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On the fly

Fall is flies-only season on the upper Rogue River

SHADY COVE — Brian Winkler casts his combination of a stonefly and a Princess nymph Saturday through dank, smoky air that makes his N-95 mask the most important upper Rogue River fishing accessory of this fall.

The two flies drift under Winkler’s strike indicator without any hint of interest from fish below. Suddenly, the indicator plunges out of sight and a hefty Rogue summer steelhead leaps skyward.

The steelhead runs hard and strong for several minutes, adding two more moments of aerial artistry before Winkler finally coaxes the wild fish into a net.

Winkler breaks into a smile of a 8-year-old boy who just discovered his Red Ryder BB gun with the compass in the stock on Christmas morning.

“Man, that was fun,” says Winkler, of Medford. “My arm hurts and I’m shaking. And I bet I’ll be shaking the rest of the day.”

Mail Tribune/Mark Freeman Brian Winkler holds a 5-pound upper Rogue River steelhead he caught and released while fly-fishing Saturday near Shady Cove.

That adrenaline-laced shake of landing a majestic steelhead on a fly will be stirring among upper Rogue apostles in upcoming weeks as the heart of the fly-fishers season moves forward.

With traditional Oregon steelhead powerhouses like the North Umpqua and Deschutes rivers closed this year amid poor returns, the Rogue’s mix of wild and hatchery summer steelhead aren’t stellar this year.

But they are strong enough to stay open and offer at least the opportunity of an epic float with flies.

“It’s nice being here where we still have fish,” says Alex Rachowicz, a fly-fishing guide and owner of downtown Medford’s Rogue Valley Anglers.

“A good September day is hooking three or four fish, but I’ve had clients who hook up to 12,” Rachowicz says. “They might not be 15-pounders, but we do have a lot of steelhead.”

September and October mark the traditional flies-only season on the upper Rogue upstream of Fishers Ferry boat ramp, creating a veritable house party for those who live to flick flies toward aggressive and willing steelhead.

But it’s not invitation-only. Rather, something of a dress code.

While Winkler caught his 5-pound wild buck — a solid example of an upper Rogue steelhead — using conventional fly gear, others using standard spinning rods, flies and a bobber legally can hit the dance floor.

Just remember, no added weights or attachments such as lead split-shot or even swivels.

The upper Rogue’s flies-only season dates back decades and pays homage to how man’s influence over river systems hasn’t managed to completely emasculate this mighty river.

The Rogue boasts three runs of wild salmon and two runs of wild steelhead, plus a consortium of complimentary fish raised and released from Cole Rivers Hatchery near Trail.

The wild fish component alone make it Oregon’s largest producer of salmon and steelhead outside of the Columbia River, and the overlapping of runs can cause some management issues.

Both wild spring chinook and fall chinook spawn in the main-stem Rogue at the same time feisty steelhead enter this stretch of the Rogue.

It’s best that anglers steer clear of spawning chinook to keep from harassing them, yet still get access to summer steelhead. That’s hard to do with bait, lures and other angling hardware that are apt to incidentally hook spawning chinook.

The two-month flies-only season is a solution to this conundrum. Steelhead are actively feeding on insects or individual salmon eggs that both are easily replicated with artificial flies.

Traditionally, the fall meant swinging streamer flies ala Zane Grey. That’s casting out and letting a streamer fly swing in an arc through the top third of the water column, daring a steelhead to chase it down.

But nymphing has taken over as the presentation of preference in most rivers, including the upper Rogue.

A weighted stonefly acts as a “dropper” fly that heads toward the bottom, dragging with it a “point” fly of a smaller nymph or egg fly. The combo drifts drag-free downstream under a strike indicator alongside a deftly oared driftboat.

That puts two flies in a steelhead’s underwater wheelhouse, instead of a streamer swinging unnaturally overhead.

Rachowicz equates this approach to a man’s taste for bacon-cheeseburgers. Drift one effortlessly in front of his face, and he’ll likely take a bite of that cheeseburger even if he’s full. But put it on a skateboard and fling it down the street, he’s less likely to take chase.

“When nymphing, you’re just putting that bacon-cheeseburger on a plate and making it real easy to eat,” Rachowicz laughs. “That’s nymphing versus winging. ”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com.