GALICE — With 30 inches of wild summer steelhead cradled in my hands, I know it's now or I'll never get a photograph of the best steelhead I ever caught without ever actually hooking it.

GALICE — With 30 inches of wild summer steelhead cradled in my hands, I know it's now or I'll never get a photograph of the best steelhead I ever caught without ever actually hooking it.

Jeff Barnard sits in the driftboat's oar seat, fumbling with his digital camera as if he'd never touched or seen it before.

A click, but no flash. Nothing.

"Wait a minute," Barnard says. "That didn't work."

With that, the steelhead does a half-gainer out of my hands and into the Rogue River, swimming away as powerfully as it did those 10 minutes it took to battle him to the net.

This fish is the cornerstone of one of the most inexplicable of steelhead catches on the Rogue in years. But without that digital image, proof of its existence is on par with that of Bigfoot.

"Ah, well," Barnard says. "That'll just have to be part of the story."

For 23 seasons, Barnard has been a part of my steelhead stories.

From long, pointless days casting for fish that aren't there to Saturday, when I caught the steelhead I never hooked, Barnard has been a constant in the front seat of my driftboat.

We have been steelhead partners for more than half my life, starting in the summer of 1986 when I took a job as the Coos Bay World police reporter strictly because it landed me in the heart of steelhead country.

Barnard is The Associated Press' environmental writer based in Grants Pass, filing that city's datelines strictly for the steelheader's lifestyle, as well.

He helped me land my column in Medford in February 1989 by offering one of the better references in my corner.

"You could do worse than him," he told the editor.

We're at our best on steelhead days, each knowing our set assignments.

He brings Italian wedding soup and makes lunch. I bring a micro-beer for both of us to toast the day's first fish and tolerate the cigarettes he sneaks while away from home.

All are present for this half-day trip from Indian Mary Park down to Galice, a perfect way to fritter away a Saturday.

This 4-mile stretch is a good November run on the middle Rogue, often loaded with a mix of large and bright wild summer steelhead adults and halfpounder steelhead in the 13- to 15-inch range.

It is a rare trip because it's one of the few times this century when we're not fishing out of my driftboat, with me doing virtually all the rowing.

Barnard says he thinks it's because I secretly like rowing more than fishing. I loudly tell him it's because he's a lazy rower and if I'm going to be on the river all day it's going to be with someone rowing hard enough to get someone into a steelhead.

So our steelhead trips are largely rowing trips for me, fishing trips for him.

Saturday, however, put him in the oar-seat first.

My turn to catch a steelhead.

It comes in the slow, deep waters of Rainbow, a stretch upstream of Carpenter's Island.

Dragging a small clump of roe and yarn, my spinning rod wiggles momentarily and the line falls slack.

Reeling quickly, I feel the pressure of the steelhead just as the beast hurtles into the air with a somersault.

"This might take a while," I say.

For well over 10 minutes, the steelhead jumps and runs, darting under the boat twice and taxing the 8-pound leader as it powers deep into submerged ledges.

Finally, however, it comes to the surface on my terms. It reaches the net, never once surrendering.

It's a huge buck, with splashes of reds and blues as if LeRoy Nieman had a hand here.

With two fingers, I easily remove the No. 4 chrome hook from its upper lip with great surprise.

I'm using a No. 2 red hook.

I look up the line and there's my hook, dug to a plastic watermelon corky stuck at the end of a leader that's tied to the chrome hook.

I didn't hook my fish.

Someone else some other day hooked this fish, and its aerial acrobatics and powerful darts broke that poor sucker's line.

That fish then returned to swimming at the bottom of Rainbow, but with a hook in its mouth and a line and watermelon corky trailing behind.

Then I come along and hook that line, which stays unusually tight and strong enough that I can still boat my best steelhead of the season.

"Well, you don't see that every day," Barnard says.

A quick run of the tape flaunts his 30 inches. Easily 10 pounds, maybe 12. Very big, by Rogue summer steelhead standards.

Then comes Barnard's aborted photography attempt and the steelhead's artful half-gainer back to the Rogue.

But this time, he's hook-free.

So it's back to my customary spot on the oars, my lot in this half-life with Barnard.

"Nah," he says. "You stay up there and fish the rest of the day. Consider it your half-life anniversary present."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.