GALICE — Low and cold flows throughout February put an icy grip on winter steelhead fishing in the Rogue River. But anglers schooled in the wilds of Galice know how to pull steelhead from frigid waters when other anglers are going fishless.
When the upper Rogue is so cold that winter steelhead aren't migrating, and the lower Rogue is too clear for fishing, the deep canyon waters around Galice — between Hellgate and Grave Creek — can be the place to go. Winter steelhead will hunker down in canyons as deep as 50 feet, and they can be enticed to bite balls of bait or yarn that go untouched elsewhere under such conditions.
"Right now, we don't have any water, so that's where I'm going," guide Dan Grundman says. "That's the only place I'll fish."
The deep, slow, canyon pools intermixed with short, steep riffles offer anglers a chance to land fish as they wait for the next rains come and put fish back on the move.
And unlike many Rogue stretches bordered by large houses and mowed riparian zones, this 14-mile stretch is lined with cliffs and rock formations and cloaked in a quiet solitude that makes it seem 1,500 miles away from Interstate 5's Exit 61 and not just 15.
"I just like the water out there because it's out and away from the city," says Dave Bradbury of Bradbury's Guns-N-Tackle in Grants Pass. "It's like you're way out of the way of things, but you're not really away from things."
Bald eagles soaring over the water are almost as common as the occasional pickup motoring along the Merlin-Galice Access Road, which probably carries fellow middle Rogue anglers either launching driftboats or walking into bank-fishing havens such as Ennis and Chair riffles or Carpenter's Island and Rainbow.
While the solitude is unique, so are the fishing tactics.
The vast majority of anglers in this stretch are fishing from driftboats, and they are almost exclusively using roe or yarn balls meant to imitate roe. Where upper Rogue anglers focus on riffles and the inside turns of gravel bars in water 3- to 8-feet deep, canyon casters are sinking their baits as deep as 50 feet, bouncing along the basalt bottom dotted with boulders.
The baits usually are cast sideways out of the boats. Occasionally, oarsmen will spin their boats around and have anglers fire long casts upstream before letting the bait and weight sink. Either way, the baits and driftboat slowly walk in tandem downstream as the rhythmic, light ticking of the rod tip signals contact with the river bed.
"It's just totally different water down here than it is up there (around Shady Cove)," Grundman says.
The 14-mile stretch is managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and falls within the designated Recreation Section of the Rogue. At Whisky Creek downstream of the Grave Creek ramp begins the 34-mile Wild and Scenic Section, also known as the Lower Rogue Canyon or Wild Rogue.
Most anglers, including Grundman, don't float the entire stretch from Hellgate to Grave Creek in one day, but break it into more manageable sections of about seven miles. With six improved boat ramps between Hellgate and Grave Creek, it's easy to dial in a specific section to fish.
Exactly where Grundman goes depends upon the conditions, he says.
"The rule of thumb is the lower the water, the lower in the canyon you go," says Grundman, who has run Ta-Fish Guide Service since the mid-1980s. "The higher the water, the closer to town you go.
"And when the water comes up and gets fairly high, don't bother," he says.
The only bothersome part of this stretch during low-water conditions are a handful of Class II rapids that scare — and wisely so — tenuous driftboat rowers. The toughest is Argo Riffle two miles above Grave Creek, followed by Galice Chutes just upstream of the Galice boat ramp near the Galice Store. To avoid these rapids, float the roughly 5-mile stretch from the Galice ramp to Almeda Park or the 21/2-mile stretch between Indian Mary Park and Ennis Riffle, where there is a crude but serviceable ramp.
Or find someone else to row, like Bradbury does.
"I don't run that water," Bradbury says. "I just ride."