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By Steve Burke

Stopped to fish agood steelhead run

In October of 2010 I wrote about a fly fishing trip to the Grande Ronde with Northwest fly fishing guide Dennis Dickson and I said in that story that I would be “haunted by those waters until I could return again”. It might seem like I was embellishing a bit to make the story more interesting, but I assure I am not one for hyperbole. It was as genuine a feeling then as it is now, after my second trip. The three days I spent at the end of September 2012, floating the river with friend Tom Reichert and guide Dennis Dickson were even more memorable than the last, not just because of the great fishing and the camaraderie, although that was certainly a huge part of it, but because the river is such just so darn haunting. I was on one of eight trips that Dennis takes clients on during late September through October. I might be wrong,  but I am almost certain  that everyone on those trips must have felt the same anticipation that felt leading up to this one. Making that trip the first time was something that I dreamed about for a long time after, and couldn’t wait to do again this year. In 2011 my scheduled trip had to be cancelled due to an illness in the family, but this year I was finally able to do it again.

The Trip

On the waySo again I tied down my little one-man pontoon boat to the top of my Jeep and set off on the six hour drive.  The long drive from Olympia took me over the Cascades and across the state of Washington to meet up with Dennis in Tom in in the small city of Clarkston. Normally that kind of drive, without a second driver, would put me in danger of falling asleep ...but not on this trip. It is impossible for me to get sleepy when I am so anxious, and I couldn't wait to get there. Clarkston, named after the William Clark of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition, is nestled in the southeast corner of the state at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater Rivers. Beautiful country!

Dennis Dickson has been  guiding steelhead fly-fishing clients down the Grande Rondes' roadless section, from Shoemaker Grade to the mouth since 1990. He takes only three anglers on this 3-day wilderness float trip, but on this one there was a  a cancellation. Tom and I were the lucky ones to go! Each angler takes their own single pontoon boat (or Dennis will provide one) while Dennis takes his expedition raft to guide the clients and to store the camping supplies.

The River

The Grande Ronde River is a tributary of the Snake River and in addition to being known as one of the best Summer Deer CrossingSteelhead rivers in the state, it is also known for its scenic course through rugged canyons. On this Dennis Dickson float trip, you are surrounded by  grassy hills rising 3000 to 4000 feet to all sides, meeting up to ridges with stands of conifers or lone scraggly trees in almost every direction. You get the surreal feeling that you have entered a 3d IMAX movie when you do this float.  It is hard to take your eyes off those hills, and often your gaze meets up with a bald eagle flying overhead, a herd of elk standing on the ridge, or a beautiful buck peering from behind the brush, waiting for its harem to follow – a good reason to take your camera. As I approached one bend in the river, I watched a buck and two doe crossing ahead of me. I tried to approach with caution, but it was difficult to maneuver the oars while attempting to shoot some photos.  They were crossing carefully, but as I closed in, they hurriedly splashed across to the other bank.  I was able only to get a couple good photos, but it was a thrill to see this...just another experience that made this such a memorable trip. All told, there were elk, deer, coyote, pheasant, several species of hawks, turkeys, Kingfishers, Great Blue Heron, and oh, did I say Steelhead??

The Fish

Tom Fishing A runOf course, I was not trying to convince you that the scenery was so fantastic that we did not want to catch steelhead. It was, after all, the primary reason for the trip. This is a relaxed float (except for the last day when "the narrows" are navigated), with plenty of stops to the best steelhead runs on the river. I can say that with confidence because Dennis knows the river like the back of his hand. As I said in the first article, "I marveled at how many pools we simply bypassed on the trip. Even in the ones we fished, Dennis would say, "Now you just fish from here down to there". When I asked him about all the other great looking waters, he simply said, "they don't Tom With a Fishhold fish". Dennis' ability to know where the fish would be under different water and light conditions was uncanny." We saw fish roll at at many of the runs we fished too, and even at the ones where we didn't, we had confidence that they were there. The steelhead ranged in size, on this trip,  from about 6 to about 10 lbs., but on his previous trip there was one caught that was 16 lbs.! The picture to the right is of Tom Reichert with a nice steelhead he caught with a Crystal Caddis - as surface fly. What can be more exciting than that? 

This trip was one that I will not forget. All good memories are best kept in photos and video though, and that is one advantage of being the webmaster for this site. It is a place to store and to share those memories for many years to come. I will always have this to fall back on, though the memories are still etched in my mind now. I will approach each September with much anticipation and I will keep coming back to this page as that time nears.


Grande Ronde Video Montage


I think it is fitting to end with the same epilogue (or disclaimer, if you will) that I did in the first article: Most anglers who float the wilderness do it only once after they go three days of not finding the steelhead, and then have to deal with the Narrows and their gear. My advice is simple to go with an expert. The Grande Ronde is not that big. You could go down the wilderness with a party of six like some do, but your fishing water is split with the others in the group, and that is if other outfitters like Dennis are not sharing your float. Dennis doesn't even advertise the wilderness float. On he usually only the promotes the Cabins and Campout Expedition his son Mike does, unless he is looking to fill a few openings. Dennis runs an intimate trip with only 3. It's a no-frills, participatory trip, but if you enjoy river side camping and day long steelheading, you would do no better.



Me with a Grande Ronde Steelie
Steve Burke is the editor and webmaster for Salmonfly.Net.


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