With the coming of early fall, the great run of steelhead enter the mouth of the Rogue River on their annual migration up the river to spawn. This is the time of year when many fishermen make the boat trip through the wilderness area of the Rogue from Grants Pass to Gold Beach.
The boats are launched, and the 60 mile trip of lovely wilderness lies ahead. This trip will take four days. Nights are spent camping on the gravel bars or staying at the lodges maintained especially for the river adventurers.
No sooner do the boats get underway, when the first white water shows in the distance. From then on there will be many rapids and, in addition, one falls that must be portaged. The degree of danger in the rapids is soon manifested by the numerous wrecked boats lying along the shore. This is a river for the experienced only. Each summer many boats are capsized and some lost by the river runners. People come from all over the united states to try their luck or skill on the Rogue.
In early afternoon, as soon as the shade reaches a good riffle, the rods are set up and fishing begins. This is the thrill that many have been waiting for. There is no greater fish for fighting qualities and fast action than a steelhead. The strike is fast and harem and it may be 20 minutes until the hooked fish is landed.
Most of the “dudes” making this trip with a guide are novices in fishing, and one can imagine the excitement of hooking the first fish. With the landing of the fish, it is now time to find a good spot for lunch. Grilled steelhead with a little salt, butter, and lemon juice is fit for a king. Just as the fish finishes browning over the hot coals, a handful of green willow is added to smoke it for a few minutes.
By late afternoon the shadows are falling in the deep canyon, and it is time to think about making camp. It is also time for the bears to come out in their evening patrol of the stream banks, in hopes of finding a salmon. Quite a number of salmon die in their spawning migration and float downstream. In a deep stream like this, the bears can seldom catch their own.
On every early fall trip we see from one to five black bears. They have plainly marked trails up and down the banks, where they travel nightly to seek a salmon that has drifted into the shore.
On the last trip we saw a big black bear coming slowly up along the river. As he climbed over a rock ledge, his belly came into contact with the rough rocks. This felt so good that he remained there for a minute or so scratching himself on the rocks.
The rapids and fishing have been so exciting that little time has been spent admiring the scenery. In all of Oregon there is no more rugged or beautiful sight. Great walled canyons enclose the river in narrow gorges. A river 200 feet wide will be crammed down a solid rock shoot not more than 20 feet wide.
The erosion of centuries is depicted in the solid black basalt. Weird figures have been carved by the sand and gravel of past floods. The rock walls near the water have been worn smooth and shiny, but, above the high water mark, a great variety of shrubs and trees climbing to the precipitous sides.
This is where the northern and southern plant life meet. Douglas firs are mixed with Ponderosa pines, and rhododendrons give way to azaleas. California Bay trees appear in high groves, and four species of oaks grow on the dry hillsides. Madrone trees with their lovely smooth brown bark line the river banks, while the first Port Orford cedars appear as we near the coast.
It is a country of much wild game. Besides the deer and bear, other animals such as coyotes, lynx cats and cougars, leave their tracks on the sand bars. Almost every steep bank has its otter slide, and we frequently see a family of river otters fishing or playing near the water.
They are the most playful and affectionate of all animal families. With a shrill chirp of “follow me,” they dive and swim, chasing each other through the deep pools. Occasionally they come up from a dive with a fish in their mouths. The fish is usually a trash fish such as a chub or sucker, but sometimes they catch a salmon or steelhead. Then the whole family climbs up on a rock to dine. Wild pigeons feed on the acorns of the oak trees; flocks of crows wander on a sand bar; a covey of mountain quail will come down to the water’s edge, and a lonely great blue heron will stand motionless in the shallows waiting for a fish to swim by. Mergansers and wood ducks line the stream. They are seldom disturbed, except by a passing boat.
Early morning mist rise from the river as the first fishing of the day begins. The air is crisp with the chill of fall in the air. The boats drift almost soundlessly into steelhead water.
As the deep rugged canyon cuts through the coast range, the mountains give way to more rounded hills covered with heavy timber. The geological formations change. From a canyon of solid rock, one now enters a sedimentary rock area. Conglomerate gravels, sandstone and shale appear. There is evidence of an ancient lake or riverbed. A faint touch of ocean breeze reaches up the river, and a few seagulls appear.
The river becomes less turbulent, and the first signs of civilization are at Illahee. After three days of wilderness, one is coming back to the world of motors and men. The Rogue River has been run, but pleasant memories of remote riffles and gravel bars remain.
By Prince Helfrich
Published in Tales of the Oregon Cascades by Prince Helfrich