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Few of the miles are restful, even to the eye. Ray Bergman, a man who is not given to attacks of the vapors, called the Umpqua "wild and beautiful and at first sight a bit terrifying." At second sight, too. The prudent angler will take heed; the Umpqua and its broad-shouldered fish are best treated with respect and a healthy dash of paranoia, unless, of course, you are specially equipped, like the river otters that come with the territory. Last year a friend was casting over a resting Chinook when one of the otters dived deep into the pool and without further ado hauled the salmon out on a rock across the river. "That wasn't bad enough," my friend said with righteous acerbity. "Hetook a couple of bites out of my fish, and then he sat up and burped."
Historically, one fisherman at a time has bestridden the Umpqua like a colossus; the incumbent is a quicksilver specimen named Frank Moore, a 51-year-old innkeeper, master angler and member of Oregon's State Wildlife Commission. Frank Moore chews gum at 165 strokes a minute, flies his own plane, steeplecasts steelhead flies 125 feet, and leaves young fishermen gasping in his wake as he runs from pool to pool on his ceaseless search for Salmo gairdneri, the steelhead trout. Moore also runs the Steamboat Inn, headquarters for North Umpqua anglers and meeting place of a fishing, lying and conservation club called The Steam-boaters. The inn sits rustic and plain in a matrix of aging apple trees and grapevines, near one of Zane Grey's old camps. "I was running a restaurant in Rose-burg," Moore explains, "and wearing out two or three sets of tires a summer coming up here on the old dirt road. So I figured if I bought the inn I'd at least save on tires. That's been our financial return every year since 1957—the savings on tires."
The Steamboat Inn, under the aegis of Moore and his tireless wife Jeanne, has taken on some of the rumpled and pipe-smoky atmosphere of Harry Darbee's place on the Beaver Kill or the mossy old fishing clubs along the Wye and the Itch-en. Relaxed disorder and large trout are the main preoccupations. In its main room, outdoors magazines, ichthyological reference books and bird manuals are heaped in a corner; in the back, under one of Zane Grey's old Edwards rods, a fly-tying vise sits next to a box of red-dyed chicken necks, aromatic pelt swatches from deer and calf and polar bears, sections of a Plymouth Rock rooster, a clump of blue-dyed dun saddle hackle, a peacock feather and other oddments of the fly-tying obsession. When a customer wants to work up a new fly, he simply sits down and starts. When he wants to eat, he grabs something off the shelves or yells an order to the kitchen, meanwhile assuaging his thirst from a beer and soft-drink cooler. When the hour of reckoning comes, the customer simply tells the Moores what he thinks he has consumed, and the Moores tell the customer how much they guess he owes. "It's an honor system, both ways," Moore says. "I don't know whether it works or not, and I don't care, as long as we don't go bankrupt."
Several years ago the Steamboat Inn became the birthplace of The Steamboaters, a very exacting group with strong prejudices and intolerances. One is that steelhead trout should be caught but not killed, at least in the main. A fisherman named Mike Baughman wrote, "I was surprised a few years ago when I took my first North Umpqua steelhead into the inn and was looked at by some of the people there as if I was Jack the Ripper." Another Steamboaters' precept is that no one with thin skin need apply for membership. In the organization's slapdash archives one reads such peculiar compliments as "Gayle Haines is a socialite but still a delightful person," or "in addition to being a great fisherman, Dave Lennihan is also the epitome of sportsmanlike conduct. Dave releases all of his fish, most of them from about 50 yards away."
Such ragging and teasing are standard behavior for all guests of the Steamboat Inn, but one must practice careful timing, lest one attract a blow to the lips. "Umpqua fishermen are funny people," says Jeanne Moore. "If they go more than a few days without catching a fish, look out! It stops being funny. There's a fisherman who comes here and if he's not catching fish we can't do anything right around the lodge. Nobody can. If his wife has the nerve to cough, she gets snapped at. Then he catches a fish and he's all sweetness and smiles."
Jack Hemingway, the author's son, fishes the Umpqua for 12 hours at a stretch, if the fishing is slow, and also if the fishing is fast, and sometimes his waiting wife Puck grows testy. "One evening Jack came back all tired out and they got into an argument about the amount of time he spends on the river," Frank Moore says. "Puck said, 'For two cents I'd break your rod.' Jack gave her the two cents and she snapped it over her knee. 'There,' she said. "How did you like that?' Jack said, 'Well, I didn't mind, but Frank might be a little annoyed.' It was my prize Silaflex. He'd borrowed it that morning."
If there is anything that steams up the angling fanatics more than a fishing famine, it is the arrival of a spin-rodder or a furtive bait fisherman. Purism is the supreme Steamboat ethos; indeed, the inn lies in the middle of a 35-mile reach marked for artificial fly-fishing only, one of the longest stretches of so-called "quality water" on any American stream (and one of the reasons the fishing continues to hold up). Occasionally a beginner may be indulged in the use of a spinning rod, but only in conjunction with flies, and then not for long. Once a Portland businessman named Jack Young had to be weaned away from his spinning tackle after driving all the Steam-boaters crazy with weighted flies. "But then I went two weeks with my fly rod and never got a strike," Young remembers, "and I was snapping at everybody in the place. Finally I grabbed my old spinning rod and drove to my favorite pool at 70 miles an hour. Somebody ran and got Frank, and he jumped into his old Jeep truck and came after me. He was hollering, "Jack, Jack, don't do it! Don't do it, Jack!' He came running down the bank shouting that he'd help me, he'd show me where the fish were, he'd make sure I caught a big one. He grabbed me and pressed a fly rod into my hands. Thank God! He saved me from myself."
People like Frank Moore soon come to know almost every fish in the Umpqua personally. Near the Steamboat Inn the highway snakes 40 or 50 feet above the river, and whenever Moore goes for a drive he steers precariously along the streamside shoulder—against the traffic now, if he's headed downstream—and peers at the water, searching intently for the telltale black streak that marks a salmon or the smooth gray shadow of a steelhead finning in a pool. At any given instant he knows the positions and approximate weights of 150 or 200 large fish, and his fellow loonies spend hours flying to worm the details out of him. Such information is priceless to the North Umpqua steelhead fisherman, and the gathering of it takes precedence over all normal pursuits. Once an angler named Ted Novis lost his footing and turned bottoms up, negotiating an entire pool with his head straight down in the water. When he surfaced 100 yards downstream, sputtering and gasping, a man ran up and asked, "Hey, did you see any fish?"
Another time an excited woman burst into the inn and burbled, "I saw an osprey on the river!"
"Well, go on," said a Steamboater, "finish the story."