Images: RA Beattie

Taking on the Oregon Trail
The Sacramento

There’s a special kind of summertime heat reserved for the valleys of California. Even up north, triple digits are common in the Sacramento Valley, which is where I found Clyde parked in Ryan Peterson’s driveway, its black exterior soaking up every ray in Redding. With no AC and an afternoon departure, my first few miles getting reacquainted with the Marquis saw me shedding winter weight directly from the driver’s seat.

Yet each valley in the Golden State also holds its charms. Like Death Valley without the desert, Napa without the wine, or San Fernando without porn, the Sacramento Valley wouldn’t be the same without its namesake river running through it. With dinner plans up the road in Oregon, I only had time for a few casts near the Pollard Flat campground. But it was long enough to hook and lose one wild Sac River rainbow, teasing me just enough to guarantee a return trip.

As I turned off I-5 onto U.S. 97 at Weed—where I once attended the Weed High School prom—the standard 1974 am radio in the Merc was starting to crackle and fade. But not before I heard the tagline from the oldies station I’d been listening to since Dunsmuir: “For songs you never thought you’d hear again on the radio.”

The Williamson

Thousands of fishermen travel to Oregon each year to chase summer steelhead on rivers like the North Umpqua and Deschutes. As well they should, since these rivers are two of the finest in the country. But early season A-runs on the Deschutes average three- to six- pounds, which closely mirrors the average size of the migratory rainbows on southern Oregon’s Williamson. And while they certainly aren’t any easier to catch, choosing Williamson ’bows over Beaver State steel gives you the added bonus, from late June through early July, of throwing dries during the river’s famous hex hatch.

Despite being an Oregon native, I’d never fished this spring creek-like stream. So as I stood outside reel manufacturer Jon Bauer’s riverside cabin in Chiloquin, swilling microbrews with local guide Marlon Rampy while monster trout sucked bugs off the surface, all I kept asking myself was what in the world had taken me so long?

The upper Williamson looks much like the Ranch section of the Henry’s Fork, with slow-moving water and multiple eddy lines. But it was too early in the season for the hex hatch, and we wanted to fish from a driftboat anyway, which isn’t allowed on the upper river. So we made our way downstream, with Rampy guiding Bauer and myself into an early-morning hookup before any other boats appeared.

The big migratory rainbows work their way up the Williamson from Klamath Lake, which is full of food but very shallow, averaging only about eight feet in depth. Consequently, Klamath begins to warm early in the season, sending the well-fed natives into the cooler waters of the Williamson and the nearby Wood River. Rampy is the head guide for Lonesome Duck, one of the finer outfitters not just on this river but anywhere in Oregon. Without a hatch we fished mostly slow and deep, using more of a lake-style streamer retrieve than a traditional swing. While there weren’t yet good numbers of fish in the system, both of the ones we got to the boat were four- to five-pounders and red hot, clearing the water multiple times.

By the time Rampy rowed me up to Clyde on the downriver edge of the Lonesome Duck property, I’d experienced yet another pleasant surprise in a state I thought I knew well: a slow-moving river full of overachieving fish—acrobatic, steelhead-sized, and determined to leave an impression.

Lake Billy Chinook

I made a two-day stop in Newberg to surprise my dad for Father’s Day—and to show my parents how far I’d come since high school, moving from a 1974 Volkswagen bug to a 1974 Mercury Marquis (so proud, so proud...). Then I headed east over Mt. Hood toward Bend, for a rendezvous with good friend and Clyde co-investor RA Beattie. While waiting at a gas station east of Portland (Oregon is one of the only states still requiring a station employee to fill up your car), the attendant walked over, began filling, and then said, “I just derbied one of these in Redmond over the weekend. Killer car.”

This was valuable information. In addition to learning that “derbied” could be used as a verb, I discovered that Redmond had just hosted its 42nd Annual Father’s Day Demo Derby, an important detail in planning for Clyde’s future career. (The Mercury Marquis is consistently listed as a top choice for demo derbies, sitting just behind a few grocery-grabber station wagons and the granddaddy of demo cars, the Chrysler Imperial.)

Pulling into RA’s country-fried pad near Tumalo, I noticed that his old flats boat from his brief stint in Florida was still parked in the yard. Since it was a bit early for steelhead on the lower Deschutes, and since we’d both faced our share of salmonfly crowds on the upper Deschutes, we opted instead for a day chasing smallmouth and bull trout on Lake Billy Chinook, an impoundment created in 1964 and named after one of Fremont’s Indian scouts.

The Deschutes, Crooked, and Metolius Rivers all feed into the reservoir, which has decent numbers of big bull trout, as well as kokanee and bass. Before we left for the lake, we took Clyde for a quick spin over to photographer Brian O’Keefe’s house, the goal being to hit up some largemouth in a local pond. But Clyde ran out of gas on the way, so our largemouth time was spent hitching to the gas station instead. (One of the benefits—and drawbacks—of having RA as a friend is that he’s a talented filmmaker who’s always able and willing to record these unique, special aspects of a trip.)

After a failed attempt at negotiating the Metolius arm of the lake in search of bullies, we settled for submerged smallmouths on rocky drop-offs, enjoying the kind of perfect evening that has made central Oregon a popular tourist destination. Leaving Clyde with RA the following morning, I basked in the joy of my return to native waters. All the snow on Oregon’s mountains made me not want to return to Colorado, which by then was fully en fuego. But alas, it was time to pass the baton, and let Clyde lead his next driver to discovery and surprise.