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Steelheads on a rough river

Fishermen can work the banks or cast from the gravel bars, but more big autumn steelheads are caught by floating down the untamed Rogue

The fall steelhead were running last month in Oregon's famed Rogue River. Fresh from their dark, mysterious feeding places in the sea, they plunged in pink-and-silver splendor through the Pacific surf at Gold Beach into the broad, fiat estuaries of the river. As they surged toward distant inland spawning beds, anglers came from all over the country to intercept them. With Silver Doctors and March Browns fishermen worked Pierce Riffle above the town of Grants Pass and cast Witherwox Specials and Golden Demons from the gravel bars below it. Some drifted Hot Shots and Cinchbugs into the breaks above the rapids; others floated, as I did with guide Bob Pruitt and angler Eleanor Gilpin, down the river's wild, white waterway to the sea.

There are half a dozen outfitters like Pruitt who operate float-fishing trips out of Grants Pass down the lower Rogue during the fall steelhead run. Their sturdy 13-foot wooden boats are especially designed to take the abuse of such ferocious rapids as those at Rainie Falls, Mule Creek and Blossom Bar. But in a river like the Rogue even these boats may reach Gold Beach as driftwood unless manned by experts. Guides like Pruitt, Sid Pyle and Bob Pritchett know every pool, rock and riffle along the way, and they have made an art of handling the river and its fish.

An average fall steelhead trip from just below Grants Pass to the ocean takes four days, fly-fishing and trolling all the way. Nights are spent on the river either at permanent—and comfortably luxurious—tent camps or at several small, roughhewn lodges on the Rogue's banks. Lunch may be at Tyee Riffle or Horseshoe Beny or on the wide white sand at Winkle Bar, where Zane Grey's old fishing cabin still stands. Steelhead, smoked over green box-elder leaves, then broiled in butter, is usually on the menu and is always delicious. Most trips involve three boats, with two anglers and a guide to each. At $200 per fisherman (which covers everything, including tackle if necessary), the trip is not only one of the most enjoyable in the Northwest, but it is also one of the best bargains anywhere.

Obviously a great many people think so. There was not a free boat or steelhead guide to be found in Grants Pass this season. As more and more anglers—doctors, lawyers, industrialists, civil servants, college professors, a former child star, a Congressman and even a Cabinet member—poured into the city, local merchants stuck hastily lettered "Gone Fishin' " signs in their windows, resurrected anything from their backyards that would float and set up shop below Caveman Bridge. They had no trouble finding customers. Shirley Temple flew in from San Francisco with husband Charles Black to repeat last year's run with Bob Pruitt. Representative Robert Duncan (D., Ore.) was there with the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman.

The latter two were part of a group that descended upon the river in a confusion of borrowed boats, waders, rods, reels, cameras and press releases, ostensibly to inspect the lower Rogue in connection with its inclusion in the Wild Rivers Act, which will come up before Congress next year. The trip just happened to coincide with the fall steelhead run.

In the Rogue, as in the other steelhead rivers of northern California, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska, the annual steelhead migration is an exacting, exhausting marathon. No fish in the Northwest is as eminently endowed to survive it. This sea-run trout, a blood brother of the rainbow, is tougher and more tenacious than any of the six strains of Pacific salmon, and it is as bold as it is strong. At sea the steelhead swims alone; in the journey up the river it seeks the deepest, fastest-moving currents, knifing through waters too swift even for the big kings, leaping falls too high for any of the Pacific salmon.

The steelhead (Salmo irideus gairdneri), in fact, resembles far more the renowned Atlantic salmon of the East than any of its western relatives. Unlike the Pacific salmon, which dies once it has reproduced, both the Atlantic salmon and the steelhead return to the sea after they have spawned and can again return to the river to repeat their complex, compulsive life pattern.

In appearance, as well, the two are so strikingly similar when each is fresh from the ocean that ichthyologists have often had trouble distinguishing one from the other. By virtue of its older, more aristocratic associations, the Atlantic salmon, in fancy and in fact, still rules the family Salmonidae, but there is no question among anglers that the steelhead is crown prince.

No one who has felt the fury of the fish charging like electric current through line and rod, who has heard the cacophonous screech of backing being ripped through guides, who has reeled with a madman's frenzy in the final, seconds before boat and angler plunge into the Rogue's crashing, foaming white water, who has held on, bruised and shaken, until that sudden, inexplicable moment when the line goes slack and the contest is over as abruptly as it began—no one who has experienced such an encounter is ever the same again.

Nor does an angler ever fully recover from the infuriating impact of the instant when he stoops victoriously to net the still, silver wraith he has subdued at last, only to have it burst from his grasp in a final, fruitful lunge for freedom. But if the steelhead is memorable for the frequency and ingenuity of its escapes, it is even more memorable when caught—and eaten.

In a sense, the very characteristics that make the steelhead so formidable contribute also to its undoing. By nature it is a powerful and forthright fish; its strike, always a shock and an astonishment, reflects its savage energy. A steel-head does not suspiciously mouth a fly with the gourmet curiosity and tentative tastebuds of most trout. Rather, it attacks and snaps its jaws around the morsel with the rapacious conviction of a tiger, usually setting the hook securely in the process.

Because it is courageous and stubborn, once hooked it does not seek the leader-breaking bottom rocks and snags of shore that might free it, but rather it carries the line like a football player racing for a touchdown, running in great, powerful bursts of speed, leaping high in brilliant, graceful arcs, dashing deceptively toward the sea, then turning swiftly to charge again upstream, fearlessly fighting against forces that must finally exhaust it.

At no time of year is the steelhead fishing on the Rogue more challenging, or the river itself more inviting, than in late autumn, before the damp chill of winter touches the air and turns the rising waters dark and roily. The biggest steelhead—the 12-and 15-pounders that have fed and fattened longest in the ocean—rarely enter the Rogue until early winter. But these large latecomers will not take a fly and, when they are hooked on clusters of salmon and steelhead eggs that are bounced along the bottoms of the pools in which they lie, the ferocious spirit of their autumnal brothers has waned, apparently numbed and subdued by the colder waters.

The earliest steelhead begin appearing in the Rogue in spring. These are small fish (generally under four pounds), and they spend the summer in slow migration toward their spawning beds. They seldom have traveled more than 100 miles upstream by mid-September. As autumn approaches, more and larger steelhead rise from the ocean depths and gather off the river's mouth to await the compelling command that will be carried seaward on the first fall freshets. Then, suddenly, they surge into the Rogue's swift currents, swimming through strange shadows cast by the once 90-foot-high bridge at Agness that lies now, after last year's floods, twisted and abandoned like a discarded toy, past the launching ramp at Illahe and on into the primeval splendors of the Siskiyou National Forest, where the Rogue slices through canyon walls of slate-gray stone, between cliffs studded with the scarified remains of ancient clam shells, and mountains dense with Douglas fir; on through a wilderness that is lonelier and less peopled today than when the first gold-hungry white man saw it just over a century ago.

Somewhere along the 75 miles of water between the highway's end at Grave Creek and the place where the river meets the sea, the first of these fat fall fish will fasten on a homemade Juicy-bug flicked enticingly before it by old Charlie Billings, or by Garrold or Florence Fry, or Deke Miller or Julius Keller, who is known as "Red," or even by the legendary Marial Akeson, the diminutive, dynamic grande dame of the river after whom the hamlet above Illahe was named almost 70 years ago. And once again the Rogue's annual contest will have begun.

No word of this first catch ever leaves the dark recesses of the lower Rogue, because knowledge of the presence of fall fish in the river is considered something of a sacred trust by the handful of isolated natives who live on it. But in spite of such secrecy it is never more than a few days before some upriver dude (a term more definitive than derogatory that is used to describe anyone not of the river) finds himself on the other end of a rocketing, roistering six-pounder. Then the news is out.

There are a dozen ways to fish the Rogue in fall and, when the fish are running, almost all are productive. But by far the most enjoyable method is to float the river as I did, riding the flow of its swift waters toward the sea through wild stretches where the only access is by boat and the only inhabitants are bears and deer and multitudes of birds and small furred creatures.

The lower Rogue is a grand and spectacular showcase for the steelhead. A hundred shades of green and yellow accent October's coppery foliage. Against the carmine limbs of madrone trees, silver-barked tan oaks sparkle in the sun. Clusters of scarlet penstemon grow, seemingly, from stone. Biblical myrtle-woods stand in groves along the water's edge flanked by moss-hung live oaks and the graceful silhouettes of willows.

Less than 50 years ago these now-deserted mountains rang with the sounds of men and machinery. All up and down the lower Rogue log cabins and miners' camps marked the claims of settlers who came then not for the silver of the steel-head but for the gold that lay in abundance beneath the river's shores. By foot, boat, mule and packhorse, hopeful prospectors from all over the country swarmed into the area, and thousands of dollars' worth of gold poured down the drainages and sluiceways along the Rogue's banks.

There are fewer than 20 inhabitants now on the 40-mile stretch of river between Grave Creek and Illahe. Most of the old trails and cabins have long since been washed away by the relentless river, and unless one happens to stumble inadvertently into an overgrown mining ditch, there is little evidence anywhere today that people ever lived or worked here. Most remarkable of all, without the intervention of man, money or management, nature has completely reclaimed the lower Rogue.

This is as it should be, as far as the river people are concerned. They take a dim view of most efforts, especially of government efforts, to improve upon a job that nature clearly has under control, just as they take a dim view of everything in the world outside the Rogue that affects their river. This is not because they have anything against the government, or against keeping the Rogue in its wild state, but because they distrust the wisdom of placing the river in the hands of federal agencies that do not always seem to know or understand it.

When they cite, for example, the Bureau of Land Management's bridge across Kelsey Creek that washed out with the first flood, the U.S. Forest Service's bridge at Agness that washed out before the approaches were even completed, the BLM's relocation of the Rogue River Trail above Whisky Creek that washed out in the first high water, and half a dozen other bits and pieces of washed-out construction all undertaken against local—and obviously sensible—objections, their reservations seem to have a certain validity.

"But, heck, I'm not worried about this bunch," said Red Keller of the official invasion that threatened to inundate the Rogue last month. "All them government fellers really want to do while they're here is catch steelhead."

That, of course, was what everyone was doing on the Rogue.