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One in 1,000

GALICE — With a worm on his hook and a Coors in his pocket, Jory Bowen chose to take advantage of his new-found freedom on a Rogue River gravel bar in the middle of a drabby Friday.

Bowen's single impediment to winter steelhead fishing success ended abruptly Feb. 6 when he received a pink slip at his metal-stud framing job at Seven Feathers Casino in Canyonville.

"I haven't caught any winter steelhead in three years," says Bowen, 26, of Hugo. "I've been working all the time."

On his first cast near the top of the gravel bar at Rand, a 20-inch, hatchery-bred winter steelhead — the runt of the Rogue River steelhead litter — engulfed Bowen's worm and corkie, converting itself from swimmer to dinner in the process.

"First steelhead of the year. I'm jazzed," Bowen bellows to no one in particular. "This one's going in the frying pan, for sure."

Winter steelhead fishing on the Rogue this month is much like the economy — down, but not out.

Despite relatively low returns of wild and hatchery steelhead so far, this year's run is showing enough vitality at its halfway point to keep diehards and accidental anglers like Bowen confidently chasing these "Fish of 1,000 Casts."

The Northwest adage is that anglers can expect to hook a steelhead every 1,000 times they chuck a lure, chunk of roe or even a worm and corkie — a middle Rogue staple during rainstorms — into the region's steelhead streams.

Yet even in down years, the Rogue sports enough fresh fish to bend enough rods and generate enough optimism to keep anglers like Bowen saying no to Jerry Springer and yes to Rogue gravel bars, even on cold winter days.

"You got to be out with your line in the water, put in your hours just like everybody else if you want to catch steelhead," says Bowen, a bank-fishing aficionado who favors the gravel bars around Galice during mid-February. "No matter what, it's always better than sitting at home.

"Who knows," he says. "This could be my lucky day."

Luck goes both ways for steelhead anglers on the Rogue, where this year's run started early in December but petered out through January amid a series of unfortunate occurrences.

Many of this year's crop of returning adult fish are part of the classes that suffered through poor ocean conditions, meaning fewer survived in the ocean to adulthood.

Moreover, the cold and dry January brought about the worst fishing conditions short of a flood. Low and cold flows halted upriver migrations. Those that reached the middle Rogue suffered through a teeth-chattering malaise that made for a slow bite.

In short, it made the normally bountiful Rogue into just another steelhead stream at times.

"Usually, on a slow year, our steelhead are phenomenal," says Russ Stauff, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue watershed manager. "Most years, they're extraordinarily phenomenal. This year, it's poor."

But the funny thing about winter steelhead is that they refuse to be pigeon-holed.

"Steelhead are notorious for their plasticity," Stauff says. "All these fish we should have seen, I don't know. Maybe they'll show up today."

The steelhead this day, however, aren't making their presence felt at Rand, where a handful of anglers cast away their Friday at the lower and upper ends.

Joining Bowen is a steelhead neophyte.

Bobby Douglas is a 26-year-old welder and Merlin lifer who is more into hunting and lake-fishing for trout than steelhead. He also is out of work.

"I think that's everybody's story — temporary lay-off," Douglas says.

Imitating Bowen, Douglas offers cast after cast into the river, but he shows little patience. As the pencil lead, leader, hook and worm dribble along the submerged gravel, the ticking of the rod tip teases Douglas into thinking each rock is a bite.

"If you don't know what it feels like, you don't know what to feel for," Douglas says.

When drift fishing, a steelhead's bite often translates into a less rhythmic wiggle and pull than the steady ticking that fills Douglas' day.

Bowen cleans his fish on the tailgate of his pickup as they break from casting for cigarettes and a beer.

"If no one's catching anything for hours, you want to leave," Douglas says. "But when your buddy catches one, it gives you hope."

Hope is an integral part of steelhead fishing in the icy cold days of winter, just as it is when weathering unemployment in a deepening recession.

"If I'm going to be successful, I have to put in my hours," Douglas says. "If not today, then maybe tomorrow."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

Jory Bowen of Hugo holds up a steelhead he caught from the bank while drift-fishing a worm at Rand gravel bar on the middle Rogue River. - Jamie Lusch