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Fish's green hue a clue it's no steelhead

MERLIN — Having just watched his niece catch her first steelhead, Janos Olah believed for sure that he was due to become the next new member in the Northwest's most cherished fishing club.

His guide rowed their driftboat into the current, and the 42-year-old California transplant let his plug ply its trade in the Rogue River, hoping to entice one of thousands of winter steelhead now in the river to bite.

When the rod tip bowed and a fish began to wiggle somewhat sluggishly on the other end, Olah suspected he had finally become a steelheader.

Instead, however, he remained ... a basser.

The 15-inch fish that munched Olah's plug March 21 was not a cold-water steelhead, but a warm-water carpetbagger rarely seen or caught in the Rogue, especially in winter.

"When I first got a glimpse of it in the water, I was really surprised," he says. "I hooked a dumb bass."

A largemouth bass, actually. Maybe not dumb, but this plump and shivering warmwater critter common to lakes and farm ponds was certainly about as out of place as a fish can get in the Northwest.

The Rogue's cold water, swift currents and steep gradient render it a barren wasteland for the rare bass that finds itself there. So discovering one —and, to boot, one feisty enough to bite — is even more rare than joining the steelheaders' fraternity on your first cast.

"It's the first bass I've seen in my 26 years out there," says guide Geoff Baldwin, who rowed Olah and his niece, Deborah Giuliani of Lodi, Calif., on the fateful trip.

Wayward bass are found periodically in the Rogue, most often either escapees from local reservoirs or private ponds where they are occasionally stocked.

"The key word here is 'periodically,'" says Dan VanDyke, Rogue District fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

The occasional largemouth bass pops up throughout the main-stem Rogue all the way to the mouth, VanDyke says. This bass' proximity to the Applegate River mouth makes a pond in that system, or the Applegate Reservoir, the most likely sources.

In their normal warmwater confines, bass are known to prey on infant rainbow trout. So finding them in salmon streams often sends up red flags over fear they can take a bite out of the native salmon and steelhead populations.

But not to worry here, VanDyke says. Other than the occasional confines of Kelly Slough near Gold Ray Dam, bass don't seem capable of eking out a living here, let alone going on a salmon fry-eating binge.

"There's no evidence of a self-sustaining population of largemouth bass establishing itself in the Rogue River," VanDyke says. "They're definitely more adapted to pond and lake habitat."

Which makes finding one just downstream from the mouth of the Applegate that much more intriguing, especially since its teeth likely were chattering when it chomped on Olah's plug.

"The surprising thing is, it was active enough to bite in 46-degree water," VanDyke says.

Active, also, is relative.

"The hit wasn't much of a hit," Olah says about the fish's bite. "At first, I thought I was hooked up on a snag or something. Then I realized it was kind of pulling back a little bit."

Expecting to see the chrome sides of a steelhead, he spied the green hues of the chubby largemouth come to the boat.

This was the mighty Rogue River. Not some scummy farmer's pond.

"It was like, am I lost?'" Olah says. "Where am I?"

After boating the bass, Giuliani snapped a few photographs of the quarry as Baldwin and Olah pondered what to do next.

Unsure of the regulations for bass on the Rogue, they released it.

"Other people have been saying, 'you should have gotten that thing out of there,'" Olah says. "No big deal."

So, the largemouth bass in need of a fur coat is back in the Rogue downstream of the Applegate mouth, its teeth chattering away as it wonders if it will ever get warm again.

Still, Olah has gotten more mileage out of his wayward bass than any cookie-cutter steelhead he could have bit his plug that day.

"I still have yet to catch a steelhead," Olah laughs. "But this makes for a better story."

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

Janos Olah, 42, of Grants Pass, holds the 15-inch largemouth bass he unexpectedly caught March 21 in the Rogue River near the mouth of the Applegate River. - Photo courtesy of Janos Olah