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Wells: Steelhead Run

When I visited Steamboat Springs, Oregon, with Ole Miss alum, P.D. Fyke, brother of Oxford vet Dr. Harry Fyke, I wasn’t planning to write an article but this story ambushed me when I accidentally caught a steelhead. I’d just learned how to flycast the day before and had no business hooking this big boy.

For two more days, Fyke continued fly fishing–but me, I was fishing for a story. I found out that Zane Grey had fished that same stretch of river and was notorious for sending his Japanese cook to claim fishing holes upriver. A fishing guide told me that Zane Grey’s son had fished there and gave me contact info. I interviewed Dr. Loren Grey by telephone. An avid conservationist like his father before him, Grey allowed me to quote from his father’s writings.

In case the readers haven’t had the pleasure, a 10-pound steelhead pulls like a 20-pound king mackerel, but on light tackle this feels something like Barry Hannah’s (claim of) hooking a streetcar in New Orleans with a bass plug. – LW

Guide Tim Caine and P.D. Fyke fishing for steelhead on the north Umpqua River.


Written and photographed by Larry Wells

(First published in Southwest Airlines “Spirit” Magazine, June 1996)

“It ought to be a guarantee that I am honest and sincere about this noble river, practically unknown to the world, when I confess that I have given up the Rogue, and the fishing lodges I own at Winkle Bar on the most beautiful and isolated stretch, to camp and fish and dream and rest beside the green-rushing, singing Umpqua.” ZANE GREY

Our guide Tim Caine arrives at 6 sharp, country rock playing on his jeep radio. “There’s coffee and muffins on the back seat if you want ‘em.” He’s in his late twenties, lean, tanned, a fish charmer who enjoys his work. By six-thirty the mist over the river has disappeared and the Douglas firs on the tops of the ridges are framed in golden light. Standing on the steep boulder-strewn banks with my fishing compadre, P.D. Fyke, I make out a ghostly shape in the clear water. “That’s steelhead,” says Tim. It takes an experienced eye to spot the fish under the foamy, rippling surface. The steelhead rolls on its side, and a bullet-shape flashes silver in the green water.

Tim and P.D. are sliding down the steep bank like mountain goats, fly-rods in hand. I follow, clinging to rocks and descending a step at a time. Decked out in waders, boots and hats, we enter the river cautiously. After a few hours our rubber “skin” feels quite natural. The fabled North Umpqua is known far and wide as the finishing school for fly-casters, but I’m just starting kindergarten.

Fly fishing on the North Umpqua where Zane Grey fished.

“Any chance I’ll catch a fish on my first day?” I ask.

“Shhh, the fish might hear you,” says Caine.

Tim positions P.D., a competent flycaster, above the steelhead so that his flies will drift down over the fish. Balanced on a boulder just under the water’s surface, with tons of water sweeping past him every second, Fyke starts casting, his line looping slowly back behind him, then snapping forward in a rolling yellow arc. The challenge in surface fishing is to “raise” the fish to the fly, to tempt it to leave the bottom and strike.

“You must learn where to look for steelhead. They favor swift water at the head of rapids or at the foot. They like eddies behind rocks, and deep places under ledges, and clean gravelly bars.” ZANE GREY

Cousin to the Pacific salmon, the sea-running steelhead migrate upstream some 170 miles to get here. They are somewhere behind boulders, facing upstream into the fast-running, oxygen-rich water, resting up between rapids. Considered by many the greatest fighting fish in the world, the steelhead has the distinction of surviving its spawn unlike the salmon which dies after breeding. A percentage of the steelheads, the strongest, return to the ocean.

“These are the genetically pure fish you want to see coming back, year after year,” Caine observes.

He begins to mold my casting technique efficiently and cheerfully, considering the clay he has to work with. Fly-casting is as different from spin-casting as snow skiing is from water skiing. With the proper instruction, however, one can pick up some basic strokes — overhead, punch, roll and angle casts — in half an hour of (very) patient instruction.

During the cast the fly-rod should remain within the “ten to two o’clock” range. The beginner pulls the line taut on the water, lifts the rod sharply, snaps it back to “two o’clock” while the line loops in the air some thirty feet behind him, then punches the rod forward and stops it suddenly as if hammering a nail. The loop unfolds; the fly whizzes out and settles on the water; the line bends with the surface flow; and after a moment one “mends” his line, flipping it upstream so that the fly drifts downriver unimpeded.

“His fly gleamed like a spark of gold in the sun. It shot out and back, forward and back, and his line seemed to weave, to undulate, to sweep up in a great curve, and at last stretch out low over the water, to drop the deceiving wisp of feathers like thistledown.” ZANE GREY

The Athapascan Indians named this river Umpqua, “Thunder Water.” It is located on the west slope of the Cascades in Southern Oregon, the only steelhead river that begins and ends in the same county. Fishermen have been coming here for generations. Among the most celebrated visitors was western writer Zane Grey, as proud of his fly-fishing as he was of his best-selling western novels.

In the early 1930s Grey would camp for weeks on the Umpqua with his sons, Loren and Romer. “Outside of Canada,” he wrote, “there is no stream in the United States that can hold a candle to the Umpqua for wet or dry fly-fishing.”

Dr. Loren Grey, 79, a retired psychology professor, agrees with his father: “I’ve fished many rivers all over the world, and I still think the Umpqua is the greatest, mostly because it’s a summer run, and on the upper river it’s tough to wade and there aren’t that many fish. But when you do get one, they practically pull your arm off.”

P.D. Fyke stalking the wily steelhead.

Grey’s first summer on the Umpqua, 1935, produced the best fishing he ever experienced there. “I caught one hundred steelhead in two months. We had a smokehouse going twenty-four hours a day.” This was in the days, he is quick to point out, before the “catch and release” conservation program, which was started after WWII.

“We spent two summers camping across the river where it joins Williams Creek. It was a nice level ‘bench’ with few trees. Pa built platforms to erect tents and a cook shed. When the forestry service took over the land, they asked me if I wanted to do anything with the shed. I said no, because I didn’t stay there any more. They tore the rotted platforms down and the shed, but you can still find old pots and sections of bedsprings.”

We have gone downstream looking for fish in the “runs” or pools between the rapids. Caine takes me down to a “run” called The Ledges, so named by Zane Grey himself. Here, the North Umpqua courses beneath steep forested slopes, white rapids boiling into blue-green pools. I am fishing where the immortals fished, in surroundings so beautiful they sear the memory. The river is pulling at my boots as I step onto a submerged boulder and try to cast out far enough for a good drift.

“The Umpqua is the most dangerous river to wade, and therefore to fish, that I know this side of Canada. In June it is high, swift, heavy and cold. It would be bad for any fisherman to slip in. And the rocks are more slippery than slippery elm! July it begins to drop, half an inch a day, and by August you can reach most of the water.” ZANE GREY

As a fisherman, the famed writer of westerns, according to oldtimers along the river, was not universally admired. There are stories of him staking out the best runs and stationing guards to keep other fishermen out. (In fly-fishing etiquette, the first man on a run gets to fish it.) Grey reportedly had a temper and could be blunt in dealing with guides and anglers.

“Yeah, some people thought he was a son of a bitch,” says an experienced Umpqua angler as he ties a fly on his line (the knot is perfect, fly-fishermen being perfectionists), “but he was a great character and sportsman who attracted attention to the sport of fly-fishing, and was ahead of his time in alerting the public to the vanishing wilderness.”

A literary reputation didn’t count for much on the North Umpqua, where all men were equal. A mountain man used to plain dealing might be put off by Grey’s celebrityhood, his entourage and fancy equipment. The locals adamantly refused to name a pool on the river in his honor and, instead, named one after his Japanese cook, George Takahashi.

“A good angler with the fly, especially the dry fly, can spend all day in a hundred-yard stretch of water. It is obvious that only a fish hog, or an unthinking fisherman, will go down the river, spoiling all the water for others who start in behind him.” ZANE GREY

Loren Grey defends his father, admitting that he was not always tactful and sometimes let his enthusiasm get the better of him. “I don’t think he ever chased anybody off,” he says, “but he did, sometimes on that side of the river above Williams Creek, send one of the people who worked for him up there ahead of time to make sure the hole was open.” He questions the legends about his father’s excesses, adding, “I think these stories get embellished as the years go by. Don’t forget that my father was an outspoken conservationist, which irritated some of the local people who wanted to develop property along the river for their own ends.”

“The people of Oregon, and more especially, those who live on or near the Umpqua, are as a whole deaf and dumb and blind to the marvelous good of this river, and if they do not wake up, its virtue and beauty and health will be lost to them.” ZANE GREY

Seventy steelhead waiting to spawn in Steamboat Creek.

Just upriver from where Zane Grey’s camp was located is the Steamboat Inn, which has a first class restaurant and cabins for fishermen and rafters. Frank Moore, 72, ex-manager of the Inn and undisputed dean of Umpqua guides, has devoted his life to steelhead fishing and conservationism. His career spans nearly half a century, beginning right after WWII. “In those days the fishing was much better,” he recalls, “because all the fish were wild, big ones, great fighting fish, typically ten pounds larger than what you find today.” Hatchery fish are regularly released to augment the fishing, and over the years the interbreeding of hatchery and wild fish has resulted in a declining gene pool for the steelhead.

Tourism, a major industry along the Umpqua, often comes head to head with lumbering. As a former director of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, Moore is dedicated to keeping the Douglas fir trees intact on either side of the spawning tributaries. “The trees shade the water and keep it cool,” he explains. “If the water temperature gets too high, the fish will stop coming there to spawn, and that’s the end of the steelhead in this area.” He has seen this happen in Idaho and other steelhead spawning grounds and is fighting to end clear-cutting along the creeks and streams that flow into the Umpqua.

My fly rides the current drowsily, effortlessly. The sun is reflected off the rapids like a moving spotlight. The steelhead could be resting in front of a boulder that parts the current or in the shadows beneath a rocky ledge. They are very still, these watery ghosts. The fly-caster’s job is to tease, to titillate, to tantalize, to tempt the steelhead; failing that, to irritate, to challenge, to arouse the fury of a fighting fish.

“They can smell you fifty feet away,” a bar patron confides to me one night at a downriver tavern. “The grease on your skin gets on your fly and the line, and if it don’t smell right to the steelies you ain’t gonna catch ‘em. That’s why two fellas can be standing right next to each other, using the same flies, the same weight line, and one can catch two or three and the other don’t get a nibble. Rinse your hands with lemon juice to take away your scent. That’ll improve your chances.”

“Bull,” Tim opines, putting on a new fly and hooking his fingers under his wader straps.

“Stick a pig,” he says, adding, “We never say ‘Break a leg,’ not on this river.”

“The run of a bonefish, after he is hooked, is certainly great, but the strike of a steelhead is all run. You have no choice but to run yourself.” ZANE GREY

P.D. Fyke and Larry Wells suited up for a day's fishing.
P.D. Fyke and Larry Wells suited up for a day’s fishing.

The strike comes at a moment when I am all but hypnotized by the sunlight on the water. The rod doubles over. I feel a solid weight going the other way.

“Keep your tip up!” Caine yells. “Don’t reel too fast, let him take line when he wants to. He’s going to run and nothing you can do will stop him.”

To be standing waist deep in the river (fish level) with a seven ounce rod and a steelhead well hooked is like fighting the school bully with your pants down. The river is this bully’s playground and recess belongs to him. With Caine calling encouragingly I hang on and let the steelhead run. Line is zinging out, the reel humming and spinning. It runs a dozen times, at least, even jumping on cue. P.D. Fyke is filming the mismatch with his cam-corder, but I don’t have time to worry about that. I glimpse a silvery shape under the water and am shocked at how big it is. “It’s over 36 inches long,” Tim says (quite calmly, it seems to me), “and maybe ten pounds.” After playing the fish for about fifteen minutes, I gradually reel in the exhausted steelhead. Caine reaches for the line and gently pulls it to the surface. It is not silver in the light but pinkish, with brown speckles, a lovely creature built for speed. I am told they can swim fifty miles upstream in a day. My steelie does not gasp or flip but awaits its fate with equanimity. Does it know we’re going to release it? Tim doesn’t let it get all the way out of the water, but carefully detaches the hook and lowers it back into the water where it comes to life instantly, disappearing into the ice-cold river with a powerful swish of its tail.

Every muscle in my body is throbbing. I can barely grip the rod. Fly-casting may not be a contact sport but it’s not as laid back as it appears. A day’s fishing is good exercise when you factor in climbing the steep banks and balancing on submerged boulders and wading against the current. I notice with some pride that my left index finger is bruised, having been thumped by the reel handle when the steelhead was running. I am a friend of the Umpqua. I know something of its power and beauty, of the sunlight playing on the rocky bottom. I have a respect for land and water and fish that I did not have before.

“If moments could be wholly all-satisfying with thrills and starts, and dreads and hopes, and vague, deep, full sense of the wild beauty of environment, and the vain boyish joy in showing my comrades my luck and my skill–if any moments of life could utterly satisfy, I experienced them then.” ZANE GREY

Dean of fly fishing on the North Umpqua Frank Moore

Frank Moore takes us up to the spawning grounds in Steamboat Creek. Fishing is not allowed on the tributaries though poachers occasionally assault the steelhead when they are most vulnerable, catching them with spinning rods or even dynamiting the holding pools. Moore once caught two poachers with seventy steelhead in their truck. He arrested them and radioed for the state troopers to take them to jail.

“Did they give you any trouble?” I ask.

“Not a bit,” he says, grinning. This is a man who used to run deer down on foot, not to harm them, just for exercise. We fall silent. The steelies, some 200 of them, wait in the pool, loosely schooled and facing upstream, as patient as rocks. Arranged in layers from two feet below the surface down to ten feet, they slowly mill about. They’ve run out of river. One or two will rise and suddenly leap up as if seeking one more waterfall to jump, then plunge back into the water with a mighty splash that echoes off the cliffs. Some of them have been here since June. They will wait until January when the spawning begins, just wait for months in this one pool with the wind in the firs, the flies buzzing over the water, half-hibernating, resting until it is time for them to renew the cycle.

If the North Umpqua is the sanctuary of fly-fishing, then Steamboat Creek, along with its sister tributaries, is surely the altar. We quietly admire the school of steelheads suspended in time. “We don’t know everything,” says Moore, “that makes this old world tick.”

Somewhere down on the Umpqua, steelhead are on the move. It’s time to put on the waders, go down to the river and try our luck. Green alders line the water’s edge below the Doug firs. Sunlight makes checkerboard patterns in the forest. A hummingbird darts along the shoreline dipping into wildflowers. The water ripples and sings among the boulders. I cast out.

The fly begins to drift.

I mend my line.

Larry Wells is a frequent contributor to HottyToddy.com and can be reached at lwells@watervalley.net.

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