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Salmon derby is a sight for strained eyes

GRANTS PASS — Derrick Stevenson has waited for years to feel that first bite of a Rogue River chinook salmon, experience that tug-of-war battle to the boat and then to see — really see — his first salmon.

He'll have to hold the fish close and directly in front of his nearly blind eyes to see the salmon's outline, the tell-tale black gum line and the thick shoulders that make it one of the Rogue anglers' better adversaries.

"I want to get my salmon, and I know I'll like the thrill of the battle," says Stevenson, 52, of Grants Pass. "I want to filet it up, smoke part of it and grill part of it.

"But I do want to see it, and I'll be able to," he says.

But that first fish better come soon, or its image might lose out to retinitis pigmentosa, which could claim what's left of Stevenson's meager sight before the Rogue's next chinook run.

That's why a group of Grants Pass anglers have taken Stevenson's race to become a chinook angler to heart.

Members of the Middle Rogue Steelhead Chapter of Trout Unlimited are teaching him some of the nuances of salmon fishing on the Rogue and are putting him in a driftboat with their best instructor Saturday during the club's annual Rogue salmon derby.

Bill Hickey, the club's salmon-fishing seminar instructor with 35 years of salmon-fishing experience, will fish with Stevenson during the derby, which is the club's main fundraiser and its signature event during the Rogue's fall chinook run.

Stevenson believes this is his best chance ever to see his first salmon, and perhaps his last.

"I have a lot of experience in the boat with me," Stevenson says. "I'm feeling confident and excited about it."

One way or another, if a salmon gets hooked as they drift from Gold Hill to Rogue River, that rod is destined for Stevenson's hands, Hickey says.

"If I get hooked up, I'll pass it off to Derrick and let him land it," says Hickey, 69, of Grants Pass. "The main object is to get him a fish."

Salmon isn't something that had been on Stevenson's radar screen most of his life.

Growing up in Josephine County, he was more of a trout fishermen through childhood and during his career running local restaurant kitchens like the Caveman Bowl.

In the mid-1980s, he and his brother were diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disorder that causes heavy tunnel vision and can lead to blindness.

By 1997, his vision was down to less than 20 percent, rendering him legally blind.

But he still bowled and coached Little League baseball. Then two years ago, he boated a 20-pound lingcod while on a charterboat and life appeared to change.

"That really got me hooked on fishing and wanting to get a salmon," Stevenson says.

A friend bought a driftboat and the duo began fishing regularly on the Rogue. In two years, Stevenson may have gotten one bite.

"I think I got one once, but I'm not sure," he says. "With the runs down and our inexperience, it wasn't productive or anything."

Stevenson realized last fall that perhaps the TU derby would be his best chance.

He saved up his half of the $500 entry fee for a two-member team, but couldn't get a partner to raise the other half.

After missing the registration deadline last month, Stevenson sent a letter to the derby organizers hoping to wiggle into a driftboat seat should someone drop out.

The letter mentioned his race to catch a salmon before going blind.

Stevenson now is surrounded by supporters, receiving three lessons on back-bouncing — the art of feeding a bait downstream into a chinook hole. Three anonymous club members paid for Hickey's seat next to Stevenson on Saturday's float from Gold Hill to Rogue River.

The rules say whoever lands the fish owns the fish, regardless of who actually hooks it. That way, Hickey can help Stevenson in his quest.

"It's fun when you get people into their first fish," Hickey says.

While Stevenson may be disabled, he won't take charity.

If Hickey hooks a fish, he can keep his rod to himself.

"Getting (the rod) passed off to you just isn't the same," Stevenson says. "Let's face it. I'm no kid.

"I know he's just trying to be nice, but I have to hook it myself to say I caught it," he says.

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