Last weekend was to be my first scouting trip for fall chinook, only two weeks after saying farewell to North Coast springers. I relished the chance for three long, quiet days of unicorn hunting. No fish required. A study in low expectations, but sure to produce magic in some unexpected form.
Doctor Brad’s email came Wednesday morning. He knew what I was planning, and he wanted to tag along, do some camping, fish or no. I reluctantly agreed, happy for the company, but nervous about having to entertain anyone under such dismal odds. Then came an email from Sean, our “Third Amigo.”
“Let’s have a fish party! Should we take the sled?”
Game changed. How about three long, crazy days of fish-partying, complete with 72 beers, 10 packs of cigarettes, three cots, four fly poles, four gear rods, and enough flies and terminal tackle to maintain a small army? I was willing, but had my terms: I wanted to head for Gold Beach, taking advantage of the power-boat to explore every inch of the lower Rogue and estuary. The “suggestion” was met with mild trepidation, but my natural sales skills closed the deal tightly. Sean and Brad left Portland at 6:00pm Thursday evening, and by 9:00pm we were enjoying beers and burgers at the North Bank in Eugene.
Our dinner/planning session took many twists and turns as we filled our bellies. There was a lot of water between us and the Rogue, and we discussed all the possible stops along the way. Things were shaping up nicely until my third pint, when I had a dangerous epiphany. I can see now, looking back on the events that followed, it was the moment when our trip veered off the path of normalcy, into the wild unknown…
“You know, guys, we could be fishing for stripers in two hours. How about we head down to Reedsport tonight, fish all night, then head for the Rogue?” I’d been hoping to put in some time down there, and realized this was a rare chance.
Eyebrows began to furrow, but I sensed a deeper curiosity. I related a recent conversation I had with Oregon’s resident bass-master, Pete Heley. While I cannot reveal the tasty details, I can say that any angler would have been pumped up after my speech. Who wouldn’t want to try his hand at catching a 50-pound bass? Anyway, we soon found ourselves on the roller-coaster highway to Reedsport. We launched at 1:30am, clueless, aimless, and a little sleepy. Brad, in classic form, curled up on his cot and passed out. The best part was that his cot was still folded in half, and his position was late-stage fetal.
We motored slowly, poking around the mouths of sloughs, watching for hazards, and staying off the mud flats. We trolled, we casted, and we drifted, with no response. In the misty dark, our excitement wore off quickly. By 4:00am we were ready for sleep.
I woke to the sound of hushed voices and humming kickers, and poked my head above the gunwale. Our 20-foot Super Vee was anchored just 50 yards from the landing, positioned at the east end of a popular trolling channel. We had become a navigational buoy of sorts, marking the preferred turn-around spot for twenty or so boats working above the 101 bridge. Brad, loosely covered in his black sleeping bag, looked like a badly out-of-shape sea lion, perched high on the bow, spilling over his half-cot. Sean was reclined in the captain’s chair, neck bent backwards, mouth wide open. Both snored gently, and I imagined the cacophony that must have rung through the valley while I was still sleeping on the floor of the boat.
With both friends still sawing logs, and under the close surveillance of our fellow anglers, I raised the anchor, lit up the kicker, and started trolling with the outgoing tide into Winchester Bay. Sean stirred, then stretched, and was soon readying another trolling rod. We turned out of the Reedsport pool, then hugged the forested cliff-line pointing to the Big Bend. As we neared a line of pilings, a chinook jumped ahead of the boat. Then a nearby group hooked up. Whatever remaining interest we had in striped bass flew out the window. By the time the other boat landed their fish, we had passed the deep channel and entered a wide, sandy tailout. At the point where the depth went from 30- to 15-feet, a cluster of salmon popped up on the graph.
“There they are,” Sean advised, “Let’s get in there!”
We checked for bottom, came up a crank and rested our rods on the gunwale. Seconds later, I felt a mushy grab, followed by slow head-shakes. Disbelief fogged my mind for a moment. Brad woke up.
“Hey fellas, where are we?” he asked, rubbing his eyes.
“Good morning, Bradley! Want to grab the net for me?” I replied, line starting to peel from the reel.
His eyes widened as he looked up at the bent rod, then he shot into action. Sean took the helm just as our king salmon turned and charged the boat. The fish stopped right under the rod tip, giving no clue as to his size. I slowly lifted his head, and he rose easily, strangely docile. We exclaimed in unison as the big buck flashed beside the boat, showing a light olive back, mirror-like sides, and a distinguished kype. Brad made a half-hearted splash of the net, and the real fight was on. The salmon ran far and stayed there, seeming to getting stronger as the fight progressed. I savored every bit of it, reminding myself how rare these moments could be. Eventually the 70-degree bay water finally got the better of him. Brad made a decisive scoop and hoisted the fish into the hold. We estimated 25 pounds, but we didn’t really care. It was a gorgeous fish in every way, and it marked the beginning of another heavenly fall season.
Ken’s Rods & Reels
With a fish in the box, we pulled the boat and broke our fast. Smoked salmon, hash browns, fried onions and eggs over-easy. Lots of butter. We smoked a ciggy in the parking lot, reliving the morning’s comedy. As we loitered, we noticed a peculiar little shop across the street: Ken’s Rods & Reels. It had the authentic look of a great fishing shop–the kind where every age-old treasure comes with a story worth hearing. We walked over and peered inside, where Ken was haggling with a customer. All around the small room were classic rods and reels, some in parts, but most in seemingly perfect condition. Ken closed his sale, then came out to talk with us. I jumped at the chance to ask more questions about Umpqua stripers.
“Ken, could you offer any advice to some city boys who want to see a striped bass?” I asked.
“Well,” he teased, smiling, “how close do you want to get?” With that he dug out his cell phone. “Here’s a 61-pounder I got two weeks ago!”
We crowded the tiny screen, howling over the massive pin-striped fish. It was absolutely massive!
“It’s been a great year for stripers,” he said. “My son and I have caught a lot of fish. Hell, I lost about 20 of them until I switched to steel leaders!”
He regaled us with more incredible stories, then turned to his business. He rebuilt and restored dozens of classic rod and reel combos, and offered them at very fair prices. He went around the shop, picking up classic reels and telling their stories. For $150, we had the choice of several excellent combos, including a pristine Fenwick/Dam Quick that almost blew my utility bill for the month.
Attack of the Pelican
We descended into Wedderburn around noon, then drove up the south bank to our launch. The morning fog had just burned off and the wind was gathering, but conditions were still tolerable. I scanned the water at reach-of-tide, and it didn’t take long before I noticed rolling fish. We launched the sled and set about loading our gear. Sean was at the tiller when a brown pelican flew up to him and made an aggressive snap with his beak. Sean waved the bird off and it landed on the gravel near him. I remarked at how cool it was to see a pelican so close, but as I said it, I had a bad feeling about the bird. It looked upset, and it was staring at Sean.
Two times the pelican swooped down at Sean before Brad and I were loaded in the boat and ready to fish. It was easily waved off, but we noted that each attack came with more vigor. We motored a couple hundred yards upriver and started fishing. The pelican followed. Then it lighted on the gunwale and snapped its beak loudly, staring at each of us menacingly. I took up the net and warded off the bird. It disappeared for a few minutes, then came in low from a new angle. This happened repeatedly, every time ending in a ridiculous spread-eagle attack. We were laughing hysterically, even as the bird took shots at us. Soon I was meeting each approach with the net handle, hoping I could get it to stop, but each time he would return with more purpose.
During a lull in the mayhem, when none of us could spot the pelican, I tossed a lure toward a rolling salmon. The familiar brown shape came out of nowhere and plunged, and before I could do anything, I was tight to the bird. Its head was stuck underwater by the tension. I ripped hard on the rod, hoping the hook would pop out, but no luck. I gave him slack and he rose for a breath, then took flight. I could see the hook just barely hanging from his beak, so I tried again to pop it loose. Of course everything I did from then on was at the poor pelican’s expense, but he had no real friends in our boat. I weighed my choices, envisioning very bad scenarios involving us holding this creature while it opened its bladder and lower intestine all over us and the boat. I decided that was not going to happen, and my usual tree-hugging, empathetic posture was put on the shelf. I was determined to get that hook free before the bird touched our boat. On the next yank, the hook came free, but tagged his wing and stuck. The next yank, and the bird was free, scuttling off the nurse its wounds, but looking quite fit, all things considered.
We never took our eyes off that pelican while we were in the area, and had no other encounters. We hoped the pelican had learned a valuable lesson. But the next day we watched it attack another boat. It started the same way, with a seemingly harmless landing on the gunwale. The new victims didn’t think too much of it, though they did alert their giant dog, who flushed it off the rail. Then the nice people went back to their fishing, paying no attention to the pelican. Soon it was executing sneak-attacks, with no apparent fear for the big Rottweiler running after it. Before we left that afternoon, we heard the driver of the boat let out an angry “Ow!” and turned in time to see the pelican flapping around his head, and the dog going nuts. We laughed deeply for quite some time before hitting the road. Our 24 hours on the Rogue had been excellent. We caught up on sleep, explored some amazing water, and found some big groups of fresh chinook. Unfortunately, the fish were decidedly off the bite. In two full sessions of trolling we had not seen or heard of a fish caught, even as they frolicked around the boats. Before we left I found a space for fly casting. Fish were porpoising consistently, and no trollers entered the area. I spent an hour casting, swinging and stripping flies, and it felt right. Everything seemed perfect. I’m sure that’s what the other 100 boatmen thought as they weaved between jumping chinook, watching the sun set over a choppy ocean.
“These fish suck,” Sean announced. “Let’s go back to the Umpqua where the fish bite.”
Another night of Umpqua striper hunting was in order, followed by one last morning session of king-trolling.
Umpqua Stripers – What Not To Do
As we drove north to Reedsport we discussed our camping options. I wanted to find an island or inlet in Winchester Bay to set up a small camp, have a fire and cook dinner. We expected to sleep in the boat again rather than having to come up with an anchor system to mitigate tide swings. The guys were game for anything, so I motored us down the bay toward a spot I’d been eyeing. On the west end of a large island we found a perfect camping spot, and soon had a driftwood fire blazing. We cracked beers, watched the sunset and relived some of the highlights of the past couple days. Our pelican incidents provided plenty of humor in hindsight, as did the general antics of Dr. Brad, whatever he was doing. Some people are just naturally funny, and they make great camp fellows.
To me, camping on the banks of a river is a fundamental step toward knowing that river. It adds surprising depth to one’s connection with a place. So, I was beaming with excitement as we cleared a small patch of grass and arranged weathered old driftwood logs as benches. Our fire was way too hot for the mild weather, but the smell of alder and fir smoke seemed critical to the experience. As always, the wood smoke triggered an outpouring of memories and sentiments. I reveled in those memories as I watched the light fade in the western sky. The grand Umpqua estuary was as awe inspiring as any place I could think of, and I realized it was, by far, the most diverse fishery I had ever encountered. At that moment the waters before me were teeming with chinooks, sturgeon and stripers, along with untold numbers of smaller species that I would never know. I breathed deeply and felt at home.
The peace and quiet lasted a good hour before my Attention Deficit Disorder kicked in. A voice in my head said “Stripers!” Brad and Sean were not excited. They were very content to spend the night where we were. I pushed hard for another striper night. I just wanted to see one, or even hear one in the distance. Something to stir the flame.
My friends relented, and soon we were picking our way up the Smith River estuary, weaving through mud flats, doing our best to stay in the channel. It was slow going, even with a bright half moon behind us, but we broke through the flats and entered the first good pool. Just then I saw the flicker of a red light ahead. It looked like the navigational lights in the mainstem, and I mistook it for exactly that. I judged that it was safe to speed up a little, and as I did, the red light whizzed by me on the right, just a few yards off the gunwale! I instantly realized my mistake, and apologized profusely to the unfortunate anglers I had just buzzed. They didn’t reply, but just drifted away into the darkness.
Soon we found our destination, a place we had been steered to by several local anglers. We anchored on a drop-off, and sat back to await some kind of sign. The moon had dropped below our horizon and stars lit up the sky. There was a fire along the shore a half mile or so upriver, but we couldn’t make out any people. We stripped some flies and tossed some lures, but never saw a sign. Finally we stretched out on our cots and fell asleep to the silence of the river.
The next morning we trolled for salmon until the clouds burned off, then headed in. We trailered the boat and pulled into the massive overflow parking area behind Rainbow Plaza. A lone man watched us curiously. He seemed to be standing in his pajamas, scratching his head, squinting in the bright light, and looking like he needed to say something. I walked over and said “Hello.”
I knew immediately that this was the guy I had almost run over the night before. I asked if that was the case, and he humbly nodded.
“Yeah…you know, you guys kinda blew it for the rest of us last night.”
I had a sinking feeling as he slowly explained the damage our little excursion had caused this kind fellow.
“Me and another guy had worked two hours to set things up,” he explained. “We had our fish schooled up and feeding, and were drifting up to them, when you guys motored in and scattered them.”
He went on to explain the difficult task of hunting big stripers, and asked us, quite nicely, to make sure we got into our spots before dark next time. And stay there.
“If you’re gonna move, use an electric motor,” he pleaded. “Otherwise you really screw everyone.”
He accepted my apology and we shook hands. I cataloged the new information, and walked back to the car one hell of a lot wiser.