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Holy days

TRAIL — Peter Ware looks back longingly to the late 1980s for the kind of fishing days that earned this short stretch of the Rogue River below Lost Creek dam the name "Holy Water."

"You could come up here and not know what you were doing and still get double-digit fish," says Ware, 72, of Talent. "If you knew what you were doing, 50 hook-ups wasn't unheard of. It was unbelievable."

But this eighth-tenths-of-a-mile stretch of pure trout water has been anything but hallowed in recent years, with the few thousand fingerlings stocked there annually disappearing before they contribute to fishing, anglers say.

"It's not a quality fishery anymore," Ware says. "It's a travesty because it's such a beautiful piece of water."

Now disciples of one of Oregon's most unique and restrictive fishing opportunities want to turn to its most ordinary fish to save it.

Ware is part of a cadre of fly-fishers who want to see a minimum of 1,800 legal-sized and 200 larger "trophy" trout stocked annually in this stretch of water, despite being Oregon's only river section set aside solely for catch-and-release fishing with conventional fly gear and barbless hooks — a distinction rarely used, and only in special wild-fish waters.

And they want to see the summer fingerling stocking scrapped because fingerlings are either eaten by birds or flushed downstream during high-water events without contributing to the fishery, the group contends.

"Fingerlings don't get the job done," says Steve Haskell, an Ashland fly-fisher who joined Ware and two others recently in asking for the change. "It would be a better management plan to put legal-sized fish in there. They have a better chance of staying there during high water."

The message has found a sympathetic ear in Dan VanDyke, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fish biologist overseeing upper Rogue River Basin fisheries.

Though VanDyke believes the stretch still provides good fishing — albeit not nearly as good as before — he does want to find an unspecified number of eight-inch "legals" for stocking there this year either from Cole Rivers Hatchery's unallocated excess or skimmed from the fall release at Lost Creek Lake.

These fish are grown as part of Oregon's decades-old, fill-the-frying-pan program of stocking legal-sized fish specifically to be caught and kept by anglers, not used to boost a catch-and-release fishery.

VanDyke would like to see the Holy Water's flat, generally unbroken stretch of water fitted with boulders to act as fish-holding structures and extra gravel to improve and increase spawning capabilities for what few fish it produces naturally.

Yet VanDyke doesn't want to give up on the fingerlings, saying they are much cheaper to rear and are a superior stocked trout because they don't end up with marred fins like trout that spend two years in concrete ponds before release.

"I like catching fish with really nice dorsal fins, and I think a lot of other anglers do, too," VanDyke says. "There's a lot of things we can try, but I certainly don't want to give up on the fingerlings."

The Holy Water's conception was anything but immaculate, the product of bulldozers and graders channeling the Rogue during 1970s construction of the dam and hatchery there. Some of the dam's releases from the top of the stretch are slowed and funneled into the hatchery intake, with the remaining water spilling over a small steelhead-barrier dam and into the upper Rogue.

At the time, it was still technically a piece of the Rogue with a five-trout daily limit. After the dam went online in 1977, bait and fly anglers discovered the stretch below it was rife with rainbows. Biologists believed the fish were a mix of trout and steelhead blocked there during construction, stocked rainbows sucked down from Lost Creek Lake and a small group of their progeny from spawning gravels.

The fish thrived in a reach rich with insects like most classical "tailwater" fisheries below dams, creating the Holy Water moniker that remains.

But the rainbows didn't.

The fishery, which once sported an estimated 4,000 rainbows, began to fade because of the pressure of legal and illegal harvest, along with fish lost to downstream flushing. Bait fishing was banned in 1998, but flies and lures used with conventional gear were allowed. By 1990, the trout estimate was down to 1,000 fish.

A contingent of the Medford-based Rogue FlyFishers persuaded ODFW in 1991 to stock the Holy Water with 4,000 fingerling rainbows from Cole Rivers normally grown for area lakes.

This marriage between traditional fly-fishers and stocked trout, a fish they typically shunned, was an unlikely tryst fueled by fly-fishers' intoxication with double-digit catch-and-release days.

In 1992, the Holy Water became the restricted fishery it is today. And it remains one of the most artificial angling destinations imaginable, right down to the lighted and heated toilets complete with hot water and two-ply paper.

The fishing, however, ebbs and flows based largely on whether new fingerlings are stocked in late summer and whether the fingerlings sidestep winter high-water dam releases or get flushed downstream.

Angler Jim Harleman says catch rates from fingerling releases are "infinitesimal," and the fish numbers are so poor "we don't even see the poachers here anymore."

The petitioners are all members of the Rogue FlyFishers, but they don't speak for the club, Haskell says. However, VanDyke says he would like to see the club help quantify catch rates on any new legals stocked there, and Haskell believes those who hold the Holy Water dear likely will do so.

But they want a specific plan in place, with concrete stocking numbers, to put the holy back in these waters, even if it means using pellet-fed trout to do so.

"Yeah, I know it's not a 'put-and-take' fishery," Haskell says. "But at least stocking legals would be worth a try. It's the only trout fishery like this that we have."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Steve Haskell fishes Wednesday for trout in the area known as the 'Holy Water.' Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch
Tim McDonald of Portland lands a rainbow trout at the Holy Water section of the Rogue River below Lost Creek Dam. McDonald fooled the fish using a salmonfly imitation. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch