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Bait- and fly-fishing groups look to resolve issues

Bait-fishers and fly-fishers will square off again next week over whether to repeal some or all of the contentious bait-bans on the Rogue River.

A week later, these divergent groups plan to sit down and talk about the passions and opinions they have in common and try to stop arguing about their differences.

The various angling camps remain divided over whether fall bans on bait-fishing in a stretch of the upper Rogue and in the Lower Rogue Canyon are necessary or worthwhile ways of protecting wild summer steelhead.

And a group of river guides says it will settle for nothing short of a complete repeal of the 4-year-old bait bans during an angling-regulations review process now underway for 2005 and beyond.

These bait bans need to be rolled back completely, says Roger King from the Rogue River Guides Association. A compromise is not in my mind.

— But leaders of bait- and fly-fishing groups from Gold Beach to Trail say regardless of the future of Rogue steelhead angling with bait, they need to speak in a singular voice in the vast areas in which they agree.

These same seven groups fighting about bait-fishing are now forming a coalition meant to galvanize their 1,400 members on issues where they agree ' like stream riparian protection, river clean-up programs and water-management issues.

There's really not a lot about us that's different, says President Mike Ireland of the Rogue Flyfishers Association, whose members narrowly voted last week to support no changes to the bans.

Some of our members care deeply about every single wild fish in the river, Ireland says. Bait fishermen care about the fish, too. We didn't realize that.

That's a far cry from four years ago, when the bait-verses-fly debate erupted after the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission enacted bait bans in the canyon and upper Rogue.

Bait remains banned Sept. — through Dec. 31 on the upper Rogue from the Rogue Elk boat ramp downstream to Gold Ray Dam. Bait fishing remains banned Sept. — through Oct. 31 upstream of Rogue Elk, but open there in November and December.

Bait also is banned in the Rogue Canyon from Whiskey Creek to Foster Creek Sept. — through Oct. 31.

The upper Rogue ban was pitched as a way to save wild steelhead from hooking mortality during the popular catch-and-release angling with bait in the fall. State biologists, however, have concluded that the problem with hooking mortality was largely anecdotal and opposed the ban, saying it provides negligible help.

The bait ban in the canyon targets catch-and-release mortality on wild summer steelhead halfpounders, but it also includes no bait for fall chinook salmon and sturgeon also present in the fall.

The commission's 2000 decision created immense heartburn among the bait- and fly-fishing camps. Each created stereotypes of the other: Bait-casters saw tweed-wearing purists who wanted the Rogue to themselves; fly-casters saw meat fishermen with a kill-all-you-can attitude.

They had misconceptions about us, says Ireland, the fly-fisher. We had misconceptions about them.

But the smell of change now is in the air, and that's exactly what fly-fisher Larry Bressler hopes will carry through what he calls a compromise proposal to alter the upper Rogue's bait ban.

Bressler's proposal, now up for public comment, calls for opening bait fishing Nov. — in the seven-mile stretch from Rogue Elk down to Shady Cove, but keeping the closure through Dec. 31 from Shady Cove to Gold Ray Dam.

Bressler says the change will give guides enough open water to bait-fish for winter steelhead during a full day's float from Cole Rivers Hatchery to Shady Cove. But the ban keeps bait-fishermen away from wild summer steelhead entering Bear Creek, Little Butte Creek and other spawning streams.

This is something I felt would be a good compromise, says Bressler, 76, of Ashland. There has to be give and take on both sides.

King says the bait bans in principle are wrong and should be lifted because they exist on two premises not supported in 2000 by state fish biologists ' that wild summer steelhead are in need of protection from bait anglers, and that bait fishing hurts wild steelhead.

So why compromise? King says.

But Bressler's proposal has raised the eyebrows of Don Denman, the Jacksonville attorney and Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission member who shepherded the bait-bans into law in 2000.

I'd certainly hope that some sort of compromise like that could be reached and save a lot of grief for people, says Denman, who is the only remaining commissioner who voted on the original bait ban.

King's consortium has been lobbying commissioners and other public officials for the past two years, with each side questioning the other's motives and next moves.

Then in December, Denman suggested that heads of the bait- and fly-fishing factions ought to meet. They had lunch and realized they have the potential to be bigger friends than foes.

The groups' leaders will meet May 18 in Shady Cove to form their new coalition that will focus on issues they all share.

This is going to be positive for everybody, King says. Each group alone can't get things done. A hundred people isn't enough. If you're going to get some action, you need 1,000 letters.

If we all get along, nobody will mess with this river, King says. And we'll clean it up, too.

King credits Denman's nudge for creating the coalition. Now he hopes to nudge the other six commissioners toward defeating the bait bans supported by the Rogue Flyfishers and others within the new coalition.

But that doesn't keep us from being friends, King says.

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