The fall steelhead were running last month in Oregon's famed Rogue River. Fresh from their dark, mysterious feeding places in the sea, they plunged in pink-and-silver splendor through the Pacific surf at Gold Beach into the broad, fiat estuaries of the river. As they surged toward distant inland spawning beds, anglers came from all over the country to intercept them. With Silver Doctors and March Browns fishermen worked Pierce Riffle above the town of Grants Pass and cast Witherwox Specials and Golden Demons from the gravel bars below it. Some drifted Hot Shots and Cinchbugs into the breaks above the rapids; others floated, as I did with guide Bob Pruitt and angler Eleanor Gilpin, down the river's wild, white waterway to the sea.
There are half a dozen outfitters like Pruitt who operate float-fishing trips out of Grants Pass down the lower Rogue during the fall steelhead run. Their sturdy 13-foot wooden boats are especially designed to take the abuse of such ferocious rapids as those at Rainie Falls, Mule Creek and Blossom Bar. But in a river like the Rogue even these boats may reach Gold Beach as driftwood unless manned by experts. Guides like Pruitt, Sid Pyle and Bob Pritchett know every pool, rock and riffle along the way, and they have made an art of handling the river and its fish.
An average fall steelhead trip from just below Grants Pass to the ocean takes four days, fly-fishing and trolling all the way. Nights are spent on the river either at permanent—and comfortably luxurious—tent camps or at several small, roughhewn lodges on the Rogue's banks. Lunch may be at Tyee Riffle or Horseshoe Beny or on the wide white sand at Winkle Bar, where Zane Grey's old fishing cabin still stands. Steelhead, smoked over green box-elder leaves, then broiled in butter, is usually on the menu and is always delicious. Most trips involve three boats, with two anglers and a guide to each. At $200 per fisherman (which covers everything, including tackle if necessary), the trip is not only one of the most enjoyable in the Northwest, but it is also one of the best bargains anywhere.
Obviously a great many people think so. There was not a free boat or steelhead guide to be found in Grants Pass this season. As more and more anglers—doctors, lawyers, industrialists, civil servants, college professors, a former child star, a Congressman and even a Cabinet member—poured into the city, local merchants stuck hastily lettered "Gone Fishin' " signs in their windows, resurrected anything from their backyards that would float and set up shop below Caveman Bridge. They had no trouble finding customers. Shirley Temple flew in from San Francisco with husband Charles Black to repeat last year's run with Bob Pruitt. Representative Robert Duncan (D., Ore.) was there with the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman.
The latter two were part of a group that descended upon the river in a confusion of borrowed boats, waders, rods, reels, cameras and press releases, ostensibly to inspect the lower Rogue in connection with its inclusion in the Wild Rivers Act, which will come up before Congress next year. The trip just happened to coincide with the fall steelhead run.
In the Rogue, as in the other steelhead rivers of northern California, Oregon, Idaho, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska, the annual steelhead migration is an exacting, exhausting marathon. No fish in the Northwest is as eminently endowed to survive it. This sea-run trout, a blood brother of the rainbow, is tougher and more tenacious than any of the six strains of Pacific salmon, and it is as bold as it is strong. At sea the steelhead swims alone; in the journey up the river it seeks the deepest, fastest-moving currents, knifing through waters too swift even for the big kings, leaping falls too high for any of the Pacific salmon.
The steelhead (Salmo irideus gairdneri), in fact, resembles far more the renowned Atlantic salmon of the East than any of its western relatives. Unlike the Pacific salmon, which dies once it has reproduced, both the Atlantic salmon and the steelhead return to the sea after they have spawned and can again return to the river to repeat their complex, compulsive life pattern.
In appearance, as well, the two are so strikingly similar when each is fresh from the ocean that ichthyologists have often had trouble distinguishing one from the other. By virtue of its older, more aristocratic associations, the Atlantic salmon, in fancy and in fact, still rules the family Salmonidae, but there is no question among anglers that the steelhead is crown prince.
No one who has felt the fury of the fish charging like electric current through line and rod, who has heard the cacophonous screech of backing being ripped through guides, who has reeled with a madman's frenzy in the final, seconds before boat and angler plunge into the Rogue's crashing, foaming white water, who has held on, bruised and shaken, until that sudden, inexplicable moment when the line goes slack and the contest is over as abruptly as it began—no one who has experienced such an encounter is ever the same again.
Nor does an angler ever fully recover from the infuriating impact of the instant when he stoops victoriously to net the still, silver wraith he has subdued at last, only to have it burst from his grasp in a final, fruitful lunge for freedom. But if the steelhead is memorable for the frequency and ingenuity of its escapes, it is even more memorable when caught—and eaten.