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Applegate River fishing proposal stirs debate

APPLEGATE — One of Oregon's most exclusive fisheries for hatchery-bred steelhead could get more crowded — and more troublesome at the same time — if the area's angling armada gets itself invited to the party.

A proposal to drop the Applegate River's long-standing ban on fishing from floating devices is back on the table, and it's drawing familiar cheers and jeers from anglers and area residents wondering aloud whether more anglers on this river with minimal public access would become too much of a good thing.

Public access on the Applegate has been a recurring abscess in the craws of anglers wanting access to taxpayer-funded hatchery fish in a river flowing almost exclusively over private lands where anglers are increasingly not welcomed — often over bad behavior among a few fishing slobs.

With only a handful of public-access points remaining, some anglers are growing frustrated that the only consistent access to a public resource is by private landowners and their friends.

"It's the 'I got mine, the heck with you' thing we see a lot of," says Chuck Closterman from the Middle Rogue Steelhead Chapter of Trout Unlimited, which submitted the rule change.

"I know they want to keep it for themselves," Closterman says. "But this is a fairness issue."

Not all anglers agree.

Bob Yount of Grants Pass is not part of the Applegate's landed gentry, but he believes boat-fishing on the Applegate is a bad idea on many levels.

The river's mainly too skinny and rocky for boating on all but freshets, launch access is nearly nonexistent and the ensuing armada would turn a tiny stream into a clogged mess.

"It's a travesty in motion," Yount says. "I don't think it would be good for the anglers, the river, the environment, the landowners and the boats themselves."

The Applegate proposal is one of 330 proposals for changes to the 2009 sport-fishing regulations in Oregon.

The Oregon Department of Fish and will hold a public meeting from 7 to 10 p.m. Friday in White City to gather comments on any and all of the proposals to which people wish to speak. The meeting is at the Jackson County Auditorium, 404 Antelope Road, White City.

Dan VanDyke, the ODFW's Rogue District fish biologist, has not decided whether to support the proposal, oppose it or stay out if it all together.

"We know it's a controversial proposal," says VanDyke says. "We're anxious to hear the public input on it."

The last time the issue surfaced was in 1996, when the ODFW itself proposed it as a way to increase access to returning hatchery fish added to the system to mitigate for spawning grounds lost by the completion of Applegate Dam in 1982.

A handful of landowners still allowed regular access to the stream, which is open for winter steelhead fishing Jan. 1 through March 31. Yet it still was considered to be Oregon's only stream with a hatchery program and almost all private banks.

Strangely, landowners and the very fishermen they banned joined to shoot holes in the proposal

Landowners feared allowing fishing from a floating device will open their pastures to more trespassing and vandalism, while some fishermen fretted it will harm excellent steelheading for those who wade the thin Rogue River tributary.

Since then, the ban on killing wild steelhead in the Applegate removes any concern that adding boats to the mix would skyrocket the killing of wild steelhead.

Instead, both camps in the debate now are playing the safety card.

Closterman argues that anglers now floating the stream are forced to step out of boats and into tough-to-wade stretches to fish prime steelhead runs.

"There's a lot of places you plain can't get out or shouldn't get out, so fishing from a boat is the only safe way to do it," says Closterman, of Grants Pass. "It's a safety issue."

Among many anglers, the Applegate is a river they wouldn't float in their ex-mother-in-law's boat.

With tight turns, shallow runs and rocks galore, the river at most times is impassable by most boats. Getting out to portage around tight spots is tantamount to trespassing.

"Besides, where are they going to put in and where are they going to take out?" says Yount. "It's just not a good river to float."

Water levels essentially dictate that any reasonable boat-fishing for winter steelhead there would actually happen only a few times a season, and those days would be a circus, Yount says.

"There would be a rash of fishermen that the Applegate cannot maintain," Yount says.

That makes the Applegate one of Oregon's only streams where too much access might be bad for everyone.

"It comes down to access," VanDyke says. "Folks who know how to fish the Applegate now may not want to see a change."