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Stoned on trout

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SHADY COVE — Jeff Hensley floated Saturday toward a stretch of the upper Rogue River, ready to cast a dry-fly stonefly imitation, never realizing he would soon surpass his Rogue trout of a lifetime.

Not 100 yards from where Hensley caught a massive rainbow with a similar stonefly two years ago, the Central Point pastor cast into a run and all hell broke loose.

“Out of the water, launching on my fly, comes this monstrous fish,” he says. “I was so blown away.”

Driftboat rower Alex Weston eventually netted the football-shaped rainbow, which measured 26 inches, a full two inches longer than his previous best, before he released it.

“How do you beat the fish of a lifetime?” he says.

Turns out he didn’t beat it as much as become reacquainted with it.

Comparing photographs of the two trout, including the scratches and color patterns and cutthroat-like orange throat slashes, led to a revelation.

“We realized, without a doubt, it was the same fish,” Hensley says. “I was stunned.”

Big spring Rogue trout caught on stoneflies used to be relegated to the flies-only stretch called the Holy Water, but a combination of more available trout and a lack of crowds are turning many steelhead anglers into trout bums on the mainstem Rogue.

The trout season on the Rogue began May 22 after being closed since April 1 to protect outmigrating steelhead and threatened coho salmon smolts, and all wild trout must be released unharmed — which means just about everything anglers like Hensley catch, because the Rogue isn’t much of a trout stream.

The main target is catch and release of wild cutthroat trout, native fish known for the orange slashes on their throats and their tenacious feeding and fighting. Also present are precocial wild steelhead that did not head to the ocean as smolts and, therefore, became residualized.

Also in the mix are stocked rainbows that washed out of either Lost Creek Lake or the Holy Water, which this year likely lost large numbers of stocked rainbows from extremely high spring releases from the reservoir.

In early June, all these trout are looking up for stoneflies floating by, and the artificial ones have never been more common.

“It used to be people fishing just the Holy Water, and floating (the mainstem) was kind of hidden,” says Alex Rachowicz, a fly-fishing guide and the owner of Rogue Valley Anglers fly shop in downtown Medford.

“It’s gotten so popular,” he says. “Yesterday 30 fly-fishing boats launched at (Cole Rivers) hatchery. It was the biggest parade of boats I’ve ever seen in trout season.”

Known scientifically as Pteronarcys californica, they are the largest of the stoneflies in the Pacific Northwest and gained their nickname “salmonflies” because they hatch during the spring chinook run in Pacific coastal streams such as the Rogue River.

Adult stoneflies sport long, scaly bodies, ant-like legs, large wings and plated, turret-like heads. They measure 1 to 2 1/2 inches long, with males about an inch shorter than females.

Males have forked-bar genitalia that protrude off their abdomens and curl onto their backs.

They are most commonly found in fast-moving, shallow rivers with softball-sized stones exposed to the sun, and the upper Rogue provides perfect stonefly habitat.

The stonefly’s life cycle lasts about four years. Virtually their entire lives are spent as submerged nymphs, clinging to cobbles and filtering food until it’s time for the beginning of their end.

Entomologists say their final cycle begins in the spring when the river temperature warms to about 55 degrees, triggering maturing nymphs to crawl from their rocky havens toward the river’s edge.

When they emerge, the nymphs crawl under rocks or brush, where they shed their skeletons and emerge as mature adults.

When their wings dry, they climb onto foliage and mate, with the males dying a few days later. The females then fly over the water, dropping or laying their eggs on the surface at dusk, triggering feeding frenzies for the fish below.

Because the bugs hatch based on water temperature, the hatch begins in the lower portions of the upper Rogue and works its way upstream.

Stoneflies have been working their way upriver for the past several weeks. The trout become so enrapt by their presence that they overeat to a point of sluggishness in the confines of the Holy Water, a flies-only stretch of the Rogue between Lost Creek dam and Cole Rivers Hatchery.

During the hatch, Hensley fishes the mainstem more than the Holy Water, in part because it’s less crowded, “and when you buy a driftboat, you want to use it,” he says.

The fishery seems to be growing, Hensley says.

“It seems like every year, the average-size fish we’re catching are getting bigger and bigger, especially the cutthroat,” Hensley says. “We’re catching more and more of them every year.

“It’s become a very viable fishery for trout, especially cutthroat,” Hensley says.

Hensley was sold on fishing stoneflies two years ago after that first fish of a lifetime.

“I never thought I’d beat that fish,” he says.

But beating it with the same fish two years later is a testament to the health of the upper Rogue and the success of good catch-and-release practices, Hensley says.

And catching the same big trout twice garnered Hensley naming rights.

“We named her Ella Fish-Gerald,” Hensley laughs.

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

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Jeff Hensley makes a cast for trout on the Rogue River near Takelma County Park.