North Umpqua River

North Umpqua River

There's no such thing as an easy steelhead river

  • By: John Gierach
My friend Vince Zounek and I had been told that the North Umpqua in Oregon was a difficult steelhead river. Although, come to think of it, I don't think either of us has ever heard of an easy steelhead river. Anyway, when we went out there last March to try and catch the winter run, we hedged our bet by hiring a guide. His name was Bob Burruss, and when we talked on the phone a month or so earlier, I said I wanted him to show us around the first day so we could fish on our own for the rest of the week.He said, "Yeah, that's a good idea." Actually I think it is a really good idea. Even if you're a smart and observant fisherman who doesn't need professional hand-holding, it can still take forever to figure out the easiest fraction of what a good local guide can show you in a day. And if you're like me, you'll pick up even that little bit so late in the trip that you barely have time to use it. First thing Monday morning, Bob handed us photocopied maps of the river's 30-some miles of roadside fly-fishing-only water. Throughout the day, he keyed the good pools and runs to mile markers, turnouts and other prominent landmarks as we scribbled notes and drew arrows on our maps. Of course these sketches were dashed off in improvised shorthand, often in a moving car, so later some were undecipherable, but even then, we learned the dozen or so pools we'd fished, plus enough others to last at least a week. Bob is a retired high school football coach and he has the tightly wound enthusiasm you might remember from those days. At first I thought he was a little too frenetic, firing more information at you than you could possibly absorb, but it quickly became obvious that this came from a peculiar combination of knowledge and generosity. It was the habit of a Coach with a capitol "C" accustomed to whipping recalcitrant teenagers into shape-the polar opposite of a guide who's just going through the motions. And in fact, it was interesting how much of that rapid-fire advice filtered back over the subsequent days when Vince and I were on our own-as well as a burgeoning if not entirely justified sense of confidence. At the end of that first fishless day, Bob suggested a good place to start the next morning, then shook our hands and said, "OK boys, you've got the skills, now use 'em." A lot of what we came away with that day was specific and nowhere near obvious. For instance, in one spot you'd want to swing your fly at a depth of no less than three feet along a short but steep rock shelf in mid-river. At another you'd want to fish the tailout of an almost indistinguishable tub in otherwise riffly water. Yet another run could be good if you were the first guy to fish it in the morning. Otherwise, forget it. The North Umpqua is a brawling canyon river that's hard for a beginner to read because its basalt bedrock bottom is a maze of sudden slots, bumps, ridges, trenches and knobs formed by old lava flows. There are a few recognizable cast-and-step runs where you can get in at the top and shuffle down, but in many places the wading difficulties mean you have to fish entire runs from one or two precarious perches. Bob showed us a technique for feeding mends into successive down-and-across-stream casts that would let you swing a fly through more water than you could reach with a conventional Spey-cast. (Unless you were a world champion Spey caster, this was the only way to adequately fish some runs.) I'd heard about this, but like so many things in fishing that you only hear about, it makes no more than theoretical sense until you see someone do it well. We'd been told that the wading was slippery and treacherous, but that turned out to be an understatement. The bedrock bottom is not only startlingly uneven, but, as Trey Combs said in Steelhead Fly Fishing, the rocks are "polished ice-smooth from the fine grit of countless springs, and annually slimed with algae." It's been said that when you fish the North Umpqua you might as well just jump in the river first thing in the morning and get it over with. That's the standard joke, but then everyone we talked to pointedly asked if we had cleats and wading staffs and they did it in that way fishermen have of lowering the voice and leveling the stare that says, I'm not joshing now; this is serious shit. We had brought both and we used them, but I'm so inexperienced with cleats that they're as likely to trip me as they are to grip the slick bottom. I also had the disadvantage of following two much larger guys. Bob and Vince are both strong, athletically built 200-plus pounders, while I'm a little clumsy and weigh 160 soaking wet, as they say. We learned to pick our way out to convenient casting perches by following the faint cleat marks of more experienced fishermen, but in some spots these turned out to be the trails of some pretty adventurous waders. I only went in twice, and only one of those was your classic butt-over-tea-kettle dunk in fast current that left me soaked from beard to socks. I remember that one moment of pure, primitive panic when I was in up to my chin, tangled in my wading staff, couldn't get my cleats under me and couldn't grab the greasy rocks that passed too quickly as I washed downstream. In peripheral vision I registered Vince coming for me as fast as he could wade, but it was pretty clear he wouldn't make it. My next recollection is of wallowing toward the bank under partial control and realizing I was holding onto my Spey rod so tightly I expected to find a handprint embossed in the cork. It was a feeling I've experienced a few other times in my life: Once while trying to climb ice in ill-fitting Army surplus crampons, once in an airplane, one in a hospital and so on. In each case nothing had flashed before my eyes and there was no epiphany to try to remember and learn from; I'd been just another drowning mammal. I fished on for a while after that, but I must have looked as cold as I was because finally Vince said, "OK, you're going back to the motel to get into some dry clothes." I thought about arguing in order to seem tough, but I didn't. Naturally, conditions on the river that week weren't right. (I say naturally because I've yet to go steelheading and have someone say, "Everything is perfect; you couldn't have picked a better time.") But even though the sky was too clear, the weather a bit too warm and the flow too low for March, the water temperature was right and fish were moving upstream. Steelhead are never easy to catch and these were harder than usual, but at least they were there. If you came to doubt that after hours of casting, you could drive to the bottom of the fly-only water and watch them vaulting a pretty waterfall at the approximate rate of a fish every 30 seconds. We talked to some other fishermen who allowed how things were slow. They said fish were dribbling in, but the main run hadn't arrived yet. Maybe if the sky clouded up the fish that were there would get a little more aggressive. Maybe it would rain soon and bump the river up, bringing in more steelhead. Maybe the fishing would be better in a couple more weeks. Two locals said they'd been out once or twice when time had permitted, but they were waiting for things to improve a little more before they'd ditch work to hit it hard. As tourists on something resembling a schedule, we didn't have that luxury. I remembered a guy we'd run into on the Salmon River in Idaho the first week of the previous October. He was our neighbor in the campground and we met when he warned us to keep our food stowed because a black bear had been sniffing around the last few nights. We said we'd be there for the week. He said he'd be there for the month of October and maybe part of November, depending on when the fishing got good. He struck me as the blue-collar version of Charles Ritz (the Ritz Hotel heir), who once said he refused to accept any invitation to go salmon fishing for less than a month because even on the best rivers at the best times of year, that's how long it could take to hit it right. We'd see this guy every once in a while, sometimes fishing, but more often driving around with his old yellow lab and a thermos of coffee, jawing with other fishermen. Back at camp, we'd exchange a few words, but he spent most of his evenings in a lawn chair peacefully staring into his fire. He wasn't at all unfriendly, just patiently self-contained: the very picture of a man with all the time in the world. Getting into fly-fishing for steelhead is like taking a vow of voluntary poverty. You know that even if you eventually get very good at it (not likely for someone who lives as far from steelhead water as I do) the good days will be few and far between and they'll be measured by a different standard than the one we lifelong trout fishers are used to. Even if you wait it out to the bitter end, the favorable pounds-of-fish-per-hours-of-casting ratio some fishermen aspire to just doesn't pan out with anadromous fish. This can keep you away from it for a long time, but eventually you may tumble out of curiosity. The experience is a little like your first sip of Dad's coffee as a curious 10-year-old: It's bitter and astringent and Dad grins as your face puckers, but then all too soon it becomes an acquired taste you can't live without. You fish as if working through each run smoothly and methodically were your only goal and you do it at a relaxed and steady pace, taking breaks when your concentration begins to wilt or when you fall in the river and have to dry out. I've heard it said by extreme types that you can't fish for steelhead casually, but actually that's the only way I can do it. Of course there's no point to deep thinking about fishing while you're actually fishing. In the last hours of a day without a strike, you're more likely to remember the old definition of a fisherman as "a jerk on one end of a line waiting for a jerk on the other end." You may now and then wonder what the hell you're doing there, although you can't quite think of anywhere else you'd rather be. Vince and I did each eventually land a steelhead. Mine came from a spot Bob had showed us on that first day. It was just a shallow dish in fast water that I'd have walked by without a second glance, but Bob had pointed out how it was the first place a steelhead could stop and catch its breath after running up an eighth of a mile of steep riffle, so it often held fish. It was a spot known to some, but not enough to have a trail of cleat marks leading to the obvious casting rock. The fish ate one of the flies Bill Black had given us that morning when we ran into him over breakfast in town. (Bill is a well-known local steelheader who makes a living selling flies, so you don't just take the fly to be polite; you also fish it.) These things were tied in the style that's getting popular now, with a cone head and a single hook dropped two and a half inches behind the eye on limp backing material. Their advantage is that they're good-size flies, but with short-shank hooks that are harder for a fish to throw, and of course they wiggle. (In the long history of fishing lures, things that wiggle have always been considered superior to things that don't.) I forget now exactly what these things are called-Intruders or Penetrators or something like that. I try to stay abreast of broad trends in the sport, but I guess I missed the moment when steelhead flies began to look and sound like sex toys. The fish took with one of those slow, current-speed pulls that could be your fly hanging on a rock, but isn't. Later Vince said the look of surprise on my face was profound, but I played and landed the fish expertly, which is to say, I didn't totally panic or fall in the river. It turned out to be a bright, wild 14-pound hen, all silver with just a blush of pink on the gill covers and still sporting the adipose fin that's clipped off on hatchery fish. She was fresh enough that she could still have had sea lice, but I didn't think to look until after I'd released her. As usual, it all happened so fast…