SHADY COVE — Carl Treseder lunged for the fishing rod pulsating wildly in the rod holder, tapping into the few useful minutes of steelhead-fighting experience he had garnered in the past hour.
Not daring to stand in guide Charlie Brown's driftboat, Treseder tugged on the rod, and the fresh Rogue River winter steelhead at the end of the line tugged back. After some acrobatics on behalf of the fish, the steelheading neophyte deftly coaxed his quarry into Brown's waiting net.
A 26-inch, chrome-bright, upper Rogue hatchery winter steelhead, it was nearly identical to the wild steelhead Treseder had caught in the same hole 15 minutes earlier — a perfect way to fill a daily limit of steelhead on his first try.
"I'm a total novice," Treseder told Brown. "You took care of that in an hour. I'll take it."
And with that, Treseder's first steelhead trip turned into a boat ride.
"We have a victory float to the ramp," Brown says.
Victory floats should become more common now on the upper Rogue, where anglers are heading into the thick of one of the best winter steelhead runs in the past three decades.
With a steady return of wild steelhead complementing the second-highest return of hatchery fish to Cole Rivers Hatchery to date since at least 1990, the upper Rogue is about to experience its peak showing for the season — just as anglers await the first spring chinook salmon of the year.
In the eyes of anglers, winter steelhead always seem to play second fiddle to their bigger chinook brethren. But they should not go overlooked in April, which typically is the hottest time for winter steelhead on the upper Rogue.
"I always wonder if anglers start thinking spring chinook and forget our winter steelhead fishery in the upper Rogue in April," says Dan VanDyke, the Rogue District fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"It's peaking right now," VanDyke says. "It's just a good fishery to remember. The river's not as crowded, and there are good numbers of fish."
The upper Rogue has always been something of an afterthought for winter steelhead anglers, who find more favor elsewhere in the Rogue Basin.
About three-fourths of the wild steelhead spawning habitat falls within the 126 miles of river downstream of the old Gold Ray Dam site near Gold Hill. The basin's hatchery program is divided between winter steelhead released at Cole Rivers at the upper end of the free-flowing Rogue near Trail and at the top of the Applegate River, one of the Rogue's major tributaries.
That's why the majority of the angling effort occurs in the middle Rogue downstream of the mouth of the Applegate — the majority of the wild fish are headed toward nearby tributaries and all the hatchery fish pass by there.
But the upper Rogue has always been a solid choice for winter steelhead anglers, particularly after winter.
"There's definitely fish around," says Medford guide Steven Theel. "Sometimes it's tough and you have to work hard for a fish or two. But they're all really huge and bright."
Before Gold Ray Dam and its fish-counting station were removed from the Rogue in 2010, counts there showed that wild fish returns to the upper Rogue were solid and steady for 70 years, averaging just under 7,700 adults, according to ODFW records.
Therefore, the variables that determine the relative success of the upper Rogue winter steelhead season are hatchery fish returns and river flows. And so far this year, there's been plenty of both.
Since Cole Rivers Hatchery went online in 1974, the average run over the dam was about 2,500 fish — but it's been twice that over the past decade, records show.
After Wednesday's collection and counting of steelhead from the Cole Rivers trap, ### winter steelhead have been collected there so far.
The counts there by this date generally account for anywhere from slightly more than one-third to half of the season's total winter steelhead collection, hatchery data shows.
"We're around 40 percent right now," hatchery Manager Dave Pease says. "So we have a lot more to go."
Weather at times has turned the season into a you-needed-to-be-here-yesterday type of fishery.
Regular freshets have raised and dirtied the river, chopping out fishing days. And as the water drops and clears, the hatchery steelhead migrate quickly. That can mean individual subsections of the upper Rogue will be lousy with fish one day, then just lousy for fishing the next.
"I've heard people say they're doing great and others who can't buy a damn fish," Pease says.
Treseder didn't have any trouble Friday morning on his first float between Dodge Bridge and TouVelle State Park, through eight miles of rich steelhead water.
Winter steelhead are best caught in migration lanes or along cut banks where the water flows steadily but not as rapidly as the more oxygenated water sought by summer steelhead in August.
Good depths are 4 feet or deeper, depending on water clarity. Because good upper Rogue steelhead water typically is not associated with areas of public bank access, the vast majority of winter steelhead are caught by those fishing from driftboats.
Treseder tried side-drifting eggs — casting and letting the bait dribble along the river bottom with the moving driftboat keeping pace. When Brown pulled into one glide under a set of oaks, they switched to plugs.
In typical fashion, Brown and Treseder each let a plug drift downstream, then locked the level-wind reel so the current pulled the plug down toward the bottom. Within minutes, one of the river's denizens took exception to Treseder's plug and hammered it.
The rod instantly doubled over as the fish swirled and took line.
"That was an awesome hit," Brown says.
After Treseder caught that fish, they let the water settle down for a minute then almost immediately hooked the second. That ended the day.
"It's not always this way," Brown says.
Brown snapped a photo with Treseder's smartphone so he could brag to family members at lunch.
"You can eat that fish, but you'll have that photo forever," Brown says.