Southern Oregon's Rogue River is barely half an hour's drive from my house in Ashland, and for 10 years I fished it regularly for rainbow trout, using a great variety of baits, lures and flies. I can remember using worms, grasshoppers, salmon eggs, marshmallows, gumdrops, cheese ( Velveeta, Swiss, cheddar, even imported Limburger) and spoons, spinners and plugs of all shapes, colors and sizes. I also employed both floating and sinking flies tied to imitate everything from barely visible black gnats to three-inch-long dragonflies. And I caught a lot of trout, as would any angler who spent a couple of hundred hours a summer casting such an assortment of enticements into riffles and pools. But I never caught the big one I wanted. In a decade of trying, my largest trout was 18 inches long and weighed slightly more than two pounds. Most of the rainbows I landed were hatchery fish in the eight-to 12-inch range, and five years ago I gave up the effort, concluding, finally, that there simply weren't any large trout in the Rogue.
My conclusion proved wrong, to put it mildly. Last summer an unemployed logger named Mike McGonagle, fishing one of the pools that I have been through dozens of times, hooked and landed a rainbow trout that was very impressive by anyone's standards. McGonagle was actually trying for Chinook salmon at the time; he was bouncing a cluster of eggs along the rocky bottom when the big trout took. He landed the fish on 12-pound-test line in about 15 minutes. It was 37 inches long with a 27-inch girth and weighed in at 28 pounds—the largest rainbow ever caught in Oregon, from lake or stream.
When I read about McGonagle's record in the local paper, my initial reaction was partly astonishment, partly jealousy, but mostly it was satisfaction in the reaffirmation of my long-held belief that a fisherman's most notable experiences are usually those that come as complete surprises. Getting what you want can be very satisfying, but getting what you never even dreamed about can be even better.
I've repeatedly seen proof of this. One time a woman reversed McGonagle's experience by tying into a Chinook salmon while fishing for trout. This was also on the upper Rogue, at Laurelhurst State Park, which, thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers, is now beneath the waters of a reservoir.
A few years ago there was a spacious campground at the park with a lovely, gravel-bottomed pool just upstream that the state stocked regularly with trout. Through the summer months, from early morning until dark, there were seldom fewer than half a dozen fishermen there, most of them what I would call, with no condescension, uninformed and inexperienced tourists.
The woman I watched one July afternoon was an example. Middle-aged, rather overdressed in slacks and a frilly blouse, she was fishing in comfort from a folding chair that had been placed in the shade of an alder tree. Beside the chair, within easy reach, was a thermos bottle, a king-sized bag of potato chips and a jar of orange salmon eggs. Her tackle was one of those small fiberglass spinning rods equipped with a plastic reel that she had probably bought as a set for $8 or $9 at a supermarket or hardware store. The line on the reel, at least 20-pound test, was more suitable for tuna than for trout.
Around a bend upstream was a riffle I intended to fish for early summer steel-head, and I was sitting on a tree stump about 20 yards behind the woman, putting on my waders and rigging up a fly rod. Within 10 minutes she had landed three trout, and though none was longer than 10 inches, she was elated with each. Every time she hauled one in she laughed happily and held it up to show the other fishermen at the pool—there were six or seven of them—before she unhooked it and slipped it onto a stringer tied to a leg of her chair. "Guess I got the hot spot!" she said after the third trout. The others, all men, none of whom were catching anything, by now were doing their best to ignore her.
She baited her hook with another orange egg and cast it a few yards out into the pool. I happened to be watching when the salmon hit. Holding the rod across her lap in her left hand, she was reaching into the bag of potato chips with her right when she felt the tightening of the line. "Got another one!" she called.
The next thing she did was scream—a very impressive scream, too, of the variety loosed by the heroines of horror films when they open closet doors to discover things unspeakably gory. A lot happened in the ensuing two seconds. The bag she was reaching into flew into the air, and suddenly there were potato chips on the woman's dark hair, scattered around her on the grassy bank and floating downstream, too. As the woman jumped to her feet, she accidentally kicked the thermos bottle into the river, and it bobbed downstream with the current. She must have had the drag on her reel screwed down all the way, because the rod, which had bowed nearly double at the strike, finally snapped in two with a splintering crack. The men fishing upstream from the woman turned to stare open-mouthed, looking frightened themselves as she stood there screaming, clutching the bottom half of the shattered rod with both hands now.
I saw the tight line cutting downstream behind the thermos bottle and through a scattering of chips and then angling out toward the tail of the pool, where it stopped in the vee above a rapids. By then I knew it had to be a salmon, and thanks to the heavy line, the woman was still attached to it.