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In an era of moribund waters, when you can plow the Colorado and etch copper in Lake Erie and walk across the chubs and suckers and other trash fish in storied streams like the Allagash and Neversink, there is an undersung river in Oregon that runs seltzer-clear from bank to bank while fish queue up to mug your hook. Its name is Umpqua, an ancient Indian word for "satisfied," a good description of the river's fishermen. A better description might be quietly satisfied, if not downright secretively satisfied. For years the Umpqua tradition has been to take your limit and tell no tales. Just ask the locals, if you can get one to discuss the subject. "On your way, Sonny," an elderly streamsider is inclined to grump if you ask him where the action is. "And while you're at it, take a shave!"
Zane Grey was ecstatic about the Umpqua, but he was reluctant to send it any public love letters. Long after he had abandoned his old fishing camp at Winkle Bar on the Rogue River and moved to what he called "the green-rushing singing Umpqua," Grey kept declaiming the wonders of the Rogue, the Smith, the Klamath and other famous trout and salmon streams. Anyplace but the Umpqua. In 1935 he broke security long enough to declare his beloved Umpqua "superior to any river in the United States and comparable to the great rivers of Newfoundland or the far-famed Tongariro of New Zealand," but after that he kept silent. The close-mouthed tradition continues. Ed Davis, a guide who works the middle section of the river, told me, "Sure, I'll take you fishing, but not if you're gonna write about it. The Umpqua doesn't need any more publicity."
Perhaps because of the lack of publicity, the Umpqua keeps getting better and better. In 1947 some 2,500 Chinook salmon were coming up the river each year to spawn; now the number exceeds 16,000, some of them 80 pounds. Twenty-five years ago less than 3,500 steelhead trout were making their summer run up the Umpqua; nowadays there are five times that number. In the few weeks when the steelhead and Chinook are temporarily AWOL, the fisherman can take his choice of heavy migrations of Pacific shad or bluebacked sea-run cutthroat trout, or he can go after striped bass or white and green sturgeon in the lower river ( Oregon law requires that you return all sturgeon over six feet, but you may keep the little tads of four and five feet). If your taste runs more to white water, the upper reaches of the North Umpqua are populated by three kinds of trout—brook, rainbow and brown—ranging from a few ounces to 15 pounds, and there is a spawning run of kokanee salmon. There are also tiny tributaries such as Fish Creek where you can take a 2�-ounce fly rod and catch 25 miniature trout in an hour, and if that fishing palls there are stretches of warm water downstream where you can haul out an occasional Eastern species like bluegill, largemouth bass and catfish. Austrian huchen, striped marlin and Nile perch haven't shown up yet, but don't bet against the possibility.
Nobody knows when the first sports fisherman happened upon the tumbling Umpqua and stood there goggle-eyed catching fish after fish, species after species, but it was probably not until the 1920s. One early resident wrote of meeting a woodsman who told hysterical stories about monster fish stealing his tackle just upstream of the intersection of the North Umpqua and Steamboat Creek, where the river is at its wildest. He decided to see for himself. He waded out to a big rock, tied on a spinner and cast it across the foam. "Immediately the whole North Umpqua climbed on the spinner," he wrote, "and it took me 35 minutes of battle royal to land that steel-head. This was done not with heavy tackle, but with my regular trout rig that I bought at Churchill's Hardware Store in Roseburg. The fish weighed 12 pounds and was the most beautiful thing in the world."
Even today there are stories about vacationers who chance upon the river and decide to try a few casts before continuing their journey to other more publicized fishing streams like the McKenzie or the Rogue. A local microbiologist and Umpqua regular named Dale Greenley drove past a deep pool last summer and saw a newcomer fighting a heavy fish. Five hours later Greenley came back down the stream and saw the same visitor sitting under a bush, glaring at the water. "Did you ever land that big fish?" Greenley said cheerily.
"Naw," the fisherman said. "The so-and-so got off a few minutes ago." Greenley asked him if he was through for the day. "Yep," the man said. "I'm goin' back to the Rogue. What's the use of fishin' for fish you can't land?"
The modern history of the Umpqua began in the early 1930s when Fred Burnham, one of the better-known Western fly-fishermen, collared his friend Zane Grey and told him, "These fish are nothing like the Rogue River steelhead. There are no small ones. They lie in the fast riffles and even come through the white water for a fly. And when you get one on, you'll probably forget any other steel-head you ever caught."
Loren Grey, Zane's son, a skilled fisherman himself, has vivid memories of the family's summers on the North Umpqua. In those days, before the paved highway went through, one struggled 400 feet down the canyon walls in some areas to fish the river, and the first rule was: don't grab a vine till you're sure it doesn't rattle. Loren Grey remembers putting a fly over a big rock, and watching three steel-head converge on it at once. His brother Romer caught a 14-pounder and their father outfished the whole party. The elderly author introduced a Scottish tradition by christening the anonymous pools and riffles near his camp; ever since, they have been known by names like The Ledges, Divide Pool, Split Rock Hole and the Takahashi Hole (named for the family cook who cleared backcasting space with a butcher knife, then nailed a 10-pound steelhead).
Zane Grey was followed on the Umpqua by other classic anglers, men like Clarence Gordon, Zeke Allen and Ray Bergman. Lawrence Mott, a retired Army major, who visited the river even earlier than Grey, fished with such dedication that a bridge and a pool were named after him. Dying of cancer, he begged that an ambulance take him to his favorite spot, and a party of attendants camped alongside the stream till the old man drew his final breath.
The river that excites such fanatical devotion rises high in the Oregon Cascades in small lakes and streams and springs, running chill and clear through volcanic pumice and thick springy beds of coniferous humus that filter and flavor it evergreen. After only a few miles the North Umpqua begins to roll like a Swiss express train, and soon it is roaring through canyons of columnar basalt and across dark gray bedrock. At one point it slams head on into the Little River and then undulates across the lower country to a meeting with a branch called the South Umpqua and another 100-odd serpentining miles to the Pacific, a total journey of over 200 miles.