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Hutchins proud of his beauties

A small school of Sunday shoppers parts near the frozen-food aisle, making room for the silver-haired man strolling forward with a purpose.

Jim Hutchins of Medford approaches, chin-up and smiling like a new grandfather, then eschews the usual handshake. Instead, his right hand reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a photograph.

Get a look at these two beauties, Hutchins says.

And beautiful they are. Wide-eyed and grinning, the two girls lie side-by-side splendidly in the grass. Though obviously premature, they look healthy and virtually identical in size and weight.

— Just look at them, he says. And they're both hatchery fish.

Who could not be proud of his first summer steelhead of the year? Especially when they're the first Rogue River summer steelhead of the season.

Hutchins, 67, caught his steelhead while bait-fishing in the lower Rogue on May 6, about a month earlier than the first summer steelhead usually are seen.

Normally, they appear in the lower Rogue riffles at the end of May or the first of June. Most of the early wild steelhead and all the hatchery ones are bound for the upper Rogue, where they will begin tantalizing anglers now focused almost solely on spring chinook salmon.

In fact, spring chinook fishing is so dominant along the Rogue in May that Hutchins likely is one of just a handful of anglers actually trying to catch these steelhead that charge upstream, heads down, fins flying.

Typically, we don't see too many of those caught early on, especially this early on, says Russ Stauff, a state fish biologist and summer steelhead fan. It's like these fish are on a mission to get upstream so fast that they're hard to catch.

Yet this angling anomaly is lost among the Sunday grocery shoppers who can't help but notice two men clogging a supermarket aisle, smiling sappily at a photograph.

The eavesdroppers smile, too, expecting the white-haired man to tell the younger man whether they're boys or girls, and what their names are.

Both were just a hair under 20 inches long and two or three pounds, Hutchins says.

A soccer mom pawing through the frozen pizzas overhears the odd vitals. She sneaks a peek at the photograph and smirks with equal parts disgust and amusement.

Her bemusement likely had nothing to do with the fact that fish pictures in early May are almost always of large spring chinook salmon, and not steelhead.

Hundreds of anglers line or drift the Rogue each day in May, all after these large, feisty and fine-tasting spring chinook that are the most sought-after species of salmon or steelhead in the Rogue each year. River guides fill their boats with salmon-hungry anglers, all rising before 4 a.m. and paying triple-digit prices for the honor of perhaps catching a Rogue springer.

While salmon and steelhead share the same river, they have precious little else in common.

Spring chinook are some of the biggest anadromous fish the Rogue has to offer; summer steelhead are the smallest.

Spring chinook have a reputation as being poor biters. Summer steelhead are aggressive feeders that will bolt to a fly or bait, instead of finning away like the chinook.

The spring chinook runs over Gold Ray Dam often number four times those of summer steelhead. But regular anglers will catch four summer steelhead or more in a season for every one spring chinook.

Most anglers happily release dozens of steelhead they catch each summer. Voluntarily releasing a spring chinook is like giving your day's wages to the guy at the street corner holding the cardboard sign, Why lie? I need a beer.

Salmon invariably become the anglers' enemy. Steelhead are always your friend.

I just love steelhead fishing, Hutchins says. They're wonderful fish. And, of course, they bite. They actually bite.

Hutchins knows his steelhead.

The naturalist teaches outdoor stewardship to hundreds of Southern Oregon kids in a mix of classroom lessons, field trips and habitat projects.

Hutchins sets his schedule so his trips to Gold Beach schools allow a few hours of steelhead fishing each day.

In April and May, I'm the only steelhead fisherman on the river, he says. Everyone else is after salmon.

At first, he suspected his May 6 steelhead were spawned-out winter steelhead. But their long, lean bodies belie the football-like forms of winter steelhead.

When Hutchins gutted the fish, he found tiny skeins of eggs. He cleaned their bodies with river water, then laid them in the grass for a photograph.

They were definitely summer-run fish, he says.

But what else is definite about these steelhead? Do they mean this year will be a good run? Will the steelhead show up early this summer in the upper Rogue?

You might as well ask the Magic Eight Ball, says Stauff, the biologist.

It's interesting, Stauff says. But it means nothing, really.

Yet it means everything to Hutchins.

Steelhead fishing teaches that the big picture doesn't have to be important all the time. Sometimes the little picture is as good as it gets.

Guys are getting their pictures taken in Gold Beach with these big salmon, and here I come in with these little steelhead, Hutchins says. Isn't that cool?

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail