Aspen Ridge Ranch  |  Fly fishing  | Southern Oregon  |  Upper Williamson River

Sunday, Sep 19, 2021  
From The Source Weekly, Bend, Oregon

VOLUME 8 ISSUE 26 JUNE 24, 2004

OUTDOORS: Bugs by the Gazillions

Fishing the black drake hatch on the Upper Williamson

by Bob Woodward

When I first came to Central Oregon, I vowed to someday fish the Williamson River. Yet try as I might, I'd never casted a fly over the river noted for producing big fish, or as a local fly shop employee puts it, "the biggest rainbows south of Alaska."

So when I was invited to fish the Williamson at Aspen Ridge Ranch, visions of 10-pound rainbows filled my dreams for days. Those dreams were dashed when, on further research, I discovered that the ranch is on the upper Williamson, far from the fabled big-fish sections of the lower river.

Yet minutes after setting foot on the ranch property, I began to experience one of the rarest afternoons and evenings of fishing I've ever had. A bug-filled experience, to say the least.

From late afternoon until dusk, the air around this section of the upper Williamson is filled with millions -- that's right, millions -- of black drake mayflies. I've seen clouds of mosquitoes in Alaska and small swarms of salmon flies on the Henry's Fork of the Snake River, but they pale by comparison with the black drakes' onslaught.

So many black drakes choke the river's feeding lanes that you'd think the fish would all be stuffed and very picky about what they'll eat. There's another problem besides too much feed, and that's finding black drake dry fly imitations. Black drakes, it turns out, are seldom seen west of the Mississippi River.

But fish were fooled, by luck, I'm sure -- and what fish they turned out to be. No 10-pounders of dreams, but plenty of distinctive Upper Williamson redband trout varying in length from 12 to 25-plus inches, with ample girths and a penchant for big jumps and powerful runs.

These redbands are the result of a remarkable 14-year recovery effort by ranch owner Dawn Stuart along this section of the river. A working cattle ranch when she bought the property in 1990, Stuart first set about to remove the cows and build a cabin with the help of her mother and brother. Then she turned her attention to river rehabilitation.

"When I bought the place, "she says, "the river was twice as wide as it is now and was very shallow. It was too warm for fish to survive."

With the cattle gone, the stream slowly returned to its original narrow, deep bed. Stuart planted more than 1,000 willows to help shade the water, allowing its temperature to drop, and the fish started returning from cooler upstream waters to enjoy an annual month-long black drake banquet (Memorial Day until the end of June).

For Stuart, the ranch represents not just a great opportunity to repair an injured river and its riparian area but also the realization of a way of life she always wanted.

"I was born in Chiloquin and after leaving home for college I eventually ended up a driven yuppie businessperson in Los Angeles. The more I worked the less the money and all that goes with it meant to me. So I started looking for a ranch to buy somewhere in the west."

On a trip back home to Chiloquin, her mother told her that the ranch she was looking for was probably close by, not in Wyoming, Montana, or Idaho. Stuart took the hint and, remembering the Upper Williamson Valley, asked realtors if anything was for sale in the area.

"They said nothing was for sale, but I persisted, and after writing all the landowners in the area was able to buy 320 acres. I bought them sight unseen."

Then the work began, first on the cabin and then on the river. And while working on the river rehab, an idea to open the ranch to fly fishing for one month a year took shape. For three seasons (1999 to 2001), Stuart and her partner Bob Rogers advertised the black drake hatch season. Anglers came and, like me, were bowled over by the size of the hatch and the feisty fish.

With drought conditions the next two years, Stuart closed the river to angling to allow the fish to better cope with the low, warm waters. This season there's no angling business per se, but judging from the amount of water, its coolness and the number of healthy fish, next year the Aspen Ridge Ranch black drake fly fishing season a go.

At this writing, 40 fishing slots will be open at the ranch ( next season. A slot costs an angler $500 for a three-day, two-night stay. All meals and teepee camping are included in the price.

Teepee camping shouts "rustic," and that's what the Aspen Ridge Ranch experience is. This is not your typical fat-cat flyfishing lodge experience with leather couches, chilled martinis, cordon bleu meals and 34 channels of television in your room.

Aspen Ridge Ranch is a true old Central Oregon outback experience, with a jet-black star-studded sky at night and the wail of a pack of coyotes just across the river from your teepee.

In their cabin on the banks of the river, Stuart and Rogers have all the comforts of home, thanks to a large solar panel that provides electricity for a refrigerator, computers and lights.

But even that can be too much comfort for them. At the end of the black drake season, when the bugs cover the exterior of their log cabin so heavily it turns black, they haul a king-sized double bed out of storage and sleep on it under the stars for the rest of the summer.

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