Fishing the Malheur on the Blue Bucket Ranch
by Dave Hughes
I’ve fished the Malheur River on the Blue Bucket Ranch several times in the past few seasons. I got surprised by some new success on it just last fall, though you might as easily regard what I call a success to be a failure. It was late September. I’d been hunting cow elk and killed one early in the hunt, which left me the next full day to fish for trout on the Malheur before heading home to get the elk into the game cooler.
I didn’t get up early, but at that time of year, there’s no reason to. Grasshoppers are the main item in the trout diet and it takes awhile for the sun to rise above the narrow canyon, get the hoppers’ engines revved so they start getting onto the water and rousing the trout. I hit the water an hour before noon, tied on a Parachute Hopper, but the water was still cold, and I had hooked and landed only one trout before it became time to sit on a grassy bank at streamside, eat lunch and ponder my lack of luck.
I fished for another half hour after lunch without any looks at the dry, and finally decided to see if something wasn’t happening under the water since it was clear that nothing was happening on top. I tied two feet of 5X tippet to the hook bend of the hopper, and tied a size 16 Copper John nymph to the dropper tippet.
On the first cast to a run I’d already fished out with the dry fly, or so I thought, the hopper danced down the current just a couple of feet and suddenly dipped under. I set the hook, and after a dash of a fight, was surprised to land a plump foot-long whitefish. In all the times I’d fished the river, I’d never caught a whitefish. It occurred to me that I’d never bothered to dangle a nymph in that stream, and had also never fished it with a dry fly small enough to interest anything but trout.
I cast again, my dry fly took another dive and I landed another whitefish on the nymph. Before I was finished in that one run, the count had risen to five. And that’s where your assessment of the situation has to take over. Some folks consider the mere presence of whitefish in trout water to be a disaster. Others consider catching five fish that take a small fly and fight well against it a delightful thing to have happen. Whitefish on the Malheur are natives and biologists consider them non-competitive with trout. I was glad to encounter them, especially because the trout fishing was so slow.
But trout fishing didn’t stay slow for long. As I moved upstream, I caught about equal numbers of trout and whitefish on that bright nymph. As the air and water both got warmer, around two in the afternoon, hoppers began landing on the water. Trout took the big insects with surprisingly soft swirls. Rarely would I see a splash. I cast my combination hopper and nymph over one dark pool, where deep water edged up against a small cliff, and saw a broad back loft out of the water briefly. The hopper went down quietly and I raised the rod to come up against what felt like size. It was my second surprise of the day. In the past the largest trout I’d caught on the Malheur River had been a satisfying fifteen inches long, but this one put my 4X tippet in danger, ran about fifty feet of line off the reel and came to hand only after I’d followed it downstream through a bouldered riffle and coaxed it into some soft shallows. It was about eighteen inches long, and heavy for its size.
Not long after that I nipped off the nymph so I could deal only with trout. With that decision—deliberately cutting whitefish out of my catch—I revealed my own snobbery. I quit at four o’clock because I’d caught so many nice trout that I’d had enough fun for a day, but that first eighteen-incher remained the largest fish of the day.
When: The Malheur River originates as snow runoff from the Strawberry Mountains. Depending on snow pack, it’s not down and fishable until early to late July. The water drops and clears and becomes warmer through August, continues to drop but becomes cool in September and cold in October. Except in late August, and some days in early September, you’ll be glad to have waders. It’s a mountain stream, and the bottom is bouldered more than gravelled. You need good felt soles and a stout staff because, if you fall down and get hurt up there, I’m not coming to carry you out.
Late July and August are the prime weeks for a fishing trip. The stream is limited to 48-hour advance reservations for fishing when bow season opens, around the first of September, and closes to fishing at the end of that month, except for those who have a hunting reservation. It might be smart to carry a fly rod to pass some unproductive mid-day hours if you’re over there hunting. The stream is open to fishing all year and is catch and release on Wilderness Unlimited waters. I’ve never fished it in spring, before runoff, so I don’t know what it looks like then. That is your assignment.
As to time of day, the fishing improves as the sun warms the water. You’ll catch more fish in the afternoon than you will in the morning. I’ve never fished late into the evening because I’ve always had to pull out and hike back down the canyon.
Where: You’ll find a few trout right in the campground section, at the head of the agriculture, but not many and not large. I’ve caught the dreaded squawfish—pikeminnow—there. They’re native as well and should be respected, I suppose, but they’re not trout, nor even whitefish. The mile or so upstream from camp can provide some surprisingly good trout fishing. The valley is open there and the stream is broad and flat in that section. If you’re just killing a couple of hours, fish down low and you’ll be surprised how well you do.
You can drive or hike, depending on whether the road is wet or dry, about a mile up to where the valley constricts and the stream comes out of the canyon. I can’t say that the number or size of the trout increases, but the stream does become more pristine the farther up you go. If you’ve got all day, hike past the No Vehicles Beyond This Point sign to the end of the diversion canal road, and then to the end of the elk trails if you’d like, before you start fishing. Then fish on upstream, but be sure to leave yourself plenty of daylight to hike back out.
Tackle: Any rod from seven-and-a-half to nine feet long that carries a four to six weight floating line will work. You won’t need to cast far, and there are not many obstructions overhead to your forecasts and backcasts. A leader about the length of the rod will be long enough; it should be tapered to 3X or 4X for the larger hopper dries and 5X for smaller dries. My normal rig is 4X to my dry fly and 5X to any nymph I decide to dangle from its stern.
The best dry flies for me have been the Elk Hair Caddis and Royal Wulff in sizes 12 and 14 and the Parachute Hopper in size 8 or 10. If you can tie or buy foam-bodied hoppers, they’ll be better for supporting nymphs without sinking. All of the grasshoppers I’ve seen on the Malheur have gray bodies and gray wings. Buy or tie your imitations with gray or tan, not yellow, bodies. I like some white in the wing, so I can see the fly well when it’s fished in the shadows of trees, which is where trout like to hang out.
I started with a size 16 Copper John for the weight in its wire body, but I also used a size 16 Beadhead Fox Squirrel nymph, and did just as well. I suspect any size 14 or 16 nymph will be effective so long as it has enough weight to penetrate the surface and sink a few inches under the dry fly that supports it.
It’s more than a mild suggestion to refrain from changing through a bunch of different dry flies, if you’re not catching trout on top. Instead, go at once to a nymph dangled off any large dry fly. If any grasshoppers are around, then I’d like that dry to be a hopper, based on the assumption that I’ll catch trout on the nymph until things warm up, at which time trout will begin to whack the dry fly. When that happens consistently enough to please me, I’ll nip off the nymph and fish the dry fly alone.
Tactics: Wade upstream and use the standard upstream dry fly presentation. Fish wherever the water is deep enough to provide the trout overhead protection from predators—several I caught had scars from heron spears—and wherever it has sufficient current to deliver food. If you don’t know how to read water and locate the likely lies of trout in mountain water, this stream will be your best teacher, because it has such a large population of trout that even if you fish all of the water, you’ll catch enough to puzzle out quickly what type of water they prefer.
The one interesting way in which this mountain stream varies from others I’ve fished is in the propensity for its trout to hang right at the edge, in scant water, if they can find any sort of depth, and a bit of cover in the form of a rock or a ledge. Look for dark spots of shade big enough to hide a trout. I’ve caught some very nice Malheur trout within a foot of the bank, but never where those trout would have to hold in water less than a couple of feet deep and, without a rock or ledge to hide under, to get out of the sun. You know why they’re there: that’s where hoppers with bad flight plans are most likely to land.
Dave Hughes is author of Trout From Small Streams, the perfect primer for a stream the size of the Malheur, and a good camp read.