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Go ahead, Rogue — rub it in

GOLD HILL — Since the early 1990s, an exposed basalt rock along a rather innocuous-looking Rogue River riffle downstream of what used to be Gold Ray Dam has been known, at least to me, as Dog Crap Rock.

While fishing in my driftboat next to that rock just before dawn one day, a golden retriever ran down from a nearby house, spun three times on that rock and began his morning constitution. Instantly, my rod tip lunged forward and pulsated rapidly as a dandy spring chinook salmon careened downstream to begin a battle it ultimately would lose.

There was nothing to interrupt the memories Tuesday while fishing at Dog Crap Rock. No dog. No chinook. Just a stiff wind blowing the driftboat bow askew.

"You know why the wind blows upstream here?" I said aloud to no one there. "It's because this fishing hole sucks."

This slot and a handful of other nearby fishing spots have collectively spit out more chinook for me than any other upper Rogue holes. But they remain filled in with gravel released from the dam's removal almost four years ago.

The loss of this fishing spot is the little yin that goes with the yang of yanking out a fish-killing dam.

Change remains dramatic and constant in this stretch of the Rogue sans Gold Ray Dam, and the impacts of 156 miles of free-flowing river are evident in both quicker migration times and increased spawning habitat.

Cole Rivers Hatchery crews last week captured 11 summer steelhead in the hatchery's collection pond. It's the fourth straight year a pod of summer steelhead has reached the hatchery by mid-May — something that never happened before the dam's removal.

State fish biologists have counted dozens of chinook redds in new gravel spawning grounds that were under more than 10 feet of water and silt during the dam's 106-year lifespan.

And the mouth of Bear Creek and primo fishing spots that were once inundated by the dam's reservoir have become the new darlings for salmon and steelhead anglers always giddy to find fresh haunts.

But paradise lost is the haunting reminder that sometimes what was will never be.

Rivers are, by their nature, dynamic systems. The constant downstream movement of gravel and the recharge of new gravel from upstream tributaries mean fishing slots come and go each winter.

Except below Gold Ray Dam. The structure blocked that gravel migration, leaving the top half-mile of riverbed largely bare rockbed and boulders. Over the years, a handful of anglers memorized these locations that never changed. The slots ranged from 6 to 13 feet deep, depending upon the water flows, and their dependability was better than the luckiest lure in your tackle box.

When the reservoir drained, however, these fishing holes — my holes — filled with gravel almost instantly.

I ventured down Tuesday with some sonar to see whether any of the old holes scoured out, hoping one or two were back.

First, Dog Crap Rock. It used to be 8 feet deep and slow at this flow. Now it's 3 feet deep and gurgling.

The Lip? Chinook loved to stack up in front of this particular ledge, and the first driftboat through almost always got rewarded for the early alarm. Now, 2 feet and fishless.

Mattress Pad, a queen bed-size depression between two shelves, was kind of a secret. Set in the middle of water normally judged too fast for chinook, it was like a chinook coffee stand. But the sonar said 3 feet.

White Rock? 2 feet.

I tried prospecting a new piece of water hit heavily last summer by suction dredges. Then it hit me.

The rod dropped and pulsated in that dance of the chinook from the past.

I grabbed the rod out of the holder, felt line run as the boat drifted downstream until the anchor caught hold and lurched the driftboat to a stop.

Springer, baby.

Then the fish swam in a tight circle, then another.

I knew exactly what I had hooked.

And to the boat appropriately came ... a sucker.

Three pounds' worth of Hoover-mouthed bottom feeder with the desirability of shingles and the edibility of packing peanuts.

My old haunt was now just for suckers.

Another gust of wind blew. It was the Rogue's way of rubbing it in.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/mtwriterfreeman.