As most of you are already aware, the North Umpqua produced over a week of incredible dry fly fishing just as the Williams Creek Fire was getting started. Remember those cloudy, misty days a week or two ago? While you and I were shopping at the mall and mowing the yard, fly guides were wading lucky dudes and dudettes into amazing numbers of hot summers. All on top.
So what better time for me to plan a recon trip to the North Umpqua? It’s a guarantee that by the time a hot fishing report gets to us townies, it’s all over. And here I was arriving on the river as the east wind picked up and a heat wave was setting in. Stupid, right? But considering the fact that I never catch steelhead on the Umpqua, does it really matter when I go?
I pulled into Idleyld Store for some cocktail ice and a few last-minute items. As I walked inside, a large caravan of personnel carriers eased into the parking lot. The vehicles were marked “Chief Mountain Hotshots.” Soot-covered firefighters poured out of the trucks, lighting cigarettes, pulling out their cell phones and looking relieved. It was Friday evening after two weeks of hard work.
“What’s the latest?” I asked one of the hotshots.
“The fire is out!” he grinned. “It’s dead, and we killed it! Now it’s back to Montana.” There were shouts all around the store as guys picked snacks off the racks. This place was about to run out of ice, beer and Marlboros. I thanked the fine gentlemen from Montana, handed over a twelve pack of Corona to show I meant it, and got out of there while I still could. More of the crew was still arriving as I headed up river.
I passed Rock Creek, then Baker Wayside, then Susan Creek. Just east of Susan Creek Campground a huge sign warned that there would be no parking along the highway for the next ten miles–all the way to Steamboat Inn. That ten miles includes many of the most hallowed steelhead runs on planet earth. The idea that nobody would be able to park and fish the river through a peak-season summer weekend was hard to believe. But thanks to a tip-off from Jason that morning, I had a mountain bike!
As I progressed up the road, fire damage became increasingly apparent. The area surrounding Frank and Jeanne’s house seemed to be hit the hardest. Their place was spared, but looking around the canyon as I drove, I saw lots of scorched cliffs and dead trees along the North rim. In several places the fire had burned right down to the highway. The smoke got heavier around the Williams Creek turnoff, then dissipated as I moved toward Steamboat Creek. At Mott Bridge the air was clear, my favorite campsite was open, and it was time to go fishing. A few minutes later I was wading out on Sawtooth, skating a funky Woolly Bugger with a hitch, and remembering how to throw my little 6-weight Dredger. I worked my fly until it was streaming along the lip of the tail out. The day was over, and in the low light I was rewarded by a show of flying spring chinook. They seemed to be celebrating. I felt my way back to shore and walked back to camp, fantasizing about a big springer grabbing my skater and towing me around the pool all night.
Dinner in summer steelhead camp can drag on into the wee hours. You roll into camp around 9:30pm, pop a beer, pour a little whisky, and compare notes. A few snacks come out, a lantern is lit, another beer is popped. Around 10:30pm the crew gets really hungry. Everyone digs through their coolers holding up suggestions. Nobody wants to make a decision. A mass of ingredients is heaped on the camp table, and the sauced chef torches it all until it can be flopped on flimsy paper plates, grabbed with grubby hands and consumed. Our Neanderthal cousins would be proud. And before you know it, it’s 1:00 in the morning. Who’s setting the alarm?
I started each new day swinging Millionaire’s, a beautiful pool just above Mott Bridge. The light didn’t hit the tail out until about 9:30am, so it fit well with my 7:30am wake-up schedule. Once the light was on the water, a trip to the top of the bridge proved that there were plenty of fish in the river. Saturday I counted twenty steelhead holding right under the bridge. They were fresh fish in a variety of sizes. We hung over them and drooled. But the next day there was only one fish.
Saturday afternoon we took a mid-day trip up Steamboat Creek to see Lee Spencer. Lee is a source of great inspiration and insight for Umpqua steelheaders, providing unrivaled observances and opinions on the subtleties of steelhead behavior. He has enjoyed a long career fly fishing the North Umpqua, and clearly loves to fish. But his years of devotion and contemplation have led him to a gentler kind of fishing–something I once hear coined as “pointless fishing.” He breaks the hooks off his flies. Somehow he has even managed to land fish using his hookless method. He is a special kind of fishing guru, and spending time in his camp, marveling at the hundreds of wild steelhead suspended below, is a gift.
That night, Jason and I rode our bikes into the no-parking zone. Fishing was super slow, but Jason did manage to find a player in a classic tail out. I showed up well into the session and witnessed four big grabs, but the rascal never stuck. And that was day one.
Day two ended without any grabs, boils or yanks. And we fished hard, covering water from Soda Springs all the way down to the bait water. At dark we headed for camp. I fried up a heap of Captain Nate’s killer rockfish fillets and we ate fish tacos, sipping Hamms from a can. Another year, another beatdown. No big whoop.
If you want to book a guided trip on the N. Umpqua, call the shop.