Steens Mountain Cutthroat

By: Richard Alves

This last summer when traveling across Oregon with my new wife on our honeymoon, I took a short detour up a dirt road to a fire lookout station, thinking it might be a good spot to stop and make lunch. There we met the resident “fire spotters” who were extremely friendly, as they don’t get many visitors. Of course, the conversation soon shifted to fishing.
“See that mountain over there?” one of them asked. I could see this snow covered bump on the horizon as I looked out across the desert.

“My grandson saw some huge cutthroats there, must have been six to eight pounds.” He added, “there is a deep drop-off. The fish would follow his spinner up over the edge but they wouldn’t hit. It’s a hell of a hike, but it’s worth it!”

They proceeded to give me all the particulars about Steens Mountain. “Steens”, as the locals call it, is a basaltic monolith approximately fifty miles long and twenty-five miles across, jutting out of the Southeastern Oregon desert. The west side gently rises over 20 miles from about 3500 feet elevation to the summit at 9773 feet. The eastern side plunges nearly 5000 feet in three miles to the Alvord Desert. There are a few fishable lakes, as well as the Donner und Blitzen River.

After the honeymoon and as the summer wore on, the daydreams of catching a monster trout were too much to resist. Mid-September arrived with a near-new moon, and having a few days to spare I decided to make the trip to “Steens”.

I drove highway 140 until I saw sign for the Plush Cutoff. As I cruised through the village of Plush, a sea of cows slowly parted to allow me to pass. I waved to the cowboys and thought this a sure sign of fall in these parts … Cattle being driven to lower elevations. There was a good chance the trout would be coming out of their summer doldrums.

The Road to Steens Just after the village of Plush, the pavement ended. The route I had chosen to drive was nearly 100 miles shorter than going through Burns but the tradeoff was 53 miles of gravel and dirt roads. I picked this route so I could take a closer look at the lakes in the Warner Valley, just in case “Steens” didn’t pan out, and I had a 4-wheel drive that needed a workout.

After winding up out of the valley, the road turned nearly flat across the Hart Mountain National Antelope Sanctuary. Within a couple of hours, I finally pulled into the small town of French Glen, at the base of “Steens”. Surprised by the lack of anything that looked like a mountain, I drove right through and headed out for Fish Lake, about half-way up the mountain, where I hoped to find a lakeside spot to set up camp for the evening.

The campsites at Fish Lake Campground were all quite a distance from the lake, so I continued on, hoping to find that “perfect spot”. About a quarter mile up the dirt road, I found a campsite next to a smaller unnamed lake. It wasn’t the “perfect spot”, but it was by the lake.

camp
I threw in a poled loaded with pink Powerbait while I set up camp. It didn’t elicit any action, so I enjoyed a steak cooked over the campfire. I could see a hatch going on, but not a single fish rising. As the sun began to set, I wanted to see what kind of luck other anglers were having, so I drove down to Fish Lake. Between 6 fishermen trolling, flyfishing and spin fishing, there was only a small rainbow and a brookie to show for all their efforts. One of them said the lake commonly ran hot/cold, so tomorrow probably would be better.

The next morning as the sun was rising, I started out up the mountain. As the road climbed, huge canyons carved out of rock during the ice age began to appear. It is amazing how symmetrical and consistent their cross-section is for miles on end. The high ground was sparsely covered with brush and grasses poking through the lava, but in the canyons you could see forests and lush meadows lining the streams 2000 feet below. Approaching the summit, the pick-up began gasping for air.

Finally at the top, I saw the magnificent view of the Alvord Desert in the early morning sun. If the fish weren’t biting at least the scenery was worth the trip!

The trailhead for Wildhorse Lake, the lake the “fire watchers” had told me about, is almost at “Steens” summit at around 9500 feet elevation. The temperature was in the thirties and the wind was blowing at least 30 knots. I bundled up, grabbed the camera and fly-rod, and started walking to the canyon rim 1/4 miles distant and a couple hundred feet below. Looking over the rim it was apparent why there were jumbo fish in the lake. They don’t get any pressure!

The trail traversed the near-vertical canyon wall, for what looked to be a mile or so, to where it met the shale beds, abruptly turned, and headed straight down the canyon wall. Being alone at 9000 feet, listening to the wind howl up the canyon, it didn’t take long to decide against making the dangerous hike down to the lake 1500 feet below. Maybe next trip I thought as I slowly plodded back uphill to the parking lot, arriving totally winded.

Since it was still early, I continued on Steens Mountain Loop, the only road on the mountain. The route I had taken to the summit was well maintained gravel, suitable for cars. About three miles down from the top, however, the other half of the loop turned into a rock-studded dirt track, single-laned in places, and stayed that way to the Blitzen crossing 14 miles away. It took me an hour and a half to get there, skirting the edges of canyons. In spots the road was actually blasted out of the side of the canyon walls.

One of Steens Canyons At the crossing, the river is just called the Blitzen. There is no exact point where it becomes the Donner und Blitzen. The river was narrow and rapid, access difficult, with few places to fish. I got out the flyrod and fished my way upstream for an hour without getting a bite or even seeing any sign of fish. At this point I was discouraged enough to ask the locals for advice.

The loop begins and ends at French Glen, which has a population of 132. There is a post office, an elementary school, two B&B’s, a store/cafĂ©/bar that closes at 10, an RV park and an expresso stand. I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet so I thought I’d try my luck at the Expresso stand.

As the lady was fixing my double shot we talked fishing. “My son-in-law caught a 21 incher in the river last night after work,” she said. I asked if she knew what he was using and she replied, “He uses these red rubber thingies,” adding, “with a weight on them.”

“Like a crappie jig?” I asked. “Yeah, that’s what they are,” she replied.

My next stop was the store because I sure didn’t have any crappie jigs. Neither did the store, but the lady there told me “I heard they were catching fish at Krumbo Reservoir about fifteen miles north of here.”

So armed with this information, I headed out first for the Donner und Blitzen. I hiked about 1/2 mile upstream from the public campground, but the river was shallow and I saw very few places that could provide habitat for any size of trout, much less “21 inchers”. But I drove down to the bridge, found a parking place, grabbed my gear and walked down to the river anyway.

To my surprise, the river was textbook trout country. A few trees shaded the slowly moving water, which sported deep holes, cut-banks, back eddies, riffles and lava outcroppings. Perfect, I thought while lofting a dry fly. I let the current carry it into a back eddy in front of a grassy cut-bank. Nothing happened, the drys didn’t work and neither did the nymphs. Switching to spinning gear didn’t help either as the fish ignored Potskys, nightcrawlers, Castmasters, and even a grasshopper I had managed to catch.

On to my next stop, Krumbo Reservoir. It was about noon and the temperature on the valley floor had climbed into the low 90’s. Krumbo was built in the desert, there wasn’t a tree in sight! I walked over to the dam, surprising a couple of ducks which took to flight leaving a trail through one of the heaviest algae blooms I have ever seen. As far as you could see, there wasn’t a spot where anything could be cast beyond the algae clinging to the shoreline. There was a gentle breeze which I thought might have cleared the algae out of the upwind arm. After walking a half a mile to take look, it was apparent I wouldn’t be fishing here.

So much for local opinions.

My last chance was going to be Fish Lake, remembering the anglers predictions from last night. I arrived about 3:30. There were a few anglers fishing near the outlet, so I decided to fish near the inlet. Fish were rising all along the north side, evidently feeding on something being blown in from the aspen trees. I couldn’t detect exactly what they were hitting but I did remember the grasshoppers with the red wings I had been seeing all day. So I tied on a royal coachman, tossed the fly near the next rise and saw it viscously devoured. It wasn’t a monster, but it was a fish, a 10 inch brookie.

I changed flies and the same thing happened again. The third fish exhausted my supply of royal coachman so I switched to a red humpy. Bang, another hard hit! At one point there were six flies drying in the lid of the fly box. I ended up catching and releasing 10 fish in about an hour, the largest nearing 14 inches. The wind came up, to about 20 knots, and the fish disappeared.

It was an incredible day of sightseeing, and the fishing did work out. Will I go there again? You bet, I know there are fish in the river and maybe next time the conditions will allow that hike into Wildhorse. I guess I just have to dream about it until next summer.

A few words on cross country desert travel:

Make sure you have “Light Truck” tires on that SUV. Passenger car tires won’t make it!
Carry enough provisions to last at least 24 hours if you break down. There isn’t much traffic out there.
Leave civilization with a full tank of gas. It is over 120 miles from Lakeview to French Glen (which does have gas for $1.90/gal) and your going to burn more gas than normal on dirt roads.
Take it easy and enjoy the ride.
Watch out for the bunnies.