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MailTribune.com
  • The Twitch

    60-year-old fly-fishing technique is all but dead on the Rogue, but a few anglers still keep it alive
  • Joe Corona tried every fly-fishing trick in the book Tuesday to catch a summer steelhead on the upper Rogue River.
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  • Joe Corona tried every fly-fishing trick in the book Tuesday to catch a summer steelhead on the upper Rogue River.
    He tried drifting nymphs, casting streamers and even found himself sitting in the front seat of Mark Thalman's driftboat in the middle of a steelhead riffle, developing a twitch.
    We're not talking Tourette's or some other nervous tic. He experimented with the Rogue River Twitch, an age-old technique of trying to coax a fish to a fly simply by letting it dangle downstream while twitching his rod tip up and down once in a while.
    "I tried it a few places, but it hasn't worked," says Corona, of Grants Pass.
    On the Rogue, the twitch is dead. Or at best, it's on life support.
    After decades as the go-to technique for catching Rogue steelhead in the fall, this simple way to fish with a fly without requiring any fly-fishing ability has fallen far out of favor among anglers who have adapted to changing river conditions and adopted newer techniques.
    Colder-than-normal fall water temperatures that leave steelhead less aggressive and the growing popularity of fishing nymphs under strike indicators has left the Rogue faithful to all but ditch the Twitch.
    "Not too many people do it anymore, but it still works very well," says Irv Urie, a long-time Medford-based river guide and fall twitcher. "I even caught fish recently in Montana doing the Twitch.
    "It's not a real big science," Urie says. "You just get the fly rod to work for you."
    The Twitch traces its roots to the 1950s in the Wild and Scenic Section of the Rogue, where fishing guide Willard Lucas of Lucas Lodge discovered a trick to get his non-casting clients into more immature "halfpounder" steelhead that flood the lower Rogue each fall and winter.
    Using a sink-tip line, he would have his customers simply strip 40 feet or so of line off the front of his driftboat while he rowed it in steelhead riffles much like anglers now fish with plug lures.
    The fly would swing back and forth as Lucas moved the driftboat laterally through the riffle. But he discovered that his clients would catch more fish when they occasionally snapped the rod tip up and down a foot or so.
    That made the fly rise and fall in the water column.
    "When you pull that fly up, all the hair gets pulled against the hook," says Urie, 74, who still has clients twitch during canyon trips. "When it drops, the hair falls out like it's flying."
    Steelhead couldn't resist.
    "You've got to have an even cadence," Urie says. "Bounce that line. Boom. Boom. Boom."
    It's fishing with a fly without really fly-fishing, a paradox comfortable to some accidental anglers.
    "My wife likes to Twitch because she can Twitch with one hand and drink a beer with the other," says Thalman, of Medford, as he and Corona Twitched away in the Rogue upstream of Dodge Bridge. "It's the most relaxing way to fly-fish."
    For experienced fly-fishers, the Twitch is like having kids write letters to Santa or telling a single American their vote really matters in a presidential election.
    "I don't Twitch," says Lee Wedberg, a veteran Eagle Point fly-fisher. "I don't see any advantage to it, other than it makes the person think they're doing something instead of just sitting there like a rod-holder."
    Though it has remained somewhat common in the canyon thanks largely to Urie and a handful of other guides, the Twitch had a brief surge on the upper Rogue after 1990, when rule changes to the Sept. 1 through Oct. 31 flies-only season allowed angling from a boat for the first time.
    Twitchers started to catch steelhead there, but it went the way of White-Out and floppy discs for no one particular reason.
    More like four.
    First, colder-than-normal water releases from Lost Creek Reservoir in October to help counteract the warmer-than-normal winter releases caused by thermal warming at the reservoir do more than their objective of helping wild spring chinook salmon eggs incubate properly in the Rogue.
    They leave steelhead more lethargic and less likely to rise to a streamer fly than in warmer waters like those still present in the Rogue canyon.
    Secondly, more fall chinook salmon moving into the upper Rogue have steelhead targeting salmon eggs in the fall — and Twitching doesn't work to catch steelhead lying downstream of spawning salmon and picking off the loose eggs as they float by.
    Also, nymph fishing with floating lines and strike indicators works wonderfully well to catch egg-eating steelhead.
    Once the exception, nymphing is the rule on the upper Rogue during the fall.
    And not only are more people taking up conventional fly-fishing, those who do would rather cast for their steelhead instead of sitting in a driftboat in rod-holder-like fashion waiting for a fish to wake them up.
    On occasion, however, the Joe Coronas of the upper Rogue will go retro and do the Twitch when the mood suits them, keeping this relic of a technique around instead of locked way in the Smithsonian.
    "It's hit and miss," Corona says. "Sometimes it's on, sometimes it's off.
    "I hope it's on Sunday," he says. "I'm going to come back and try again."
    Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email mfreeman@mailtribune.com.
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