SHADY COVE — For the first six days of March, Mark Randolph pulled himself out of his Shady Cove bed and trudged up to Cole Rivers Hatchery intent upon ushering in this year's spring chinook salmon season in the upper Rogue River.
For the first few hours of daylight, Randolph cast large Panther Martin lures in the Rogue's popular Hatchery Hole hoping to intercept that first upper Rogue springer.
He didn't worry that 157 miles down river in Gold Beach, anglers were struggling to catch the first chinook of the season coming out of tidewater, or that none had entered Cole Rivers Hatchery. None have even been spotted at Rainie Falls and other traditional first-fish locales.
Persistence versus logic. Randolph chose persistence.
"I kept trying and trying until the opportunity came," Randolph says.
His persistence paid off just before sunup March 7, when he landed a 14-pound spring chinook, the first springer to run the gauntlet this year — and as much as two months earlier than the average date that the first spring chinook usually reaches the hatchery.
Not only was it the first springer caught in the upper Rogue this year, it was the first confirmed hatchery chinook caught anywhere on the Rogue this year. The 3-year-old springer was very representative of the 14-pound, cookie-cutter chinook that head to Cole Rivers each spring.
And damn good eating, too.
"Money's tight," says Randolph, an unemployed laborer. "I've been living on it all week."
Anglers in the Gold Beach area — who get the first crack at chinook arriving from the ocean — have managed to run into just a half-dozen or so chinook so far, and they've all been wild fish that must be released.
"To my knowledge, we haven't had our first hatchery springer caught, so we're still looking for our first legal springer," says Jim Carey of the Rogue Outdoor Store, which is Gold Beach's ground zero for all that is lower Rogue fishing.
To date, only Randolph has turned his springer's eyes into X's.
"Randolph always brings in the first salmon of the year here," says Jack Jermain, owner of The Fishin' Hole in Shady Cove, where a picture of Randolph and his chinook now teases visitors. "He got it really early this year. It doesn't take much to get us excited about our first springer of the season."
How quickly springers reach the upper Rogue is based primarily on the Rogue's flow and temperature. Higher and warmer flows generally mean faster upstream migration.
Randolph and others attribute early showings of salmon and steelhead in the upper Rogue to the recent removal of Savage Rapids and Gold Ray dams from the Rogue, though there is no evidence to prove it.
In fact, Randolph was banking on it.
"Without the dams in the river, I thought getting one this early was possible," Randolph says.
So possible, in fact, that he trudged up to the Hatchery Hole each morning, and cast No. 15 Panther Martins — largely alone.
"Panther Martins work well for salmon in low water," Randolph says. "It's low water."
He caught a few steelhead along the way. On his seventh day, a cast into the hole's lower chute found what he'd been searching for.
"He just slammed it," Randolph says. "It was a lot heavier than a steelhead. Right away he started going up river, and that was to my advantage.
"If he went down river, I would have ended up in the blackberries," he says.
Randolph chased his quarry upstream, running along the rocky hatchery dike and hoping his 20-pound line would hold up to the test.
"It was a struggle," he says.
Finally, the springer was all but subdued, but circumstances presented another problem.
Alone and with no net, he found himself hard-pressed to turn this fish tale into a fish fillet.
Randolph eventually spied a low spot among the dike rocks. He carefully guided the chinook onto the flat spot, then jumped on it in victory.
"Like I said, it was a struggle," he says.
The he turned out to be a she. Gutted, it offered further evidence that this fish truly is a springer and not a late, late fall chinook that strayed into the Rogue from another coastal stream.
"The eggs were so small, they weren't worth anything," he says.
But catching the upper Rogue's first salmon of the season, and so early, means everything to Randolph and his upper Rogue counterparts.
"It's exciting for us to get them up here in the upper river so soon," Jermain says.