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Fly-fishing legend doesn't act his age

GLIDE — Frank Moore extends his arthritic left hand my way, as if he's asking for steadied assistance through a crosswalk.

"Here," Moore says. "Help keep an old man from falling into the river."

As I stick my right arm forward, he grabs my fingers like I'm some recalcitrant kid going to the dentist and drags me into the North Umpqua, one of Oregon's toughest rivers to wade.

It's all I can do to keep up with Moore, his 85-year-old legs bounding over boulders and dancing across underwater ledges as if these cool waters flowed from Ponce de Leon's dream.

I'm half his age, but Moore's twice the wader and caster I could ever be.

"I've done this before," Moore deadpans.

Moore has spent almost six decades fly-fishing the famed North Umpqua, forging an intimate relationship with the wild summer steelhead he coaxes to the surface each fall with his favorite fly, the muddler minnow.

All the while, he's served as the conscience of North Umpqua's fly-casters and the face of Northwest steelhead fishing to aficionados across the globe.

This is the river made famous by Zane Grey and lauded by Moore, who has learned every rock and riffle of the 31-mile flies-only section since before the first roads exposed wild steelhead to fly-casters.

Getting Moore's story is almost as revealing as the story itself.

A mutual friend, photographer Richard Grost, arranges for the three of us to fish one fall afternoon. Moore squeezes us in between visits from a Italian documentary film crew doing a piece on North American fishing.

We meet on the deck of a log cabin built by Moore, but which looks like it was designed by Norman Rockwell.

Moore's waders hang from a hook above his wading boots. His fly rod leans against the diagonal fir logs like a pioneer's rifle propped near the door.

Waders on and rods loaded with floating lines — Moore only fishes traditional floating lines and streamers, never weighted flies or sinking lines — we prepare to hopscotch among some of the more celebrated holes by driving along the North Umpqua Highway and peering into the holes in search of steelhead shadows.

The catch is, I have to drive. Moore's pickup is too much of a liability.

"Guys know my truck," he says. "They see it, they'll stop to talk and we'll never get some fishing in."

Spying a steelhead shadow from the highway, Moore slides down the bank like an otter and hits the water. He broad-jumps among the slippery rocks, not so much defying the North Umpqua's ruggedness as immersing himself in it. With his left hand, he keeps me in tow.

Wading here is about getting into the best position to swing a fly deftly above the submerged steelhead and earning enough space so a back-cast isn't devoured by the bank's omnipresent brush.

You go first, Moore insists.

I feel nervous, like a teenager asked by Paul McCartney to play a few chords. I whip the rod forward and aft, fighting the line and the trees all the way.

"Slow down," he says.

I heed, and soon the Red Ant tied just for this trip floats 80 feet across the stream and trickles to the surface.

"Ah, beautiful," Moore says. "You cast with power."

But Moore casts with precision. It's his turn, and he strips 100 feet of line and, with a few false casts, he floats every bit of it across the river as effortlessly as a breath drawn in deep sleep.

Yet no shadows come up to play.

"Let's go," Moore says.

Moore grabs my hand and through the current we go toward another bend in a river that Italian viewers will soon dream about much the way Grey's readers have.

The pursuit of steelhead on a fly remains ageless along the North Umpqua, where the rocks aren't quite so slippery and the current not so strong with my 85-year-old wading staff in hand.

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

Frank Moore, left, leads Mark Freeman into the North Umpqua waters. - Photo by Richard Grost