Dundee Hills to Maupin – Chasing Red Side Trout with Winemaker Jesse Lange
Deschutes bound – that’s all I could really think about as we headed west to Maupin following an hour in the Dundee Hills with Jesse Lange.
The Lange family vineyard sits on top of a hill. After driving through a collection of smaller vineyard sites, we reached the end of the road. Back in the 1980’s this was a fitting spot for Don Lange and his young family to build a home, a business, and a life around wine. A folk singer from Santa Barbara, California, Don made the choice to invest his creative earnings in Oregon farmland. With a hint of clairvoyance he chose Pinot Noir as his grape of choice. Today, Don still touches his vines daily but leaves the heavy lifting to Jesse who, as the son of a vineyard owner, has wine flowing through his veins.
Enough about that. As I said I’m really here to go fishing and the roar of the Deschutes is calling. It was helpful to learn about Jesse who came highly recommended as a fishing companion by my old pal, New York wine merchant Scott Gerber. Scott first sold me a few cases of wine, wholesale, back in 1993 when he visited my restaurant Estia in Amagansett. Since then, an annual visit from Scott has uncovered a trove of information and established choices for my seasonal wine list. The hand painted fly on Jesse’s Pinot Noir label inspired Scott’s suggestion for me to visit the Dundee Hills. It turns out that Jesse is an experienced fly caster and has found a unique way to combine his love for fishing with his professional calling to sell fine Oregon Pinot Noir from the Dundee Hills.
We set off on our 3 hour drive in time to catch Portland as the sun was setting and then continued east to Maupin, up the Columbia river and over a pass in the dark of night. We arrived in Maupin when the town was asleep and all we could hear was the rush of the river as we looked up at a sea of stars. The Imperial River Company Lodge sits across the water from town, next to a bridge on the edge of the great frontier.
Up early and fueled with the excitement of a cool Oregon morning on the edge of the Deschutes, we met Jesse and guide Travis Lucas from the Fly Fishing Place in Sisters Oregon. Travis showed up with a large drift boat and a big smile, ready to share his love and knowledge of the river that he’s called home for over 20 years.
The Deschutes river is filled with cool, fast flowing, and clear water which requires respect and caution.
After setting up the drift boat and going over spey casting basics, I spent about 20 minutes working the river at the Nena put-in, wading out almost far enough to get swept downstream. With a calm response and slow footwork I felt lucky to creep back to the boat safe and dry. On the Deschutes, local regulations require that all fishing be done on foot – wade casting only. No fishing from drift boats allowed.
After floating to several different spots, with no hits or hookups, Travis pulled over to a campground that had a perfect fire pit with a large flat rock in its center. We got our fire started quickly and commenced cooking a wonderful Chili Chicken Rellenos lunch. The dish was easy to prepare as all of the prep had been done the night before in the kitchen at the Imperial River Company Lodge. Having purchased ingredients at a store in Portland, all I needed to do was break down a pre-roasted chicken and dice some vegetables.
The break from fishing gave us time to get better acquainted, talk about our favorite day of fishing, our children and the soil that supports Jesse’s vineyards and my gardens. We both agreed that building soil with sustainable methods wherever possible will be key to a healthy future across America.
Over the riverside fire, we prepared stuffed peppers in a simmering pool of rice in saffron, with Jesse’s Pinot Gris and chicken stock. After 30 minutes steaming on a bed of coals in a covered skillet, the peppers were soft and overflowing with bubbling cheese. Served with an arugula salad, it was a perfect riverside lunch.
After dousing our campfire with river water we floated another mile downriver, spooked a few flocks of Canada geese and pulled over for a last hour of casting. With a lone pair of mule deer looking down on us from the nearby ridgeline, we finally hooked up. Jesse landed two whitefish and I had 20 seconds with the liveliest, reddest rainbow I’ve ever seen. The fish hit on the swing, just as my streamer started to move across from the far bank toward the center of the flow. Swimming fast down river, the big trout jumped at least 2 feet out of the water, took some more line and then, like a flash it was gone.
Heading home I realized that one day on the Deschutes is like tasting the first bone off a rack of ribs. I loved everything about it and just can’t wait to dig in and make a full meal out of my next visit.
Perhaps in the future I’ll have a chance to head up river to the town of Bend and set out with my old college pal Colin Carr – Carr’s Wild Trout Adventures. Like every outing I chase, spending time on the river with new and old friends is what my American Rivers Tour is all about.