Sunday, October 25, 2009

Rogue River steelhead

Back in June I wrote a blog describing a good day's fishing on the Deerfield River in western Massachusetts. In response I got a cheeky email from old friend Bob Brown, a former Sports Illustrated editor who now lives in Portland, Oregon, that said, in essence, if I wanted to try a real float trip, to join him in October, when he'd be fishing for steelhead on Oregon's Rogue River. I decided to bite.
...I'd never fished for steelhead before, but it had always been on my "to do" list, and the prospect of bumping into Tonya Harding while floating past a trailer park only added to the appeal of Bob's invitation. Steelhead are sea-run rainbow: trout that are hatched in a river, migrate into the ocean, then return to the river after one, two, or three years to spawn. Unlike salmon, steelhead do not die after spawning, but return to the ocean, where they grow ever larger and, if they are lucky, come back to spawn again and again. The world record on a fly, caught earlier this year on the Hoh River in Washington, is 29.5 pounds, but any steelhead over 10 pounds is a memorable fish.
...Bob had made reservations at Morrison's Lodge, which is on the Rogue, in Merlin, Ore., about an hour from the Medford Airport. (My wife and I actually made the 8 hour drive from San Francisco). Sally is quite a keen fisherman herself, and had decided that, while Bob and I fished with his favorite guide, Dennis, she'd take whatever guide was available and would strike out on her own. Dennis is 62, is as lean as a 15-year-old, and hasn't shaved or cut his hair since the Reagan administration. A carpenter by trade, he made his wooden drift boat by hand, and knows the Rogue like a lab knows its favorite couch. He calls the steelhead: "the fish of a thousand casts." By noon I was up to 662 without a hit.

...Despite its name, the Rogue is actually a reasonably navigable river, with long, wide stretches broken up intermittently by shallow, wade-able rapids. It is in these rapids and the tailwaters below them that the steelhead lie, often feeding on the eggs of the Chinook salmon that are spawning in the gravel shallows. Both Bob and I were using weighted egg-sucking stonefly nymphs with nymph droppers, not a delicate form of flyfishing, otherwise known as "chuck and duck." In the tailwaters, Dennis had us switch to streamers, which we cast at an angle downstream, then let swing behind the boat, before we stripped in. Steelhead usually strike on the swing. We caught several small trout in this manner, rainbow under 12 inches that had not yet migrated to the sea, but it was a slow day by any standards. Having been on the water since 8:15, by 3:30 we had still not had a real strike.
....In this regard steelhead fishing is not unlike fishing for Atlantic salmon. You pound the water and pay your dues. There's not a lot of finesse or subtlety to it, no matching the hatch or changing to a lighter tippet. You cast, cast, cast, check for wind knots, and hope for the best. If you are lucky, a freight train hits.
....Mine came in at 3:31. We were floating into the top portion of a rapid, and I cast my egg-sucking nymph into the white water as I'd done hundreds of times already that day. I'd just had time to mend the line when my line started rushing upstream as if I'd snagged a rock. I didn't have to worry about setting the hook. The fish did that for me as I just tried to hang onto the rod and stay out of the way of the line stripping off the reel. The fish turned and started back downstream--the tell that this was a steelhead, not a spawning salmon--and as Dennis pulled the driftboat over, I jumped out and followed the running fish.
....The steelhead had just made it into my backing when it stopped in a heavy portion of the current and faced back upstream. I continued to reel as I walked, but I couldn't move it. Dennis told me he'd put 1x tippet on my line, which is about 12 pound test--strong but not strong enough to drag a big fish around in heavy current. I was worried about breaking it if I forced the issue. When my line still hadn't moved after a couple of minutes, I began to think the fish had somehow wrapped itself around a rock or log in the middle of the river. I asked Dennis if that was possible. Then the steelhead started shaking its head.
....I gradually began to gain line, inching the fish closer. The steelhead moved sideways through the water, a great gray shadow, giving us a good view of his length and thickness. I'd never seen a steelhead in the water before, but Dennis allowed this was a big one--a special fish. "I'm going to get below him," he said, moving downstream with his net. "Don't let him go any further. We'll never get him if he goes through those rapids further down."
...I started to gain a little more line, but the fish was still strong and not ready to come in. Dennis was still twenty feet away from it when the steelhead moved sideways again in the current, a short but sudden move. That extra tension it put on the tippet was too much. The line broke, springing back toward me, and the fish disappeared.
...It had been on for ten minutes. We'd had a good look, but the fish hadn't jumped, and outside of a thick slab of silver gray in the river, I didn't have a very good idea of its color or beauty. We'd have released it anyway, but no picture, no satisfying hoisting of its weight. To lose a fish like that isn't something one gets over easily. But that was why we'd come. That was the fish I'd signed on for. Dennis allowed it would have been the biggest steelhead landed by someone from the Lodge that summer, 12 pounds at least. It is certainly a fish I'll never forget.
...Back at the lodge, we shared war stories with other guests. Several steelhead had been caught that day, but none near the size of the one I'd lost. Sally had caught a couple of "half-pounders" as they call the little guys, but hadn't seen any adult fish. Her guide generally took out spincasters and bait fishermen, so it wasn't exactly a good match. But tomorrow she was going with Pablo, who'd been guiding flyfishermen on the Rogue for 34 years. Bob and I would be going out again with Dennis.
....What can I tell you? It was beautiful. The company was great. We tried like hell. But the skunk never left the boat. Not a strike from an adult fish. You could have stacked all the midgets we caught on a scale and they wouldn't have weighed two pounds. A long, frustrating day on the Rogue.
...But Sally? With Pablo? She was grinning like a Cheshire cat when we returned to the Lodge, sipping on her first martini. They have a nice tradition at Morrison's of posting pictures of the fish that are caught that day on a bulletin board by the bar, and this what greeted Bob and me when we bellied up for our first drink:

Not just one steelhead. Two. Two beauties. One of them "The Catch of the Week"--was estimated at 10-12 pounds. (They didn't weigh it because Sally stuck her thumb in the fish's mouth while trying to pose with it and began bleeding all over the boat.) The "small" one was 27 inches. The big guy over 30 inches. Both fish jumped and ran and generally gave Sally a gay old time on the river with Pablo. And it turns out, she sheepishly admitted, she'd caught a third steelhead in the 20-22 inch range that they hadn't even bothered to photograph. Ho-hum. Just another day on the river.
....She didn't even know the name of the fly she was using--some sort of purple streamer that Pablo had tied. Bob was ready to strangle her. And me. And Pablo, shown here holding Sally's big fish.
...But such are the healing powers of vodka that after a couple of drinks we were able to look at Sally's success as a group effort. Bob had suggested the Rogue. I'd driven the car up from San Francisco. And Sally had finished the job the men so manfully had started.
....It was a pretty good couple of days.


  1. Now this looks like a fun trip- call Waz and your Bobbins next time you are up for such great adventure- Congrats to Sal- Gal!xoxb

  2. Maybe we should go back to Alaska!

  3. Christmas Island, or go for Muskie-

  4. I have just downloaded iStripper, so I can have the sexiest virtual strippers on my desktop.