"One river, seen right, may well be all rivers that flow to the seas."
Goodbye to a River
I think I've seen Oregon's North Umpqua right. It is a steelhead stream, regarded by most who have fished it as one of the loveliest on earth. Zane Grey, who fished nearly everywhere and wrote prolifically of his experiences, thought so highly of the North Umpqua that, for fear of attracting crowds, he wrote only one short article about it. Thanks to the efforts of Grey and many other devoted fishermen, the upper 36 miles of the North Umpqua are restricted to fly fishing only.
It is possible to hook a North Umpqua steelhead on a fly in any month of the year, though May is the least likely time, and August the most. Steelhead are migratory rainbow trout with a life cycle similar to that of the salmon. Adults spawn in creeks and rivers. The hatched fish spend a couple of years in fresh water, then migrate to the sea, eventually returning to their parent streams to spawn. Unlike Pacific Coast salmon, some adult steelhead survive to spawn a number of times. The largest fish are those making repeat runs. (In 1962 an angler named Karl Mauser caught a 33-pound steelhead on a fly in the Kispiox River in British Columbia.) The North Umpqua produces a few fish of around 15 pounds each year, and there are often rumors of even larger ones that have been hooked and lost or seen swimming upstream through the low, clear summer water.
In the summer of 1972 my wife and I took jobs at a fishing lodge, the Steamboat Inn, located near the heart of the river's fly-fishing water. Friends of ours owned the inn, but we didn't take the jobs solely out of friendship. At least I didn't. What I wanted was to learn the river, fish every day from June to September, and enjoy the time with my family. Finally, I wanted to hook and land a steelhead of at least 15 pounds. In six years of fishing the river regularly I had landed dozens offish, but the largest had been about 12 pounds. Most freshwater fishermen have a strong desire to catch a fish that is large for the body of water they happen to be fishing. For instance, in a creek where eight-inch trout are the rule and 12-inchers are large, a 16-incher is something to get excited about. That same 16-incher would be little more than an irritation in a steelhead stream. I suppose a 15-pound steelhead would make good marlin bait. In fishing, everything is relative.
While landing a large fish may require skill, hooking one is usually a matter of luck. This is especially true of migratory fish like steelhead, which may travel miles overnight or hold in the same spot for days, even weeks, at a time. It is impossible to predict their movements, just as it is impossible to predict when they will strike a well-presented fly. On the North Umpqua I have—though certainly not often—hooked as many as eight or 10 fish in the space of a few hours. More often I've gone two or three days without a strike, knowing all the while that the river was full of fish.
For most of that summer of '72, I knew exactly which steelhead I wanted to catch. Near the town of Roseburg, about 40 miles downstream from Steamboat, the North Umpqua is spanned by Winchester Dam. Steelhead pass over the dam by way of a fish ladder, and as they do they go by a viewing chamber which is open to the public. Behind a large plate-glass window, the sleek, powerful steelhead cruise by in clear view, just a few feet away.
On a Monday morning at the end of June, I was drinking coffee in the dining room of the inn when in came one of the many local log truck drivers who stop by regularly.
As usual, he asked me about the fishing:
"Doesn't seem like the main run's here yet, but I got a good one last night," I said.