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Winter fly-fishing explodes on lower Rogue

AGNESS — One of the driest winters on record, which has shut down winter steelhead fishing in the Rogue Valley, has created a perfect storm of sorts for fly-fishers barely east of the salt air.

Near-record low-water conditions on the lower Rogue River during the height of that stretch's winter steelhead season have generated unseasonably good fishing here, particularly for disciples of the fly.

Swinging streamers or drifting nymphs through waters normally much higher and darker during January have suddenly made fly-fishers the hit of a party that most years they're not even invited to.

"The fly-fishing really has been tremendous," says Jim Carey, who monitors the pulse of lower Rogue fishing from behind the counter of the Rogue Outdoor Store in Gold Beach.

"I've never sold this many flies, especially at this time of year," Carey says. "We just don't see this kind of fly-fishing in winter."

That makes the lower Rogue's nymphers and streamer-casters and spey-rodders this year's first angling group to realize that, while drought conditions can be very bad for fish in the long run, they can be a short-term boon to fishing, particularly fly-fishing.

The riffles and runs around the sleepy little hamlet of Agness, 33 miles east of Gold Beach, have been well-known to fly-fishers since Zane Grey spilled the beans 80 years ago. But that's strictly for a mix of summer steelhead and halfpounders, those unique immature steelhead 13 to 15 inches long that winter in the Rogue after one year in saltwater.

Often, it's a swinger's show with historic streamers such as the golden demon, red ant, royal coachmen and the juicy bug, which was former President Jimmy Carter's fave when he and Rosalyn fly-fished the Rogue in 1989.

Cast floating or sink-tip lines through riffles at a 30-degree angle downstream, let the fly sweep through the riffle and wait for the reel music when the aggressive steelhead come to play.

Flow and catch records kept for decades by Medford guide Irv Urie during floats through the Lower Rogue Canyon show fly-fishing is best when flows are under 2,000 cubic feet per second in Agness, the end of the canyon float.

Most autumns see flows a little above that. During dry years, they're under that.

But that's for summer steelhead, when anglers wade in shorts.

Those conditions typically don't exist in winter, when the lower Rogue runs high and a little off-color. It's a paradise for plunkers who sit on the bank and dangle large Spin-Glo's in migration lanes.

Fly-fishing? Not so much. Winter steelhead usually can't see far enough to chase a fly.

"And why would they?" Carey says. "The water's normally almost brown. You'd have to put a fly right at their mouth for them to bite."

But not this January, when some of the driest weather ever recorded in Medford has all but redefined what's low in the lower Rogue.

The Agness gauge bottomed out late Monday at just a hair above 1,500 cfs. That's just 50 cfs above the record low set in 1977, which turned into a drought more severe than those of 1992 and '94 — the how-dry-is-dry measuring stick for anglers here younger than 50.

The low flows have stalled migration through the canyon and into the Grants Pass area, which normally is lousy with steelhead by Super Bowl Sunday. Steelhead likewise aren't shooting up the Illinois River, a main Rogue Basin steelhead factory whose confluence is just downstream of Agness.

They're stuck, all around Agness.

Although the low flows are cold, the cold doesn't bother winter steelhead like it does summers. And the clarity makes straight gin appear murky.

"With the clarity of the water, it's unbelievable," Carey says. "You can pull a fish in from 6 or even 10 feet away."

Though lower Rogue flows have more than doubled since then to about 3,300 cfs Thursday, they are forecast to drop back down to under 1,700 cfs early next week.

Though not well known, the lower Rogue isn't strictly a no-cast zone for winter fly-fishers. Some like Drew Harper of Gold Beach are known to pick around the plunkers and swing big, visible flies that occasionally get munched by winter steelhead.

This year's streamer flies are a summer steelhead-esque size 6, and the plunkers are rarely in sight.

"Normally they're not nearly as active as they are now," Harper says. "The plunkers are none too happy."

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