It’s my third spring season on the big Umpqua, but it might as well be my first. Until this spring I was a dabbler, making one or two trips, gambling on water conditions, and feeling generally overwhelmed and under equipped. Last season was a total bust, and after three fruitless trips, I had pretty well decided I would need to step up to a sled to do the river any justice. This April I got serious, poring over maps, scouting every possible access point, and studying where other anglers put in their effort. Finally, on my second trip, something clicked into place. I worked out a comfortable ten mile drift, I found where all the power boats were hiding out, and, most exciting of all, I found some big-money swing water. The locals were amused, especially when they saw the Spey rod. They immediately determined I was no threat to anyone, and they were generous with moral support and information. I did scare the shit out of a number of anglers, as I could drift into a lineup silently, and already have my gear and anchor out before they noticed my presence. One old guy turned around to take a piss off the back of his sled and nearly jump out of his skin. “Holy crap, you snuck right up on me!”
My fishing program was simple, and satisfying: 1) backtroll K-16 Kwikfish through the sweetest lines along the river’s edge, anchoring in a few sexy looking travel-lanes and hog-lines; and 2) swing the big-money water through the mid-day hours, when most anchor fishermen had already split. The best fly water was six miles below my launch, so no matter how crowded the river might be, I was guaranteed plenty of good back-trolling before settling into my lunch-time swing sessions. The late afternoon was whittled away exploring the last few miles, then rowing through the final mile of flatwater before the takeout.
The first run was tough. A steady upstream wind made each mile a chore, and I spent more time rowing than fishing. The second trip was better, with perfect, drizzly weather and smooth drifting down the incredibly long runs and pools. That second day I had several tugs on my fly, though I suspected cutthroat. And I hooked my first springer of the season on the old “Double Trouble” kwikie. I had just anchored in a line of boats, noticing an obvious travel lane that was unmanned. As I slowly backed my plug into the slot, I felt a serious grab. Line peeled as a gorgeous springer thrashed, then charged across the surface. I pulled anchor with one hand, then traded off arms between my rod and the oars, allowing me to slide into the shoreline as I drifted down with the fish. In a couple of minutes the fish came to the boat, still very green, and refused to run. It rested under the boat, forcing me to lift its head and make a couple of futile attempts at grabbing its tail. The strong hen frothed violently, jerking her head against the hook until each prong came out, one head-shake at a time. When it was over, I rowed back up into the lineup and took my lumps from the crowd. “Whadja fergit yer net?” Nope, left it at home, purposefully. And for the last time.
Cichy joined me for my third float. It was great to have some company, and to have a second rod out for plugging. At the ramp we found ourselves launching right next to Dean Finnerty and Frank Moore. We exchanged hugs, shot the shit, then wished each other best of luck. With that little blessing, the day felt extremely fishy, and in our first pass through our first run, we both hooked fish. Mine didn’t stick, but Jason landed a dime-bright hatchery fish, his first ever on a gear rod. I thanked the fish gods, and scratched a notch in my oar for corrupting yet another innocent flyfisher. “Join me, Luke. Feel the power of the Dark Side!”
At mid-day we pulled into the hallowed corner that begs for a Spey pole. We split up the run, Jason taking the lowest 100 yards. I walked in well above him and found my T-17 rhythm. The swings were luscious, slowing to a crawl as they neared the bank. I was feeling it. Something was about to happen. The swings were too good, the water was too good. I had those butterflies you get when you absolutely know you are in the zone. As my fly crossed a boulder patch, I literally willed a fish toward my fly, and there he was. Solid yank, line peeling off the reel, oh my God it actually happened! And then the let down, as a sad looking kelt broke the surface. The jet fuel that had shot into my veins burned up like a match as I reeled in the shabby old hatchery buck. He had a certain “Night of the Living Dead” look that made Jason and I reluctant to touch him. But my nasty double hook was firmly lodged in the corner of his mouth, refusing to shake free.
After releasing the zombie, we made another pass through the fly water, but no dice. They day was winding down, and we pushed through the rapids and into the final stretch, then homeward. The day ended with one fish landed, four lost, all on plugs. We didn’t count the “rifle barrel.”
I spent the next day alone, rowing my arms off, becoming more comfortable and familiar with the subtleties of the mighty river. Around ten o’ clock I pulled into my little travel lane in the hog-line, the site of my first hookup the week before. “Didja remember yer net this time? Heh, heh, heh!!” I showed off my giant, shiny new net, and there was silence. Maybe even a little envy. I sat with those old codgers for 90 minutes, staring down the tip of my rod like a complete psycho. And just as I was giving up hope, wondering why a fish would hit my plug, out of the dozen or so lines dangling, my rod flattened out. It was a big one. I could feel every head-shake.
The fish took me a couple hundred yards downstream before tiring. Netting it alone was a chore. But I pulled it in the boat and let out a cheer that could be heard for miles.