The Grande Ronde River is born of mountain snows in the Elkhorn Mountains of Northeast Oregon and embarks on a 200-mile circular journey to join the Snake River in Southeast Washington. Along the way it is fed with the snow melt from the Blue Mountains and the Wallowa Mountains. This is a serious steelhead river. Except for the stretch where it winds through the agricultural plains of the Grande Ronde Valley, the Grande Ronde runs through magnificent wild mountain canyons, inaccessible for large stretches except by raft, McKenzie drifters or other river craft.
The majority of the best steelhead fishing occurs from the confluence with the Wallowa River to the mouth in Washington. The river boasts both hatchery and wild steelhead in the 3 to 14 pound range, with the average about 6, and because of the remote and rugged area surrounding the river, it is an ideal steelhead river. The 3-5 day float from Minam on the Wallowa River to the takeout at Wildcat Creek through roadless canyons takes you through some of the most pristine steelhead country anywhere.
The lower reach of the Grande Ronde River from Troy in Oregon to Boggan's Oasis in Washington is accessible by road, and is heavily fished during the late fall run. Steelhead wading and drifting etiquette is a must at all times. The river here is accessible from both Oregon and Washington, so it’s a good idea to carry licenses for both states. From Boggan's down river is a stretch accessible mostly by raft, except for a five mile stretch with excellent access at the mouth and the confluence with the Snake River.
The lower Grande Ronde is known as one of the finest rivers in the country for dry fly steelheading in the fall, and that is saying quite a bit. This lower stretch also has a fine summer smallmouth bass fishery, while the upper stretches are an excellent rainbow trout fishery with bows up to 16-17”. The aggressive and protected native Bull Trout is also present, and must be released unharmed.
In late January or February, depending on water temperature and conditions, steelhead are moving far up the Grande Ronde River system into the upper tributaries of the Wenaha River, the Wallowa River, and the Minam river, where they spawn in late April and May. The steelhead fishing season here is September 1 through April 15.
The best time to try for a steelhead on a dry fly is October, at other times the standard down-and-across wet fly swing using reliable steelhead patterns like the Purple Peril, Mack's Canyon, or Green Butt Skunk works well on Grande Ronde steelhead, although some anglers prefer fishing the quartering upstream casting technique with bead head nymphs, egg patterns, woolly buggers and leech patterns, sometimes with a strike indicator or a dropper fly. As with most steelhead fishing, the ability to read and fish a stretch of water properly is more important than the fly pattern you use, as long as the pattern has all the good steelhead attributes.