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Rainbow respite

TRAIL — When Jack Patterson needs respite from the wintery Rogue Valley, he heads to the land of the rising rainbow.

The impounded stretch of the Rogue River between Lost Creek dam and Cole Rivers Hatchery, dubbed by its trout-fishing disciples as the "Holy Water," is mostly hallowed for its July salmon-fly hatch and other bug hatches during the year.

But Patterson wants none of that.

"I don't fish it in the summer," Patterson says. "Never have. Too crowded."

Instead he loads up his fly box with woolly bugger flies and leeches, then flees the cold rain on the valley floor for a day of casting and stripping flies for trout in the higher-elevation sun.

"I just use it for winter fishing, to get away for a while," Patterson says.

Now is the perfect time for fly-fishers to acquaint themselves with the Holy Water in winter, when stripping leeches for stocked rainbow trout creates an excellent escape from the cold valley fog that fades and disappears during the 45-minute drive from Medford to the upper end of the upper Rogue near Trail.

Steelhead anglers waiting out the lull between the upper Rogue's summer and winter steelhead runs can dust off their smaller trout rods and enjoy a few hours of messing with rainbows in one of the Pacific Northwest's most unique fisheries.

The isolated eight-tenths of a mile stretch of the Rogue is devoid of the rest of the Rogue's salmon and steelhead runs, which end at the hatchery collection pond just below the Holy Water's downstream barrier.

Instead, it's stocked annually with rainbow trout, which are joined by washouts that escape Lost Creek Lake's outflow, creating a viable population of catchable rainbow trout.

An invitation to play with the fishes comes with plenty of strings. It's relegated to catch-and-release fishing only with traditional fly gear and barbless hooks.

During winter, it fishes best between storms when Lost Creek Lake outflows are low, like they are this week, when releases were a manageable 1,400 cubic feet per second.

Higher-skilled fly-fishers target the flats with tiny midge nymphs with long, thin leaders and strike indicators on dry lines to prey on rainbows sipping emergers in the film or hatched flies off the surface.

An easier, more consistent approach is with leech patterns or leech-imitating woolly buggers cast and stripped through deeper environs with slower water where trout activity is closer to the bottom.

Black, olive and even bright-red leeches tied sparsely on No. 10 or No. 12 hooks dredged along the bottom can scare up rainbows under less stealthy conditions. Full sinking lines usually outperform sink-tips.

Patterson does both.

He's a two-fisted fisher, carries a midging rod and a rod loaded with his trusty greenish woolly bugger, and he casts either based on his mood, or that of the trout.

"This woolly bugger has worked real well for me," he says. "But I just love it when they come up for nymphs."

Fly-casters primarily have a love-like relationship with the Holy Water rainbows.

An ongoing angler survey here shows that 63 percent of anglers rate their experience as excellent or good, with only 29 percent calling it fair and 8 percent poor.

While reported catch rates fluctuate widely, the average over the past two weeks is just under four trout per trip per angler, says Ryan Battleson, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist overseeing the survey.

"Four fish a day? That's not a bad day," Battleson says.

The two trout per hour per angler also represents the second-highest two-week period since the survey started in early May, but the reporting cards show vast discrepancies in catches per angler.

"A lot of guys are saying they're catching a lot of fish, but there are a lot of zeroes on those cards," Battleson says.

Some guys, obviously, have it figured out, and some guys don't."

Patterson resembles both in his winter forays.

Employing his full arsenal, Patterson couldn't scare up a trout in his three-plus hours of fishing Tuesday.

It makes up for other days.

"I got totally skunked," says Patterson, 73, the retired Griffin Creek School principal.

"Three years ago, I had a 19-fish day," says Patterson, a member of the Medford-based Rogue FlyFishers Association. "I got one 20 inches a week before last. That was a beautiful fish.

"You can go there one day and get a bunch of fish, and the next day not get a bite," Patterson says. "I think the fish just need to be in the mood."

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


Jack Patterson fishes a leech pattern Tuesday at the Holy Water between Lost Creek dam and Cole Rivers Hatchery. [Mail Tribune / Jamie lusch]
A 16-inch rainbow trout fell for this black leech pattern. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]