GOLD HILL — After fighting a big fish for almost 30 minutes on light tackle, T.J. Orton couldn't wait to see the big winter steelhead flop onto the Rogue River bank just below Gold Ray Dam.
But the long, lean, winter steelhead instead looked like a huge chrome football with a forked tail.
"I felt kind of stupid for not knowing what it was," Orton says. "I thought, it looks like a salmon, but ... naw."
The 23-year-old Orton hauled in the first confirmed Rogue spring chinook salmon of the season in Jackson County on March 10, an early beginning to what may become the last of its phenomenon here.
This chinook ran into Orton's hook so early in the season that not even one springer had yet been counted at Gold Ray Dam by then. It showed up two weeks or more earlier than the first spring chinook of every run dating back to 1992, when every fish swimming through the dam's viewing chamber got captured on videotape.
Considering that spring chinook are notoriously finicky, landing the first chinook to get as high as the bedrock riffle below the dam's angling deadline is a story that reverberates among Orton's fellow salmon-philes, now primed to pound the upper Rogue for its most prized denizen.
"Fantastic," says Medford guide Irv Urie, 73, who has had a hand in more than a few first-springer stories over his decades on the Rogue.
"I can't remember too many fish caught up here in March," Urie says. "Once in a great while someone will hook a fish in late March or early April. But not this early."
Charting the first springer over the dam, however, could become history.
Jackson County, which owns the 106-year-old decommissioned hydropower dam, has federal and state funding in hand and is mulling whether to follow through on a $5.6 million contract for its removal. That would end the dam's 60-year history of logging spring chinook returns.
The Rogue's spring chinook run, and angling success for them, typically goes in a predictable wave.
The first fish are caught in early March just upstream of tidewater by Gold Beach anglers specifically targeting them.
A week or two later, a few start to show themselves in the Grants Pass area, then a few schools cross the dam and hit the upper Rogue a week or so later.
The exact timing tends to be based on river conditions. Springers are genetically programmed to migrate upstream in late winter and early spring, then hold in deep, upper-Rogue pools until spawning in August and September.
So short spikes in flows act like cattle prods, boosting spring chinook into action, and they can log impressive miles in consecutive days.
"You get a little rain, and these fish really take off," says Urie, who has kept meticulous catch-and-flow rates for the Rogue dating back to the 1960s. "And when they get going, they can really, really travel."
The first Rogue springer predictably was caught March 2 just upstream of tidewater. Just eight days later, another was caught at the dam 126 miles upstream.
About the only thing this first-springer shares with previous Jackson County firsts is that it was caught by a steelheader.
And Orton fits the bill.
A Medford native, the shipping specialist for a local trucking company can be found on many off-hours casting from the bank at the far upper Rogue's Chief Hole for springers or below TouVelle State Park for summer steelhead.
"The waders go everywhere with me," Orton says. "Except Gold Ray."
That's because the bedrock channel near the angling deadline is too deep for wading, so "bankies" cast from shore.
Doing so March 7, Orton hooked a big steelhead but it broke his 8-pound leader.
Returning three days later with fishing pal Henry Olsen, Orton figured he'd stick with what worked before — a piece of pink yarn and a chartreuse corkie.
On Orton's 10th cast, the line went taut and the fish pulled back with intensity.
"It just bared down deep and didn't come out of the water," Orton says. "I thought, dang, this is a big steelhead. I couldn't horse him in at all."
After a rough 30 minutes trying not to repeat everything about his previous fishing trip there, Orton finally babied the fish to shore and slipped it onto a bedrock shelf.
But still, the fish's appearance started to play games with Orton's head.
No long, lean steelhead with a flat tail. This fish had the tell-tale black gum line, robust body and forked tail.
Still, Orton says, it couldn't be.
He yelled to two men on the road above the bank that he thought he caught a chinook.
"They said no way," Orton says.
Not only was it a chinook, it was a 3-year-old, fin-clipped fish, very representative of the 14-pound, cookie-cutter chinook headed to Cole Rivers Hatchery each spring.
And damn good eating, too.
"It's excellent," Orton says. "I've already eaten half the fish."