North Umpqua Summer Steelhead Report

Having just returned from a 3-day, marathon fishing-trip to the North Umpqua, I wanted to share what I learned. Get ready, folks, this will be shocking.

This internationally famed Oregon River is reputed to host runs of summer and winter steelhead, catchable on flies. I suspect that this rumor is of questionable substance. The run of summer and winter steelhead to the North Umpqua is probably around twenty-seven steelhead, total. The fish-counts at Winchester are mostly a fabrication to create the impression that it might actually be possible to catch one.

Caption: North Umpqua tailout. Note two dozen “faux” steelhead placed around rocks by Umpqua Fly Guides Association in order to maintain client enthusiasm.
Jay Nicholas' N. Umpqua trip

The North Umpqua is still a beautiful river and a great place to test inflatable life jackets and waterproof fly boxes. Clever fly-fishing guides place steelhead “decoys” underwater in strategically located tailouts to motivate their clients, creating an illusion that Steelhead live in the river. “Faux” steelhead are typically placed in areas where guide-clients can view them from roadside pullouts. This is a tactic to increase sales of Polaroid glasses and binoculars. Most photos of fly anglers releasing steelhead in the North Umpqua have been staged on the South Santiam, hoping to increase occupancy rates in local motels and sell more fly fishing gear.

The North Umpqua River is mostly populated by “Pogies”. A future article will feature research conducted on this fascinating and furtive fish. Pogies will splash at steelhead flies and even tug on one’s line, enhancing the fantasy of hooking a real steelhead on a fly. Pogies have been known to attach small alder trees to an angler’s fly line, thus creating the impression of a monster steelhead screaming off downstream, taking line and backing through the next three pools. No one knows what motivates or rewards these Pogies. Better not ask, I think.

A list of fly fishing products supported almost solely by the North Umpqua Steelhead “legend” includes armpit-high Gore-Tex waders; cleated, felt-soled boots; Shortie vests; Polaroid glasses; wading staffs; snake-bite kits; Poison Oak creams; and October Caddis Skaters. Lately, the most prominent product line supported by the North Umpqua is: (surprise-surprise) Spey rods, Spey reels, and Spey lines – by the shopping cart-load.

Caption: Steamboat Inn caries a deeper stock in Poison Oak cream than in steelhead flies. This should tell you something.
Jay Nicholas' N. Umpqua trip

It is little known (but true) that several Orthopedic Clinics in Eugene are supported almost entirely by knee, shoulder, back, rib, wrist, and collarbone surgery – all for fly fishers injured by falling off the highway while scouting for steelhead on the North Umpqua.

Caption: Note tell-tale sign of wading cleats sliding across the surface of rock that is harder than diamond. There is a 300 foot cliff below this rock — let’s just hope the poor devil fell into the river and didn’t bust his Spey Rod.
Jay Nicholas' N. Umpqua trip

Getting to the point – I fished hard for three evenings and three mornings. I Spey fished my guts out. I mended my mends and twitched my twitches. I went swimming three times. One camera is definitely not waterproof. I hurt all over. I found a place where I could fall and crack my butt on one rock and jam my kidneys into another. Repeatedly.

Caption: Two-and-a-half days without a tug. Fell in river 3 times already. Sore. Tired. Must have Coffee.
Jay Nicholas' N. Umpqua trip

On the third morning, at 9 AM, I got the tug. Not just a tug, actually, a MONSTER, ker-sploosh and eat-it grab. All the time I had invested, all the pain, the tackle, the practice casting, and the fly-tying – all of it came together in a blinding flash of joy. A magnificent fight took place and I released the giant fish. I was lucky enough to snap a photo of the release.

Now, in spite of the truth, I am hooked for life; I am mesmerized by the legend of the North Umpqua. No matter what it takes, no matter how long, no matter how much more tackle I must buy – I’m hooked. Steelhead crazy, ya might say.

Caption: North Umpqua Summer Steelhead. This fish took a secret skated-fly on Day-3 and was released unharmed.
Jay Nicholas' N. Umpqua trip


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17 Responses to North Umpqua Summer Steelhead Report

  1. Chris says:

    Jay, great story as usual, 6 or 8 more trips just like that one and you will get your fish. Not to worry!

  2. David Jensen says:

    Great report, with much truth! I first went to Steamboat in 1966 for Thanksgiving dinner with then owner Frank Moore’s family. The lodge was closed; it was a neighbor deal, and I was a friend of the neighbors. I didn’t fish then, but loved the place. Started fishing there in the ’80’s. Like the Red Sox, the tie gets closer each year.

    After Frank sold to Jim and Sharon Van Loan, thinks changed. The food has become incredible. The angling remains world class in challenge and in wild big fish.

    I got married there in 1993. This was an unintended stroke of brilliance, because my wife thinks it is great that I return so often. The poison oak, the cuts, the sprains are nothing. The river and the lodge are as good as it gets.

  3. jay nicholas says:

    Chris and David – , I am glad you enjoyed the North Umpqua report. Truth is, I did spend 3 evenings and 3 mornings on the North. Truth is i did go swimming 3 times. Truth is i did fall and crack my posterior repeatedly, and was tired, and needed coffee, and bush-whacked through vast groves of Poison Oak.

    And yes, on the third morning, the river did reward me with a most beautiful wild steelhead that romped my Muddler. My non-waterproof camera, however, failed to cooperate as I released the fish.

    So, all funny business aside, I am planning my next trip already. Heck, another twenty-two days on the water might produce my second North Umpqua steelhead?


  4. mark says:

    One fish in three days fishing on the Umpqua. Sounds about right…..

  5. Twenty five years ago, I tired of the ease Steelhead came to the hook on California’s Feather River and Klamath tailout (had some water flowing in those days). I decided to try the Umpqua NF, for years having read the reverent odes, paid to the legendary “finishing school” by outdoors writers.
    I parked my family at the Susan Creek campground and marched to the small falls and pool below the camp. After several casts, I landed and released a four pound specimen on a tinsel bodied fly, floating line and Bamboo rod (classic waters demand classic gear I think). I lost another fish, then quickly landed a twin to the first. “This is easy” I said, walking back to my camp.
    I have never landed another fish from that river .
    Yes, a monumental battle or two over the years, but always, the result; a chargrined angler on shore and laughing waters before him.
    I’ve concentrated on the Mott Trail area for the 5 or 6 subsequent trips to the river and admire the wading skills of those reaching the mid-stream ledges, but question the ethics of dredging the slots between them, repeatedly. The “Territorial Imperative” in all its ugliness, as yuppies homestead a productive run, has been un-nerving at times.
    I don’t remember the poison oak at all, but the Blackberries, ah – the Blackberries, worth the drive themselves!
    I love your river,

  6. Jeff Calkins says:

    I love fire season on the north umpqua. The apple creek fire was a great year, no tourist, just good rested fish. A little smokey, but this should be anouther nice quiet productive year on the river for those who venture out.

    PS: Please stay home to avoid the fires

  7. Dan says:

    Sure enjoyed the story….but I’m a results-oriented guy who loves to catch steelhead…and I could give a rip if they’re native, hatchery, hatch-box…or out of a test tube for all I care!
    I first fished the North in 1989, and, with a run in excess of 23,000 summer steelhead, it was evident that the combination of a good hatchery program, healthy hatch boxes on feeder creeks, and apparently favorable ocean conditions combined to make it the stuff of legends.
    I’ve been hopeful ever since, but, with the Feds involved and this push for only native fish, my hopes of enjoying what should be a wonderful fish resource that capitalizes on the monumental efforts we’ve made in terms of water quality and streamside habitat, coupled with the technology in place to produce runs of fish of staggering numbers, well, let’s just say that it’s no longer worth the 2 hr drive, the tackle expense, or the time.
    How I miss the thrill of the North Umpqua summer runs!

  8. Rob R says:


    You seem like a great guy, but your faith in hatcheries is bewildering to me. Lucky for you the Rogue is full of swimming hot dogs for you to stack in your cooler. I love to kill and eat fish, too, so I can empathize.

    But the North Umpqua has a phenominal run of native steelhead, and placing the stress of a hatchery program on top of a healthy wild fishery is a recipe for failure.

    It’s nothing short of greed to demand more of a river than she can procure. So if we blame “the feds” or anyone else for failing to meet the consumptive demands of a growing population, we are disoriented. Time to re-shuffle priorities so our grandkids can enjoy steelhead and salmon fishing in their own time.

    I beg you to have more consideration and faith in Mother Oregon and her steelhead, and give it another try. If you’re a steelheader, you can handle some tough days, looking forward to the productive ones.

    Best regards,


  9. Delay says:

    I was planning to meet my cousin in the fall for some steelheading on the north upqua.
    It sounds as though I might need to try another river with a better wild fish population.

  10. Matthew Kirk says:

    My results differ slightly. Up until recently I was into them heavy on the N.U. One a weekend for three weekends. The action has quieted down a bit lately, though. I’m 0 for 2, on my last trips. A total of 3 1/2 days.

  11. Matthew Kirk says:

    Also, I have never fallen in.

  12. james says:

    sorry we must have caught all the steelies down river. sorry for your luck cause i had a great winter several days of multiple fish from the bank. one day between 3 of us landed 12 chromers an lost countless more. never expect to catch when other are, its fishing not catching.

  13. Jeff Dose says:

    Hi, Jay. Sorry you didn’t do better, but, as you know, that’s fishing. The return of StS is very low this year, mostly due to really warm water and bad ocean conditions in 2015 when these fish outmigrated. There are certainly more than 27 fish over Winchester, probably more like 2,000. I’ve been looking at the videos from the ladder, and there are more steelhead “jacks” than I have ever seen, they went out during better migration and ocean conditions. Also, your picture sure looks like a chinook…..

    Take care, give me a holler if you get down this way again.


  14. Jeff Dose says:

    Great piece, Jay. I got a good laugh, not at your travails on the river – we’ve all been there – but really, Pogies? decoys? a stuffed chinook? Take care and better luck next time.

  15. Oregon Fly Fishing Blog says:

    Yes Jeff. A stuffed Chinook. Maybe next time indeed. Hope this finds you well. JN

  16. Oregon Fly Fishing Blog says:

    Hey Jeff, nice to hear from you always and my very best to you. JN

  17. David Nelson says:

    myself and frank napoli flew out from the east coast and fished the Klickitat and deschutes for many many days (had success) and then the the NU….. spent 4 full glorious days doing all of the OP’s above scenarios….got a small cutty on a muddler and a larger cutty on a wet fly….both fish were right off the creators palette…this was my second year on the NU and hope to make it a lifetime event…most beautiful river ever to fish …could care less about the skunking..Im a steelheader ..its about the possibility of the next grab…will go for the rest of my life hoping for my first …then maybe another


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