Imagine a trout river designed by the Trial Lawyers Association. It would have to be pretty and buggy and fishy and just writhing with regulatory complexity. That’s the Deschutes River in north-central Oregon, certainly one of the best and most beautiful trout and steelhead fisheries in the known universe…and one of the most regulated. The simple ritual of trout fishing in April here is anything but.
First, you need a license and a combined harvest tag. A normal license lets you fish for trout, but you need the tag because rainbows over 20 inches are not considered trout-they are steelhead regardless of whether they’ve traveled to the ocean. Now, on the Deschutes you can’t keep trout over 13 inches, but you can keep two steelhead as long as they are adipose-fin clipped. Of course a steelhead under 20 inches would be a trout, clipped fin or not-in court anyway-and you can kill it if it’s under 13 inches, which seems fitting in a way. Is that clear?
Boats are the best way to fish the river. Drift boats are the romantic option but require time and courage. The direct approach in summer when the steelhead are in is to drive up in a jet sled. Let’s see, we have openings on Thursday, June 13, or that Friday or Saturday or Sunday. But you can’t go on Wednesday the 12th or Monday the 15th. And, hmm, next time slot we have is Thursday, June 25, through Monday, June 30. Miss that, and you are cooling your heels until July 8.
The lower river is closed to motorboats every other weekend from June through September. So float with a drift boat, which you can do year-round. Just don’t forget to purchase your Deschutes River boater’s permit or you’ll get hit with a fine.
Gliding downstream, you’ll be tempted to toss a spinner into the river’s deep, trout-infested runs. But don’t. Unless you first cut off a leg or arm or otherwise alter yourself to qualify for the Permanent Disabilities Permit, you can’t fish from a floating device. Most people, nonresidents at least, don’t consider the sacrifice worth it.
So you have to get out of the boat to fish, but step on the bank that’s part of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation without your tribal access permit and it’s yet another fine.
These regulations are the product of wrangling. Guides, rafters, fishermen, biologists, tribes, bureaucrats and a granny knot of Oregon environmental groups have been fighting over this river for years. It’s a quality thing. And these days, quality is often measured with red tape.