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Trout totality

CAMP SHERMAN — Battling carmageddon to see Monday's solar eclipse brought hundreds of thousands of people to Central Oregon, all here to chase the wrong two minutes of totality.

Anyone with $2 glasses could see the moon blot out the sun that morning. Very few could chase a rare redband trout on a dry fly on the famed Metolius River that afternoon.

And even fewer could catch one of these boldly hued ghosts of the Metolius, trout so well schooled in this crystal-clear water that they not only can tell the difference between a real fly and an artificial one but also identify the tyer.

On the Metolius, it really is about the fishing and not the catching, especially for rookies.

"This river humbles you," says Eric Gunson from behind the fly counter at the Camp Sherman Store. "It's the hardest river you'll ever fish. It challenges your skill set, and even the best experts get humbled."

The Metolius is renowned both for what it is and what it isn't.

It gurgles cold, clear and constant from a spring northwest of Sisters into a Ponderosa pine forest, the water so clean that rocks aren't coated in slippery algae. The swift, twisting currents run through long fishless flats, then under logs and cut banks that hold these redbands, one of three distinct subspecies of rainbow trout in the West known for their spectacular spots and eye-popping red lateral bands that give them their name.

These natives once competed with stocked rainbows in the Metolius, but the hatchery fish disappeared in 1997, so the river can be managed for redbands and even rarer bull trout, which are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Water upstream of Bridge 99 is for barbless fly-fishing only, and no guides are allowed. Downstream of the bridge is for artificial flies and lures only.

The Metolius is to dry-fly fishermen what Pebble Beach is to golfers. It's a mecca whose disciples spend time and money to test their mettle against the most picturesque backdrop their sport has to offer, only to walk away at the end of the day defeated but strangely smiling from the beating.

"A lot of it is fine-tuning the expectations," says Adam Bronstein, a seasoned Metolius angler. "Just enjoy one of the most beautiful, pristine, clear rivers in the United States."

The water's clarity clearly tips the balance in favor of the redbands, who won't budge for anything less than a dragless drift with a very long leader and at least 6x tippet.

So don't count on many strikes.

"It's just not about numbers here," Bronstein says. "Sure, you can be competitive here, but what's the point? It should be about relaxation instead of pegging success to catching a fish.

"If you want to do that, fish the stocked part of the McKenzie River," he says.

But just as Pebble Beach golfers occasionally make birdie, rookies sometimes hook a redband here.

Just hours after Monday's final crescent gives way to a clear sun, three Clark's stonefly imitations disappear into riverside brush. Out comes the last stonefly from the box.

Floating flies along logs and cut banks means putting each fly in harm's way just for the chance to entice a redband. This last fly is no exception.

It works its way down a seam beneath a hanging bush, just upstream from a log jam. Six more inches and it, too, would be lost to the brush. Suddenly, the fly disappears into the water, and three hard yanks on the three-weight rod shows this fish has game.

This redband has seen this movie before.

Quickly it takes refuge in an underwater bush, only to be shaken free. A second downed stick affords near freedom, and a final run to the logjam almost separates man from fish before the redband comes to hand: 14 inches of large black spots, iridescent oranges and tans and the tell-tale vast splash of red like the tail of a comet streaking across the sky.

Now that's totality.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtfribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Mark Freeman fishes the Metolius River Monday.
A redband trout falls for a golden stonefly imitation Monday on the Metolius River near Camp Sherman just hours after the solar eclipse. [Photo by Brian Winkler]