’s too much to say on steelhead to fit in a single article (if you don’t believe me, Google “Steelhead Fishing” and buckle up). Instead, I’ll focus here on a quick overview of the most common “beats” on the Ronde.
Before I do, a quick word on hatchery vs wild fish in the Ronde. There is substantial hatchery production on the Ronde (well, the Wallowa, really), and a lot of fish that come to net are missing the telltale adipose fin. At time of writing, Washington and Oregon both have a MANDATORY kill on hatchery fish (i.e. it’s technically illegal to release them). It seems heartless, but these hatchery fish are meant to be caught and kept. If left to breed in the river, they cause even greater strain on wild fish populations. Theoretically, the hatcheries catch them all in the end (they don’t), but every clipped fish you remove is a blessing to the river’s true wild, native fish. Even if it means you’re limited out for the day, consider the consequences of letting them back in the river.
And forgive me for stating the obvious, but anything with an adipose fin never leaves the water. If you must get a hero shot, keep the fish’s head in the water at all times. Even 30 seconds in the open air has been demonstrated to reduce the odds of a wild fish surviving to breed by up to 50-60%. Our wild salmonids are in deep trouble, and every single one counts. It’s not worth it.
Okay, okay. I’ll can the fish biologist instincts. Without further ado…
The Oregon Stretches
Minam to Troy, OR
This is the very upper stretch of the Grande Ronde that holds high concentrations of steelhead, most of whom head up the Wallowa River at the confluence 10 miles upstream from Minam. The main appeal of this section is the huge, inaccessible canyon that guards miles of prime water. This is only accessible by watercraft, and will take you several days of camp-and-drift to get through it. The put in is typically in Minam, and the takeout is at the mouth of the canyon above Troy where the road meets the river.
The payoff is huge for those that make the effort. Unparalleled wildlife viewing and scenery, solitude, and lightly-pressured fish are all here in spades. A crisp fall day of steelheading followed by a campfire on the canyon’s riverbank is almost too perfect to put to words. This section bears the greatest time and preparation cost, but by far the biggest ROI.
The best time to hit this stretch is usually early to mid October. The weather is still gorgeous, the elk are bugling, and steelhead have made their way upriver to the higher reaches. As an added bonus, this is also a great time for the upper river’s resident trout, some of which are big enough to put steelhead gear through the paces (more about trout fishing the Ronde HERE). If the stars align, early fall afternoons in this stretch can produce hatches of October Caddis and midges in which resident trout and steelhead are rising in the same pod! As the river rises and the weather gets less pleasant, this stretch (and camping on an icy riverbank) become less appealing, so boat traffic is usually done by December. I’ve heard of some hardy souls drifting this stretch as late as February, but I sure wouldn’t recommend it, especially in high flows.
Troy to OR/WA Border
This and the Border-Boggan’s stretch compete for the most popular stretch of river on the Ronde. This stretch has a distinct advantage over the Washington stretches in the fall, which is that fish linger and stack up here. There are more spawning tributaries for wild fish in the Oregon stretches, and most of the early fish steam right through the Washington stretch until cold weather puts the brakes on them here.
There is also more civilized (kind of) lodging here, in the form of basic cabins and campsites in Troy. Dispersed campsites are also available, as in the Washington stretches, but they fill up fast and are often held for days to weeks. A lot of out-of-staters come to fish this stretch.
The Ronde here is a bit smaller, but bears the same perfect blend of all types of water. There are a few stretches of long shallow riffle-run with no real structure (also known as BLAH water, at least to me), that fish will charge right through, but there is also plenty of picture-perfect holding water. There is also very little private land, so most of the river here can be accessed, either from the main road or from some basic dirt roads on the far bank that you can reach from the bridge in Troy.
In terms of season, this section heats up around October, and peaks in November. There will be fish in here all winter however, and people hook fish all the way until the river closes in the spring to protect spawning. It’s a great stretch if you’re on foot or by drift, with the most popular day drift being from Troy to around the border.
The Lay of the Land
Troy is the major hub for steelhead fishing on the Ronde. Lodging, camping, and supplies are all found here.
Minam marks the uppermost town typically used by Grande Ronde anglers, and is the put-in for the rugged canyon stretch.
The major takeout, lodging, restaurant, and basic supplies in the Washington stretches.
The Washington Stretches
Border to Boggan’s Oasis
For anglers that don’t want to spring for both a Washington and an Oregon license, the border marks the break point that limits where it’s legal to fish. The actual border is inconspicuous, marked by a small sign that welcomes you to one state or the other. The far more obvious landmark is the hogsback you have to climb just a bit downstream from the border (downstream of the hogsback is Washington, upstream is Oregon).
Being from Washington, this is my most-frequented stretch, though the fish tend to move through here fairly quickly. Some of my favorite water is around the hogsback itself, so I recommend putting in just above it to take advantage. The land on the hogsback’s shoulder is private, so that stretch is exclusively fishable by watercraft. If you’re looking for a shorter day, there are a couple of takeouts before you get to Boggan’s, with Cougar Creek probably being the most popular.
Speaking of popularity, count on company in this stretch, and if someone is parked in the pullout where you wanted to fish, move on. There’s plenty of river and no need to crowd anyone.
The river starts getting bigger in this stretch, and the riverbed wider. This makes it a bit easier to work with in high water, at least marginally. There are also some basic campgrounds in this stretch, usually around launches. Seek out places that will make the fish pause on their upstream journey, such as the many pools that form from riffles pushing against the basalt cliffs.
This stretch is most productive in the early season, before the main bolus of fish pushes up into Oregon, but enough fish stick around to make it worthwhile to fish through the winter. A second surge of fish comes in right before the river closes in the spring, so assuming the flows are cooperating, February can be great on this stretch.
Boggan’s to Shumaker Grade
The dynamic of this stretch is similar to the Border-Boggan’s stretch, just a little earlier. This is the best bet in the early season and has far fewer people on it. This is mostly because the road that follows the river from Troy to Boggan’s takes a sharp turn to ascend the canyon at the top of this stretch, making it inaccessible to all but boaters. The drift from Boggan’s to the takeout at Shumaker grade is straightforward, and particularly productive early in the run when the first waves of fish are moving upriver.
The only drawback to this stretch is that fish move through here fairly quickly, especially when water temps are relatively warm. That shouldn’t stop you, just be aware that you should be looking for migration lanes, and that your quarry will be on the move.
Shumaker Grade to Snake River Confluence
This stretch has a fairly hazardous chute right near the end called The Narrows, which can be potentially dangerous to driftboats and inexperienced rowers. If you fish this stretch, do so from a raft, and during moderate flows.
Putting in at Shumaker and drifting to the mouth is a scenic, gorgeous float, but is not often done for steelhead for a couple of reasons. For one, this is the warmest section of river, and in the very early season can be so warm that it essentially blocks fish from entering the Ronde at all. This “thermal block” is particularly likely in low water and hot weather and forces the steelhead to seek refuge in the cooler depths of the Snake river until it dissipates.
The first good rains of fall or a frost are usually enough to cool the river for fish to enter, and when they do, they move quickly upstream. Coupled with the tricky rowing, this makes this a less popular stretch to fish outside of the first few waves of fish. Nevertheless, experienced rowers will find plenty of good water, and if timed well, plenty of fish.
What is often a better option, particularly for anglers on foot, is to fish the mouth itself. Steelhead will mill around in the Snake for a while before they finally make up their mind and charge into the Ronde, and they can stack up in impressive schools at the mouth. Swinging flies into the school is a great way to provoke a strike, and nymphing along the Snake’s shoreline just downstream and upstream of the confluence can be productive too. This is far from a secret, however, so if you choose this option, expect company. The best way to access this option is from the Snake River Road (basically, instead of climbing out of the gorge at Asotin, just keep following the Snake).
Whichever stretch suits your needs, you’re sure to find some gorgeous water to fish, and maybe, just maybe, an encounter with one of the most celebrated gamefish in the world. Only 10,000 casts to go…