CS is a lifelong, obsessive fly fisherman who is forced to work as a fish biologist and conservationist in the PNW.
Trout (Resident Redbands)
For some reason, this is probably the most overlooked quality fishery in the Grande Ronde. Wild, native, colorful redband (desert form) rainbow trout would be the marquis species in nearly every other river they live in, but here they live in the shadow of their legendary ocean-going form, the inland steelhead.
As a result, the gorgeous pools and runs of the Grande Ronde are relatively deserted all summer long. It doesn’t hurt that the best trout fishing in the entire river is cradled in an inaccessible stronghold, a massive desert canyon that can only be reached by watercraft. Maybe that’s why its never really gotten the attention it deserves.
Even when it does get fished heavily, it’s mostly at times when steelhead are in the system as well. As a result, even a 20” trout is a disappointment for anglers wielding an 8-weight in search of steel. During steelhead season, I’ve been shown photos of legitimate trophy trout in the 24” class by anglers emerging from the canyon, only to have them shrug and say, “Yeah, but it wasn’t a steelhead, only a trout.”
Only a trout.
Armed with a 5-weight trout rig, I have yet to spend a day of trout fishing on the Ronde that didn’t introduce me to a resident trout over 16” (though I don’t always get to formally shake hands with them, as their frantic fights sometimes result in a “long-distance release”). There are many of the same hatches you would see on the Deschutes River to the east, there are plenty of trout, and they are broad, strong fighters with a fondness for aerial acrobatics.
I’ve been shown photos of legitimate trophy trout in the 24” class by anglers emerging from the canyon, only to have them shrug and say “Yeah, but it wasn’t a steelhead, only a trout.”
ONLY a trout.
There are some tricks to being successful on the Ronde, however.
For one thing, flows are volatile in the early and late season, and the low flows of August and early September seem to put the trout in a bit of a lazy funk (imagine the way you would feel on a 95 degree day without air conditioning, and you can understand how a trout feels when the water hits the high 60’s). By my personal reckoning, 2,000 cfs is the cutoff for “fishable”, and “too low” is when the gauge hits 500. Any higher than that, and the fish will be largely out of reach in a nearly unmanageable river; any lower and they will be increasingly spooky and sluggish. “Ideal” is somewhere between 700 and 1,000 cfs.
Two times of year stand above the others for trout (Start watching the flows around Memorial Day, since the river is typically running at a high but fishable level by the middle of June). In the early season (June-early July), the trout haven’t seen anglers for a while and there are a lot of big bugs around. Golden stoneflies are the headliners, along with swarms of caddis. There are mayflies here too, with the strongest populations of in the upstream stretches. Unfortunately, two of the most prolific hatches, the Mother’s Day caddis and golden stones, often get going before the river opens for fishing. The trout will remember them for a while even after the hatch is over though, so patterns imitating these bugs are often productive well into July.
Probably the best time to fish the river for trout overall is just after the first cool weather in late September. The first frost snaps the trout out of their Dog Days malaise, and they quickly go into “eat everything in sight before it gets too cold” mode. This is when the bruisers are often caught, usually on a big nymph, sculpin pattern, or other meaty morsel. There are also some serious midge hatches this time of year too, and big, orange October caddis are at their peak in mid to late September.
In terms of fly patterns, I spend 80% of my time fishing with one rig. Unless there is obvious rising and hatch activity, I’m almost always fishing a large (size 6-8), heavily-weighted stonefly pattern with a small pheasant tail nymph or wet hackle dropped off the back of the stone. Depending on season and water conditions, I’ll change things around a little in terms of color (for example I prefer golden stonefly nymphs in the early season, black in the late season) and what exact dropper fly I’m using (size 18 caddis pupae patterns are always a safe bet), but most of the time, that’s my workhorse. Streamers are also especially deadly if the river is dropping from high flows or there is color to the water, my go-to’s being sculpin patterns, small “trout-sized” clouser minnows, and Barr’s Slump Buster in silver and black. Be prepared to get hung up a lot, as the sharp basalt bottom is grabby, but usually forgiving enough to let you wiggle loose.
The last major wild card is clarity. The soils of the region are characterized by a combination of fine, windblown silt and volcanic soils, both of which readily color up the river with the slightest rain. Even at its clearest, the river always has a touch of color to it. I’ve also had the experience of being chased downstream all day, fishing just ahead of a bolus of mud from an upstream thunderstorm that turned the river into a latte. All this to say that the river usually needs at least a few days to clear out after a rainstorm. It doesn’t seem to bother the bass, but the trout are not happy in muddy water. Watch the forecast and take the dry windows when you get them.
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Stretches of the Grande Ronde
Wallowa Confluence to Minam, OR
The Grande Ronde’s major tributary, the Wallowa River, flows into the Ronde about 10 miles upstream of the town of Minam, in one of my favorite stretches for trout. Higher in elevation, this stretch is more forested, cooler, and generally more favorable for resident trout. It also tends to have fewer problems with water clarity, being higher up in the basin.
It’s also the best place to catch the early hatches of summer, since they will be over in the lower stretches by the time the season opens. There’s a decent fly shop and some lodging in Minam, and when the river blows out, the nearby town of Enterprise, OR has a wonderful microbrewery to pass the time. This stretch can be floated, but this is the Ronde at its most manageable and foot angler-friendly. Upstream from the Wallowa confluence can be a lot of fun too, but the average fish size starts to drop off fairly quickly. If you’re primarily a wading trout fisherman who prefers dry flies, I would recommend this stretch.
Minam to Troy, OR
This magnificent piece of river should be on every Pacific Northwest angler’s bucket list to fish at least once. Not only is the scenery staggering and the wildlife spectacular, but the fishing is the best this river has to offer. There are a shocking number of very large trout here, both rainbows and bull trout, and in the right season, steelhead with a penchant for sipping dry flys.
The catch: there are no roads, due to the massive canyon that the river flows through, and the only access is a multi-day float. If that’s no obstacle for you, then this is the most memorable piece of water in all of Eastern Washington (I know that’s a bold claim, but I stand by it. I can hear the indignant typing in the comments section now…).
If you’re after trout, best seasons for this stretch are early July and September. Later in July and August, there is a fairly prolific “hatch” of fellow rafters and pleasure boaters, most of whom are more interested in splashing, drinking, and sunbathing than fishing. When the river is higher and cooler, you can easily go a day (or days) without seeing any other boats. The season picks up again in October and November for the steelhead season, so September is the “Goldilocks” time of year (and if steelhead is your game, here's the lowdown on chasing ol' metalhead on the Ronde).
Come armed with October caddis dries, streamers, small caddis patterns, golden stone patterns, and the usual stonefly nymph/small nymph droppers. If you’re not above fishing egg patterns, they can be deadly in both the early and late season (steelhead and rainbows spawn in the spring, salmon in the fall, so they’re used to seeing displaced eggs washed downriver). Be aware that the steelhead here often behave like overgrown trout, so that riser you are fishing a dry fly to could be a footlong resident rainbow or a 10 lb B-run steelhead. It definitely adds some excitement to each cast.
Few anglers fail to fall in love with this river after a drift through this canyon. Go try it and you’ll see what I mean.
Troy to Boggan’s Oasis, WA
As the river leaves the canyon, it almost immediately meets the Grande Ronde River road, which follows it all the way to Boggan’s Oasis. This stretch has by far the best access, but anglers targeting trout here are often few and far between, especially towards Boggan’s. This has a lot to do with water temps, which can climb towards the 70’s in the low flows and hot sun of August. Once it leaves the upper canyon, the Ronde becomes a true desert river, with not a lot of shade for either fisherman or fish.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t trout here, though. The wider riverbed makes high water a lot more manageable in this stretch, so as long as the water temps are below 65, this stretch can be just as good as the upper stretches. Hatches start here first and linger here longest into the fall, and the unparalleled access gives anglers a ton of good-looking water to choose from. The lower downriver you go, the more bass begin replacing rainbows, so for anglers in search of variety, this is your stretch.
All the same flies will work here, so no need to reinvent the wheel. The key here is time of day, especially in the summer. Areas in the shade, whether from the canyon walls or in the shade of cliffs, are the absolute best places to fish. Below Boggan’s, there are still trout, but smallmouth bass and northern pikeminnow start to take over. If you’re chasing rainbows, Boggan’s is the standard deadline (NOTE: bass fishing on the Ronde is fantastic, and guilt-free, so if you're interested in both, here's the scoop on smallmouth bass in the Grande Ronde).
From my base in Pullman, my favorite strategy in the long days of summer is to leave after work, arrive just as the sun is leaving the water, fish until dark, camp in the beautiful desert night, and fish from fist light until it gets bright and sunny again, then head for home. The early summer and fall are a different story, but I’ve found that there’s not much point to fishing through the heat of the day in high summer (unless you just want an arm workout). Be prepared to nymph deep into the bellies of the deep holes where trout wait out the heat.
If you’re planning to keep fish for dinner, this is the stretch to do it. You will find a lot of “trout” in this stretch that are missing their adipose fin. These fish are the hatchery-reared offspring of steelhead that decided to stick around rather than bother with the perilous journey to the ocean. If you’re aiming for dinner, getting these naturalized hatchery fish out of the river is better for the health of the trout population than keeping a native redband (and anything under 12” with an intact adipose could very well be a young wild steelhead!). Treat all fish carefully here, but especially ones with intact fins.