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Summers in winter

Thick fog cloaking the upper Rogue River turns into crystals that collect like coconut shavings on the front deck of my driftboat, an ominous start to Friday's day of steelheading.

Jeff Barnard of Grants Pass is in the boat's front seat, dressed like the Stay Puft marshmallow man, fighting the 20-something-degree temperatures while wishing it was him, not me, on the oars to keep warm.

The crystals turn into flakes and descend upon the upper Rogue's Sewer Hole like we're in the middle of a Christmas globe some kid just shook.

"Ice fog," Barnard mutters. "The Indians called this pogonip."

Others might call it idiotic to be on the Rogue under such circumstances.

Virtually no one would call this summer steelhead fishing.

But that's just what it is on the upper Rogue in December when anglers find that fishing the tail end of this unique run of summer steelhead during paradoxically winter weather conditions can make for productive Christmas-week fishing trips and an occasionally good carcass for the smoker.

The same run of steelhead you started fishing for in swimsuits and sunblock still are biting flies and lures for anglers decked out in polar fleece and Chapstick.

Sure, it's don't-put-your-tongue-on-the-flagpole cold. The steelhead are not in the same chrome-bright condition they were in when they first began bending rods on the upper Rogue in June. And the fight these fish wage in 41-degree water lasts half the time it did in August's mid-50s water temperatures.

But December technically is still summer on the upper Rogue for those of us who rely more on fish runs than calendars for determining the seasons, and the fishing can be as good as it gets.

"It's actually one of the better times," says Russ Stauff, the Rogue watershed manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and a steelhead-o-phile himself.

"You have them all up there (in the upper Rogue), you know where they are, and with the weather like this, access to the water isn't difficult," Stauff says.

Summer steelhead runs are unique to Pacific Northwest rivers that typically sport only winter runs of these close cousins of salmon.

In the Rogue, the summer steelhead run starts with a spurt of wild and hatchery-bred fish in June that dart upstream and into the upper Rogue. After that, steady waves of fish enter the river and power upstream throughout the rest of the year.

Wild fish are hanging around creek mouths ready to enter them during winter freshets for spawning, which peaks in mid-January and runs well into February. Hatchery fish are chugging their way toward the concrete ponds of their childhood. Collectively they provide a good dose of action.

And even though they can be the same steelhead you chased in June, December strategies are quite different.

During the hotter months, the steelhead are primarily in heads of riffles and in boulder-strewn pockets of fast water where they feast on insects and thrive within the oxygenated water. They're active, aggressive, hungry and up for a fight that pound-for-pound places them as one of the country's top game fish.

They will bite worms, roe, streamer flies, nymphs, spoons and plugs. And when you get them to the boat, they are silver-sided with small splashes of rainbow-like colors.

Peak fishing occurs during the first few hours of daylight and the last one, with sunset the true summer angler's witching hour.

In winter, fishing is best during bankers' hours.

The water's much colder so they don't need all that oxygen. They're hanging out in slower water, often closer to the bank and beneath over-hanging trees.

The cold water has them much more lethargic and quite disinterested in eating. They won't move two feet for a gob of roe and you can all but bounce flies off their noses without them biting.

The trick, then, is to piss 'em off.

Driftboat anglers wiggling plugs in their faces qualify as effective agitators. For bank anglers, big spinners cast and dribbled down a riffle can fit the bill.

Get one to bite and the summer steelhead of winter comes in like an old dog when a pickup pulls in the driveway — straight but slow and with no real malice.

And the steelhead that bore those metallic hues of summer are now decked out in splashy reds and greens as if they're dressed for Christmas.

Most December steelheaders do their civic duty by keeping and killing up to two hatchery steelhead over 16 inches long per day, which is the limit.

Released fish run the risk of straying onto wild steelhead spawning grounds or simply swim back to the hatchery and become excess fish.

Granted, barbecued December steelhead aren't fit for your lousiest of neighbors, but they can smoke up fairly well for holiday parties.

As for wild steelhead, they get the last laugh.

Holding one under water will revive the steelhead but turn your fingers into icicles.

But at least pogonip doesn't stick to cold, wet fingers.

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

A native steelhead is revived after it fell for a plug above Dodge Bridge Saturday. - Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch