Rogue River Summer Salmon

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

Chinook salmon get big on the Rogue River. Most fall between 15 and 40 pounds. But a few years ago, one was landed that weighed in at 71 pounds, 8 ounces, and bumped a whole lot of other big kings back a notch to take over the record as the biggest salmon ever landed with a fly rod.

The Rogue can offer fantastic fishing any month of the year, but to many anglers, spring kings are the main event. It all kicks off in April when the vanguard of the run enters the lower river.

Dropping for 200 miles from the high Cascades, the Rogue empties into the Pacific through a narrow estuary near the town of Gold Beach. Spring Chinook trickle into the bay in March and the run builds in April, with the peak of the best fishing in May. By the end of June, the majority of the run will have entered the river.

The Chinook, also called a king salmon, or tyee, is regarded as one of the finest of freshwater game fishes, both on the water and on the table. There are few places better to chase them than on the Rogue in southwest Oregon. 

Reel-burning runs, aerial acrobatics, surface rolls and deep-water dogging tactics are all part of the Chinook's bag of tricks. And the contest can last up to an hour if the fish is big.

The angler that hopes to put a filet of Chinook on the grill is allowed to keep only fish that were reared in a hatchery. A quick way to tell the difference is by looking at the adipose fin, which is located on top, between the dorsal and the tail. If it has an intact adipose, let it go. If it is clipped, keep it, there is no finer eating salmon than a spring-run Chinook.

Keith Carter handed out the rods and a tray of cured steelhead eggs. I slid an orange puff ball onto the hook and cinched down a chunk of steelhead roe on a Daiichi hook. “Put on a two-ounce lead for this first run,” Carter said.

He pointed the bow of the boat downriver and we slid out into the main current. Wes Neal followed us down with Brad Douglas and John McDevitt in his boat. The first hole was a hard right turn with a soft spot on the outside.

It's hard to catch a salmon on a hot day with the sun on the water. But we had Keith Carter at the sticks and Dave Pease along for good luck.

Thumb the spool, let the current peel out the line, wait for the bump as the lead touches bottom. Thumb down. Lift. Bounce it back. Lift. Release. There is a rhythm.

In 1986, Dave Pease walked into the Cole M. Rivers Fish Hatchery and thought it looked like a fun place to work. 23 years later, he is the Assistant Manager and the first friendly face many salmon see after three, four or five years in the ocean.

We helped him greet a batch of fresh fin-clipped kings, earlier in the day. To make it back to the hatchery, these fish had survived years in the salt, sea lions and gauntlets of gillnetters, sport-fishermen and other hazards.

Cole Rivers Hatchery in the tailwater of Lost Creek Reservoir on the Rogue River raises rainbow trout, steelhead, fall salmon and spring Chinook. We saw them all in various stages of their life cycles: football fields of fingerlings; aisles of alevins, recently hatched. 

Hatchery salmon are marked by fin-clips. The most common marking is the removal of the fatty adipose fin. The operation is performed by computer or by hand.

The fish that were too small to be computer-clipped were routed through a tube to a couple of ladies with long-limbed snippers. Reach down, grab, snip. Grab another, snip – making it easy for anglers, if they hook one, four or five years later, to tell the difference between a wild fish and a hatchery-reared Chinook.

I hoped I'd get a chance to examine an adipose fin later in the day.

It was 99 degrees at the boat ramp. Our guide Keith Carter pulled in at noon and we waited while dozens of rafters got ready for splash-and-giggle rides down the river. You want to see wildlife? Book a midday summer run.

A hot summer day in the Rogue Valley brings them out, inflatables, bikinis, adult beverages, water cannons and all.

We slid around the second corner in time to see a bank fisherman hook up with an acrobatic ten-pound hen. Dropping in below them, we walked our baits downriver and I felt the downward motion turn to a wiggle. I set the hook twice, but it turned out to be a branch, not a salmon. We drifted down.

It was interesting to note that Budweiser had sponsored the signs that marked the holes where inebriated people had drowned.

In a long deep run, a fish grabbed and charged upstream toward the boat. I couldn't catch up. It spit the eggs, I set the hook against a pile of slack line, leaning so far back, my hat fell off. 

Around a couple of corners, at a place called Dead Man Hole, with 150 feet of line out, a tug tingled in the rod tip and shivered in the grip. Thumb against the spool, I felt a head shake and slammed the rod back once and again. The fish turned its side to me and surged.

Ring finger against the pistol grip, thumb hooked over the top of the reel, I fought to gain line as Keith slipped us down to the top of the rapids. In the shallows above the tailout, it turned and pointed back upstream. When I had the fish's head up, I pulled the rod back up over my hat and Keith slid the net under 15 pounds of salmon.

That was when we realized we should have brought one of the ladies from the hatchery. With her snippers. This one had an adipose. It was a native fish. We put it back in the water to make more wild salmon.

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