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Jimmy Carter on the fly

AGNESS — Just one cast in, I looked downstream through the morning sun to see a strange concoction of fly-fishers making their way from parked pickups to waiting driftboats at Illahe Lodge, just outside the downstream boundary of the Wild Rogue River.

Stiff, clean, straw hats on two square-jawed men swiveled as they methodically surveyed the area, barely noticing me casting for steelhead 100 yards upstream. Then a strangely clean SUV pulled up, and out stepped a decidedly older couple who were immediately escorted to their driftboat, where a river guide was already on the oars.

It had to be them. Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.

I reeled up my royal coachman and started bounding downstream for the real catch that day — a strange, not-so-random and somewhat surreal interlude with the fly-fishing former president and first lady on their steelhead trip down this remote stretch of the Rogue, deemed one of America's first Wild and Scenic rivers 21 years earlier.

And it played out much to the chagrin of anxious Secret Service agents who learned all too late that driftboats are meant to float down rivers, not up them.

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act turns 50 this year, and Carter, a wild rivers advocate since his whitewater canoe trip on Georgia's Chattooga River in 1974 convinced him of their rugged fragility, is one of the more noted voices now speaking up for the act and other special places perhaps worthy of such designation.

The Carters experienced the "outstandingly remarkable values" that made the Wild Rogue one of America's original eight wild rivers during a presidential four-day float in October 1989.

Two days after the Carters and their entourage launched from Grave Creek and into the remote canyon with a Eugene guiding outfit, a fellow guide spilled the beans that POTUS No. 39 and his bride of 43 years were somewhere in the Lower Rogue Canyon fly-fishing for steelhead.

Mail Tribune Editor John Reid sent me to find, interview and photograph them.

Yeah, right. Like I'm going to find a small cadre of people who don't want to be found along a 34-mile isolated stretch of river without any idea of their itinerary?

The only way to do it, I surmised, was to drive over Bear Camp Road to the end road past Foster Bar, which is the normal takeout for a three- or four-day trip, hike up past Illahe Lodge toward Watson Creek, where the river gets skinny, and fish there until the Carters come by.

The logic was that Illahe Lodge was a much more a presidential takeout than the more pedestrian Foster Bar ramp.

Either way, I had a full day's fishing regardless of whether I actually intercepted the First Fly-Fishers.

Really, it was a complete crapshoot. But it constituted a day of fly-fishing for steelhead on the company dime.

But just one cast into that junket everything changed.

The Carters weren't reaching Illahe Lodge that day. They were leaving, at that moment.

After the Secret Service agents loaded the Carters into guide Don Dill's driftboat, the agents got into a companion boat. I started bouncing downstream in my waders as the agents' boat started downstream first, ahead of Driftboat One.

Dill's boat was moving slowly sideways toward the riffle, unaware I was bouncing downstream in nipple-high water ready to pounce, literally.

I grabbed the gunnel right next to Carter, who looked down quizzically at me.

"Hi, sir," I said. "I'm Mark Freeman from the Mail Tribune newspaper in Medford, Oregon. How's the fishing?"

"It's kind of slow," said Carter, who is probably the only man to be cleanly shaven at the end of a four-day wilderness fishing trip. "Do you know why?"

Carter motioned to Dill to row us into more shallow water. Instead of using his oar to rub me off like a barnacle, he complied. Rosalynn sat unfettered, like this was all planned.

So I told the Carters about Rogue steelhead, depressed numbers of wild steelhead and the new and not-so-popular catch-and-release rule on wild steelhead, to which he smiled approvingly.

He told me how he read all about Rogue steelhead and its rich fly-fishing tradition. His favorite fly this trip was the juicy bug, and he tied all the flies the couple used on their trip.

I noticed the Secret Service boat about 50 yards downstream. One of the agents stood up and pointed toward us, which caused the second agent's head to swivel.

Rosalynn, who was wearing makeup, chirped that her 23 1/4-inch steelhead was the biggest of the trip, and that she learned to fly-fish in the Camp David swimming pool. Jimmy reminded her that his 14-pound British Columbia steelhead remains the family record.

We all laughed, like we knew each other.

The guy rowing the agents' boat was huffing as he tried to power the boat back upstream to protect their charge.

I pulled out the camera concealed in my fly vest and asked if I could snap a photo. Jimmy fixed his hair under his cap while Rosalynn straightened her yellow raincoat to a chorus of muffles from the agents' boat.

After a few photos, I said thanks as Dill guided Driftboat One downstream — much to the relief of the agents.

Too bad they didn't realize they had nothing to worry about.

When it comes to past presidents, I am strictly catch and release.

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

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter floated the Wild and Scenic Rogue on a four-day fishing trip in October 1989 with guide Dean Helfrich. Carter is championing wild rivers this year during the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. [Mail Tribune / Mark Freeman]