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More chili than casting at 21st annual Holy Water get-together

TRAIL — Dave Roberts headed as usual on New Year's Day to the upper Rogue River fly-fishing-only stretch known to its disciples as the "Holy Water."

But he was armed with a crock-pot of chili — not a fly rod and waders.

He joined other fly-fishing brethren around a warm fire at Rivers Edge Park nestled between Lost Creek dam and Cole Rivers Hatchery, a short ribbon of water set aside for men and women of Roberts' ilk.

It's the trout bums, and not the trout, that lured Roberts here this day.

"Chili feed," Roberts says. "Something to do. Irish coffee. Want some?"

This year, the rule that made the Holy Water into Western Oregon's most unique fly-fishing opportunity is old enough to share one of Roberts' high-octane coffees.

Wednesday marked the 21st anniversary of the rule that married traditional fly-fishers and hatchery trout in this most-engineered stretch of a river otherwise worshiped more for wild salmon and steelhead than fish produced in plastic trays and fed fish-meal pellets.

The 0.8-mile stretch of water is Oregon's only river stretch regulated for catch-and-release fishing for stocked trout only with traditional fly-angling gear and barbless flies. Only fly rods and fly lines — no spinning rods and bubbles such as those allowed on the upper Rogue during the flies-only season of Sept. 1 through Oct. 31.

Likewise, the "put-and-take" mantra of dealing with stocked trout everywhere else in Oregon was replaced by a put-and-put-back ethic that belies the very reason hatcheries exist.

It was an ironic, and albeit difficult, concept that Gary Warren pitched to his fellow Rogue Flyfishers club members about their trout-fishing playground in 1992.

Created by bulldozers 41 years ago and flanked by two concrete dams, the Holy Water is as artificial an angling destination as they come, right down to the park's heated bathrooms complete with hot water and two-ply paper.

The stretch is really just an impoundment to feed water to Cole Rivers Hatchery, to allow dam releases to settle before reaching the main Rogue and to help funnel migrating salmon and steelhead adults into the hatchery collection pond.

In the 1970s, excess trout from the hatchery were unofficially released there, creating a fishery quickly discovered and revered by fly-casters.

The fishing became legendary, with double-digit catches year-round during caddis and stonefly hatches. Even in mid-winter, fishing with leech patterns or microscopic midge flies under snowy skies created fishing experiences lauded in newspapers and radio shows nationwide.

With the club's support, Warren's impassioned plea for these unique rules led the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to agree to this experiment labeled at the time as "pelletheads for flyfishermen."

The rules went live Jan. 1, 1993.

Warren and a handful of other club members were there that morning to usher in the new angling order. And he brought chili.

A tradition was born.

Medford's Phil Henning was at that first feed, and most since.

He spent many a winter Sunday there, his personal Church of the Rising Rainbow. His meticulous catch logs were his scriptures.

Henning stood around the fire Wednesday, with no plans to fish that day. But he will.

"In the winter, it's about the only thing to do," he says.

Under a warm sun, Wednesday was more about connecting than fishing.

The seven pots of chili brought by members of the Rogue FlyFishers and their brethren from the Grants Pass-based Southern Oregon FlyFishers outnumbered members in waders.

Twenty years ago, the two clubs mixed like Bill O'Reilly and Rachel Maddow.

Now they only vie over whose chili is better.

"This is what brought these clubs together," says Roberts, of Eagle Point.

As the clubs mix, so do the reviews of the fishing here these days.

Dave Nay regularly makes the pilgrimage here from Myrtle Creek. He's one of the Holy Water's newest disciples — those casting two-handed spey rods.

He regularly catches 12- to 18-inch rainbows, working his way down the water as if he was steelhead fishing.

Back at the fire ring, the faithful pine for the past's hefty stocking strategy of leftover fingerlings, legal-sized and even brood trout up to 12 pounds.

The Holy Water now gets 2,000 fingerling each summer. It's as if the merganzers read the Cole Rivers Hatchery stocking schedule.

"They keep stocking it with fingerlings and the merganzers get fat," says John Ward of Ashland. "It's sad."

But the fly-fishers keep coming,

They'll bring fly rods and blue-winged olive flies another time. The 21st New Year's Day chili feed, like the first, is about camaraderie over casting.

"I'm not fishing today," Roberts says. "I'm here to visit and have fun. Besides, it's a bright day, and fishing sucks here on bright days."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/MarkCFreeman

Every New Year's Day, fly-fishers gather at the Holy Water to fish and reminisce. - Mark Freeman