River of dreams

Waters of the upper Rogue River carry trout — and memories

UNION CREEK — Jim Trask waded slowly into the cool waters of Union Creek, cocked the spool on his fishing reel and cast himself 40 years into the past.

In these same waters four decades ago, Trask's three young boys often tried in vain to out-fish their sister while the family beat the heat of their Grants Pass summers.

His wife, Norma, tended the camp, which was usually either the first or second campsite just upstream of the bridge in the middle of the Union Creek Campground — right where the stocking truck stopped each Friday to feed that weekend's trout fishery.

Now 78 years old, Trask pauses between casts to soak in this little piece of heaven beneath gargantuan Douglas fir trees where his kids once played.

"We haven't been up here in 15 years, and it doesn't seem like it's changed much," Trask says. "This place has a lot of memories for us."

The summer of 2013 will be the thing of memories next week, so that makes Labor Day weekend the last hurrah for thousands of Rogue Valley outdoor adventurers about to close the books on annual vacations and preparing to open the books at schools beginning Tuesday.

Some will pass the time this weekend wakeboarding on Lost Creek Lake, negotiating the Table Rocks trails for one last valley panorama or joining the orange armada of rafts and inflatable kayaks floating the upper Rogue River.

Yet hundreds will flock to the campgrounds in and around Union Creek, where the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife stocks more than 2,200 legal-sized rainbow trout from Cole Rivers Hatchery each Friday at 14 release sites for weekend anglers taking part in one of Jackson County's most popular fisheries.

"People love it," says hatchery Manager David Pease, a one-time driver of a Union Creek-area stocking truck himself. "It's not like sitting in a boat and trolling. You're wading and casting.

"It's their outdoor experience, and they know they have a good chance to catch a fish," Pease says.

For more than a century, the far upper Rogue River and its myriad tributaries have provided a popular "put-and-take" fishery — where hatchery workers put the fish in the river and anglers take them out.

Old U.S. Bureau of Fisheries records show releases of hatchery-grown cutthroat trout here as early as 1907, with the first rainbow trout released there in 1912. Brook trout and brown trout releases date back to the 1930s.

Shortly after World War II, the forerunner of the ODFW began its regular stocking of legal-sized fish in the various streams that collectively are called "Section 5" on trout-stocking schedules.

Unlike other Southern Oregon streams and reservoirs that grow hot in summer, these ribbony streams above Lost Creek Reservoir possess cool-enough water for freshly stocked trout to survive the summer heat.

Most of the rainbows get caught by weekenders, while a few are known to survive, biologists say. But they don't seem to grow very long and mix in with resident trout that also appear to sport light growth rates.

The ODFW is in the process of conducting trout habitat and population surveys in the region.

Trask conducted his own survey Wednesday in Union Creek. With a light spinning rod, Trask ties on a swivel, then a 2-foot leader and a small hook, such as a size 4 or 6. A small split-shot weight is added above the swivel and the hook baited with one or two salmon eggs.

He wades into a riffle upstream of the footbridge along the parking lot in front of the campground — which just so happens to be one of those 14 release sites.

He casts across the stream and lets the egg drift beneath the bridge because "the fish are hiding under the bridge, you know," he says, just like they did in the 1960s, when the Trasks moved from Salem to Grants Pass and began looking for fun outdoor venues for their young family.

"It didn't take long to discover Union Creek," Norma Trask says.

Slowed by cancer, Norma no longer fishes and sits in a camp chair near the bridge approach while her husband of 58 years casts egg after egg under the bridge. Memories casually float by.

"We'd set up a tent in one of those campsites right near the bridge," she says. "Of course, we knew they stocked there every Friday. The kids would go fishing right away, as soon as we got there.

"The kids sure had a ball catching those stockers," she says.

Typically, the trout are stocked from Memorial Day through Labor Day, but this year's stocking is scheduled to conclude Sept. 6, or one week later than normal, Pease says.

The Trasks have been no-shows at Union Creek the past 15 years, but Jim Trask dusted off an old reel to match a new rod his son crafted for him.

"I'm almost 80," he says. "I figure I better get something going."

He wades Union Creek wearing sandals and athletic socks, squishing water out of them as he walks from spot to spot.

It's Wednesday, so there's no army of Huck Finn wannabes walking on logs and casting under Trask's favorite fishing bridges.

But, then again, it is Wednesday — five days since the beep-beep-beep of one of Pease's stocking trucks filled the air as it backed down to release a fresh passel of trout.

Trask is in no threat to use up his cache of salmon eggs this day.

"Even if I don't catch anything, at least I got to go fishing again after all these years," he says. "I'm glad we're here now. I suppose this place is going to be booming this weekend."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman



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