Beaver Pelts and Bobber-doggin'
By Gary LewisIf January is good on the Umpqua, February is great. That's when an angler has a chance at putting up big numbers of bright steelhead, fresh from the ocean. The Umpqua is one of the state's top producers. These are fish headed up to the forks and the best place to be is on the main river somewhere in the vicinity of Elkton and old Fort Umpqua.
In 1832 the Hudson’s Bay Company built a fort that was to become the southernmost outpost of the fur company’s influence. From here the HBC controlled the trade for beaver on the Umpqua, Rogue and Klamath. The beaver pelt became the medium of exchange. To buy fish hooks, glass beads or brandy or just about anything else you had to pay in beaver. There was evidence along the shore that beaver still call these waters home, but we were here for steelhead.
Winfield Durham sipped coffee. Lyn Hocker cinched a thumb-size patch of salmon eggs under a puff of yarn, while Jody Smith, our guide powered the boat away from the launch.
According to the weatherman, we could expect sunshine all day. We kept looking for it. “This fog is going to burn off in a few minutes.” “There’s a little patch of blue right there.”
We ran upstream and Jody pointed us toward the best water. The rods were set up for bobber-dogging, a form of side-drifting that employs a float that rides up against a bobber stop to drag a “slinky” weight and 18 inches of leader among the rocks and hopefully among the fish we knew were there.
Last week, Jody said, another guide had helped his clients boat 24 steelhead. We could be right in the middle of a pile of fish or they could have jetted upstream.
On the drop since the last rain, the Umpqua was in good condition, steelhead green. Our confidence ran high.
Yes, our bobbers dipped and bounced and several times looked like fish had taken the bait. Once, Lyn reeled up a ten-inch coho smolt and let it go. “Catch you later.”
The rains came. Still, the screen on Jody’s smartphone told him it was sunny. It looked like a low pressure system had moved in while the weatherman wasn’t looking. We wished the weatherman was with us, although we didn’t have a rain jacket for him.
At lunch, we anchored up and switched to Tadpolly plugs in a spot Jody's grandfather had shown him.
“I have never, ever been skunked in this spot,” Jody said. Why fish anywhere else?
I ate my roast beast sandwich and watched the sky. At 1:20, the sun broke through and I looked at my watch. Ten minutes, I told myself, and we’ll get a fish. It happened eight minutes later. The rod buried almost all the way to the water and the fish broke for mid-river.
When I had gained most of the line back, we saw it, long and silver in the water, a steelhead with an intact adipose. This was a fish descended from the fish those first pioneers hoped to catch when they traded one pelt for five hooks. Here, 40 miles up from the ocean, the nickel-bright fish had turned our otherwise dreary day on the river into a memory.
You can put a price on fish hooks and after some days on the river, a gallon of brandy is worth ten beaver, but every steelhead is a gift.