My quest for North Umpqua chrome continued last weekend, this time with the help of an experienced young steelheader named Rob Kirschner. He was determined to guide me into a fish, and our first morning was a greatest-hits tour of the lower river. When North Umpqua steelheaders say “lower river,” they’re usually referring to the water from Wright Creek to Rock Creek, still 100-plus miles from tidewater. That’s weird, but I can get with the program. When in The Valley…
Rob knows the river, and he’s racked up a lot of fish in his relatively short Umpqua career. A longtime Clearwater steelheader, he credits others for his Umpqua knowledge, including Lee Spencer. But he owns it now, and he’s an excellent guide’s guide. Rob’s a muddler guy, and his confidence is contagious. We started low in the river, and we both felt the anticipation as I worked through an incredible tailout. No dice. Then a quick drive to the next “money” spot. Again, nothing, but great scenery and sweet skating.
Our third spot was a small, unassuming riffle between two pools. It had the look. Being a gentleman, Rob offered it up, but I insisted he fish it. On his second or third swing he got railed, but it didn’t connect. He waved me over anxiously. I gave him the bird. “Catch the $%^& fish, dude.” He didn’t take much convincing.
Pow! His Burkie doubled over and his Marquis screamed. I stupidly called out “Nice fish!” thinking it had to be a bruiser. Hot, yes. Large, no. But what a fighter!
“That should have been your fish,” he said with a smile. Not a chance, buddy!
With a fish to the bank, it was time for biscuits and gravy in Idylyld, topped with a 1/4 pound smoked sausage for added rib-sticking power. Rob chugged a Rockstar and dug into one of the Idylyld Store’s gigantic breakfast burritos.
With that out of the way, we fished our butts off until dinner time, but no grabs. Our friends Jason and Ed had fished the upper river all day without a sniff. Poor Jason was crestfallen. You know you’re spoiled rotten when you complain about a fishless morning on the Umpqua. Jeez, man. Pull it together! That kinda punk-ass attitude is hard to take since I’m eleven years into a skunking!
The evening was equally slow, and soon we were huddled in front of an electric campfire, sipping beers, swapping stories, and passing the guitar around. There were no mosquitoes, a brilliant waxing moon, and an ocean of stars. Ed nodded off in his chair for the second night in a row.
Rob and I repeated our lower river program on day two, but Scott Howell was parked in the magic spot this time. We went down to Famous and The Flats, then jumped back to Baker. A whole bunch of nothing, not even a trout. We hit the store for another breakfast break, then explored the “upper river.” It was my first time in Frankie’s and Pat Lee’s, both of which were religious experiences. Spring chinook frolicked in both spots, making me feel very much at home. I even switched out to a mega-tip and dredged the deep water, in case a chrome steelie was hanging in the salmon water.
We snuck into Pinky’s, which usually doles out a few nice trout, but I was drawing blanks everywhere. Rob took off to be with his wife and child, and soon Jason, Ed and I were sharing a long run. The light was low, the water shaded. It was social steelheading at it’s best, and while were were talking, Ed’s muddler got drilled and spit out. A few minutes later he stuck another fish on his change-up fly. Ed was about 75 feet upstream of me, which placed his fish a couple of arm lengths away. I watched it go into a death-twist, flashing and yanking on his fly. A second later Ed’s line went dead. He pulled in the fly and exclaimed “Look what that fish did to my fly!”
The hook was bent, twisted and straightened, all at once. Awesome! Then Jason got a bump, his only of the weekend. Poor fella. I approached the choicest part of the run, the last several swings at the end of a broad tailout. I felt like it was about to happen. My body was tense. I was in the zone. But the light faded and was gone.
It was a quiet ride back to Eugene, all of us exhausted. We reflected on the weekend, another satisfying pilgrimage to the hallowed waters of the North Umpqua. I had added a long list of named pools to my list of favorites, and I was starting to see the forest through the trees. It occurred to me that it was time to go back alone and have a one-on-one with the rivers. Time to take off the training wheels.