In a sense, the very characteristics that make the steelhead so formidable contribute also to its undoing. By nature it is a powerful and forthright fish; its strike, always a shock and an astonishment, reflects its savage energy. A steel-head does not suspiciously mouth a fly with the gourmet curiosity and tentative tastebuds of most trout. Rather, it attacks and snaps its jaws around the morsel with the rapacious conviction of a tiger, usually setting the hook securely in the process.
Because it is courageous and stubborn, once hooked it does not seek the leader-breaking bottom rocks and snags of shore that might free it, but rather it carries the line like a football player racing for a touchdown, running in great, powerful bursts of speed, leaping high in brilliant, graceful arcs, dashing deceptively toward the sea, then turning swiftly to charge again upstream, fearlessly fighting against forces that must finally exhaust it.
At no time of year is the steelhead fishing on the Rogue more challenging, or the river itself more inviting, than in late autumn, before the damp chill of winter touches the air and turns the rising waters dark and roily. The biggest steelhead—the 12-and 15-pounders that have fed and fattened longest in the ocean—rarely enter the Rogue until early winter. But these large latecomers will not take a fly and, when they are hooked on clusters of salmon and steelhead eggs that are bounced along the bottoms of the pools in which they lie, the ferocious spirit of their autumnal brothers has waned, apparently numbed and subdued by the colder waters.
The earliest steelhead begin appearing in the Rogue in spring. These are small fish (generally under four pounds), and they spend the summer in slow migration toward their spawning beds. They seldom have traveled more than 100 miles upstream by mid-September. As autumn approaches, more and larger steelhead rise from the ocean depths and gather off the river's mouth to await the compelling command that will be carried seaward on the first fall freshets. Then, suddenly, they surge into the Rogue's swift currents, swimming through strange shadows cast by the once 90-foot-high bridge at Agness that lies now, after last year's floods, twisted and abandoned like a discarded toy, past the launching ramp at Illahe and on into the primeval splendors of the Siskiyou National Forest, where the Rogue slices through canyon walls of slate-gray stone, between cliffs studded with the scarified remains of ancient clam shells, and mountains dense with Douglas fir; on through a wilderness that is lonelier and less peopled today than when the first gold-hungry white man saw it just over a century ago.
Somewhere along the 75 miles of water between the highway's end at Grave Creek and the place where the river meets the sea, the first of these fat fall fish will fasten on a homemade Juicy-bug flicked enticingly before it by old Charlie Billings, or by Garrold or Florence Fry, or Deke Miller or Julius Keller, who is known as "Red," or even by the legendary Marial Akeson, the diminutive, dynamic grande dame of the river after whom the hamlet above Illahe was named almost 70 years ago. And once again the Rogue's annual contest will have begun.
No word of this first catch ever leaves the dark recesses of the lower Rogue, because knowledge of the presence of fall fish in the river is considered something of a sacred trust by the handful of isolated natives who live on it. But in spite of such secrecy it is never more than a few days before some upriver dude (a term more definitive than derogatory that is used to describe anyone not of the river) finds himself on the other end of a rocketing, roistering six-pounder. Then the news is out.
There are a dozen ways to fish the Rogue in fall and, when the fish are running, almost all are productive. But by far the most enjoyable method is to float the river as I did, riding the flow of its swift waters toward the sea through wild stretches where the only access is by boat and the only inhabitants are bears and deer and multitudes of birds and small furred creatures.
The lower Rogue is a grand and spectacular showcase for the steelhead. A hundred shades of green and yellow accent October's coppery foliage. Against the carmine limbs of madrone trees, silver-barked tan oaks sparkle in the sun. Clusters of scarlet penstemon grow, seemingly, from stone. Biblical myrtle-woods stand in groves along the water's edge flanked by moss-hung live oaks and the graceful silhouettes of willows.
Less than 50 years ago these now-deserted mountains rang with the sounds of men and machinery. All up and down the lower Rogue log cabins and miners' camps marked the claims of settlers who came then not for the silver of the steel-head but for the gold that lay in abundance beneath the river's shores. By foot, boat, mule and packhorse, hopeful prospectors from all over the country swarmed into the area, and thousands of dollars' worth of gold poured down the drainages and sluiceways along the Rogue's banks.
There are fewer than 20 inhabitants now on the 40-mile stretch of river between Grave Creek and Illahe. Most of the old trails and cabins have long since been washed away by the relentless river, and unless one happens to stumble inadvertently into an overgrown mining ditch, there is little evidence anywhere today that people ever lived or worked here. Most remarkable of all, without the intervention of man, money or management, nature has completely reclaimed the lower Rogue.