The Grande Ronde: An Appreciation
A gang hits the river for 20 years, and the canyon keeps on giving.
By Chris Santella

If you like the steelhead swing, the Ronde is a perfect place to be on a sunny fall day. Numerous prime runs and pools can be accessed right off the road and any can give up some of the most beautiful steelhead you’ll ever see.   Photo by Kenton Quist

The first time I visited the Grande Ronde was nearly my last. It was after 1 a.m., and my buddy Pete and I were on the last 15 miles of the 380-plus-mile journey from Portland. It was a long drive, the kind I’d never have considered for a weekend in my younger, more cautious days. But Oregon was a big country (at least to a Connecticut boy), and you wouldn’t see it if you didn’t get out there. Enough guidebooks and steelheaders had mentioned the river in gushing terms. So we reserved a room at Boggan’s Oasis and made the trip.

There were wisps of fog on Highway 3 as it began its long (over 2,500 feet in elevation) drop toward the river valley, and I was weary after nearly seven hours on the road. Coming around a corner, we were greeted by a herd of 20 to 30 elk, nonchalantly crossing the road. The temperature was still above freezing and I was driving slower than usual, so we were able to stop short of tragedy. But the rush of adrenaline from my ungulate encounter did not make for a restful four hours of sleep. (Nor did the fact that our room was actually shared with two strangers, a detail that Boggan’s management had failed to share. That incarnation of Boggan’s has since burned down, though a new Boggan’s has risen from the ashes.)

I recall that Pete encountered one fish on that trip, a lethargic 6-pound hatchery steelhead. I didn’t touch a thing. But it hardly mattered. We were smitten by the Ronde—the grandeur of the surrounding canyons, the intimacy of the river, the abundance of wildlife and even its roadside convenience—once you’d covered the many miles to get there. We spread the gospel of the Ronde to our friends in Portland. And for the past 20 years (with one year off for COVID), our posse has returned, whether the steelhead returns over Lower Granite Dam are promising or not.

As Pete—not a man given to hyperbole—texted after our most recent visit: “Grande Ronde Forever.”

Grande Ronde steelhead are not the largest you’ll ever see but they do rise to skated flies when conditions are prime. They are also eager to chomp down on a variety of swung flies, which most anglers fish off sink tips. A typical fish on the Ronde runs about 6 pounds.   Photo by Chris Santella

The Grand Ronde begins in the Elkhorn Mountains southwest of Baker, Oregon, and meanders roughly 200 miles through the northeast corner of the state (and a small bit of southeastern Washington) before joining the Snake River 493 miles from the Pacific. Where it parallels I-84 in La Grande, Oregon, it has barely enough water to cover a smolt (at least in late October); a bit further north near the town of Elgin, it more resembles an irrigation ditch than a river (indeed, part of the river is diverted here for irrigation purposes). But once the Wallowa River joins the flow above the hamlet of Minam, the Grande Ronde takes shape. Floaters can put in at Minam and drift the Ronde’s “Wild and Scenic” section, far from any roads and settlements. But this three- or four-day float can be bone-chillingly cold in the fall. There’s also the option to float from Boggan’s down to Heller Bar, roughly 30 miles. I’ve heard many stellar reports for this section back in the day, though drifters must negotiate a Class III/IV rapid toward the end.

We focus our efforts on the road section of the Ronde, the roughly 25 miles from just above Troy, Oregon, to Boggan’s Oasis in Washington, where the road veers north toward Rattlesnake Grade and Clarkston. (Note: I’d always thought that Boggan’s was a town and the motel its oasis. It turns out that the postal address is a town called Anatone.) Road fishing allows easy access to the river’s countless pools, runs and riffles, not to mention proximity to a warm, dry place to rest our heads.

Some steelhead aficionados may think of the Grande Ronde as the place to bring fish to the top for skated flies, this thanks in small part to some pronouncements to that effect by a local outfitter 20 years ago. According to an old friend who used to live in La Grande and guided steelhead anglers, the (mostly) wild fish that push into the Ronde in early- to mid-October are quite aggressive and will take skaters. But there aren’t many such fish, and exactly when they’ll arrive is a crapshoot. So, Bomber-hucking early October anglers could be casting to empty water. We’ve found late October to be a sweet spot between early season scarcity and November frigidity; there are usually enough fish in the river to feel like we’re in the game, but there isn’t ice in our guides… or the temptation to resort to nymphing. That being said, the water always seems to drop 10 degrees in the week between the last local fly shop report and our arrival. I’m not saying it’s impossible to catch fish on top when the water temps are below 42; but our crew, even the principled Brit amongst us, opt to fish light- to medium-weight tips and flies that err on the large profile side. We’re more likely to find fish in slightly slower water (as opposed to those skater-tempting tailouts). While fishing this year was hardly lights out, everyone in our group of six had at least an encounter over three days and we brought a dozen steelhead to hand.

Note: some people fish the Ronde well into the winter. The numbers are at their peak then, but the water is near freezing, the air much colder than that, the grades down to the river resemble luge runs. And it’s largely a nymphing game. But it is possible to put big numbers up on the board.

Over the years, we’ve certainly developed a preference for certain runs—one, Hemingway, is universally recognized by that name. We have our own naming conventions for the others. One is called “Pyramid,” as at the bottom of the run there’s a pyramid-shaped rock jutting above the surface. Another is “Faux Pyramid,” as there’s another pyramid-shaped rock that juts above the surface toward the top of the run, and we’d sometimes confuse it in low light times with the “real” Pyramid. A third is “Meat,” as some years ago we watched a trio of bait anglers pull fish after fish from the run, putting most on ice (it was big hatchery run year). Yet another is “Doug’s Mom’s Hole,” which alludes to a spot opposite the ranch of a friend’s mother… and simply feels a bit naughty and hence fun to say. The Pyramids and Hemingway fish best from river right. Fifteen years ago, we used to cross the river at flows up to 850 cubic feet per second without a wading staff. Five years ago we’d cross at flows up to 750 CFS with wading staffs, cleats, and occasionally, life jackets.

The Grande Ronde canyon country is impressive even by the standards of that rugged corner where Washington and Oregon meet Idaho. Wildlife and wild fish abound.   Photo by Chris Santella

This year we brought a raft, as none of us—all over 60 or damn near it—have any stomach for crossing the river. The twosome that rafted left the roadside water for us and focused on river-right runs. The road guys cruised from Troy to near Boggan’s, stopping to fish water that was out of the direct sun (there’s always some shade given the Ronde’s tall canyons), and met for cold cut lunches. We waved at the floaters as we passed back and forth in the course of the day and helped them with their shuttle. Sometimes there was a truck in the run we wanted to fish, but most times there was not. Everyone was happy.

Our lodging options over the years have likewise evolved, reflecting our increasing age and (modestly) improving economic circumstances. After the first Boggan’s stay, we realized that camping was an option… and very soon after learned that camping, when it gets dark at 5:50 p.m. and temperatures sometimes dip into the single digits, is not much fun. (A few of my friends love to recount the story of the night I wrapped myself in a shearling rug my wife had thrown in the car for my sleeping pad.) We graduated to a dilapidated elk hunting tent, staked in the campground in Troy. The tent had simple bunks and a working potbelly stove, but was also home to many small, non-paying guests… and it was 200 yards to the nearest bathroom. The double-wide trailer next to the Troy Resort (that term is used somewhat loosely) had heat, beds and a kitchen, lacked vermin, and boasted sofas that required a pulley to extricate ourselves from. (I exaggerate only slightly.) But at the end of the day, it was still a double wide. These days we rent a house that we used to call “The White House,” though now it’s painted green and may have been green for a long time, according to its owner. The house has three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a well-appointed kitchen, a potbelly stove, a dining room, and a working VCR. Plus, there’s a nice run in the backyard that gave up two fish for me one morning on my most recent trip. (I’m not going to tell you any more about the white/green house, as I don’t want you renting it out from under my gang; the cost, split between six: $191 per angler for four nights.)

Whether you’re fishing the road or floating, whether the fish are in or still somewhere below Heller Bar, whether you’re in shirtsleeves or a dry suit, it’s the canyons of the Grande Ronde that keep you coming back. On the Oregon side, the sloping walls are festooned with copses of pine, dotted with larch and aspen that are lit brightly by late October. As you move into Washington, the canyon widens and gives way to dry, steep ridges. Many bighorn sheep call the area home, and are seen daily on the hillsides or taking a drink from the river. Deer and turkeys are also abundant.

And by the number of carcasses hung in camps we passed on our way out via the forest road toward Wallowa, elk are still quite numerous too.

The Grande Ronde flows through some absolutely stunning country with mule deer, elk, and bighorn sheep often visible on the slopes above. It’s tough not to get caught up in the scenery, and that’s OK as long as you keep a tight grip on the rod and let that fly slowly swing.

Chris Santella

Chris Santella is the author of numerous books, including the best-selling Fifty Places To Fly Fish Before You Die, and carries frequent bylines in the Washington Post and The New York Times. When not writing, Santella creates and plays music, or chases steelhead from his home base in Portland, Oregon.