Expert guide Darren Roe shares his tips for taking the tackle-busting spring salmon on this famous Oregon water. (April 2007)
Photo courtesy of Roe Outfitters
At the launch at Touvelle with a limit of spring chinook. Ahhh, life is good! This is the last take-out for six miles -- and the end of a good day on the water when the fish are higher in the river.
Chinook salmon get big on the Rogue River. Most fall between 15 and 40 pounds. But four years ago, an angler landed one that weighed 71 pounds, 8 ounces, 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 for many anglers, spring kings are the main event in April, when the run's vanguard 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. In March, chinook trickle into the bay. The run builds in April, and the best fishing peaks in May. By the end of June, most of the run will have entered the river.
"These fish don't spawn in the lower river," said Steve Mazur, assistant district fish biologist in Gold Beach. "They're headed to Grants Pass and beyond, where they can summer over. They run on the spring runoff, when they can access the river. Then they can hang out all summer long and be ready to spawn in late August, September and October."
To get there, they take the path of least resistance. "When they're moving up, they're cutting the corners," Mazur said. "You'll find them in 4 to 6 feet of water until the river drops and clears, at which time they seek the safety of deeper water."
ELEPHANT ROCK TO FOSTER BAR
Most guides and anglers from outside the area concentrate on the lower reaches from Elephant Rock to the gravel bar at the old Champion Mill.
Many salmon are taken on the troll in the bay. Casting plugs, spoons and spinners can produce strikes on incoming tides where the water narrows near Elephant Rock.
In tidewater, the best fishing is an hour before to an hour after tide change. Try trolling a No. 6 Blue Fox spinner with a chartreuse body and silver blade. Dress it up with red or dark green accent tape. Fish it slowly, 2 to 3 feet from the bottom. Upstream in lower, clearer water, try smaller spinners in the same color combinations.
Another tactic that pays off is fly-fishing for salmon that stack up in tidewater, waiting for rain. The trick is to use a fast-sinking fly line and flashy baitfish imitations. Cast beyond the fish, then let the fly sink and bring it back in long, slow strips.
My favorite technique, one of the most exciting ways to catch these fish, is with sand shrimp or salmon eggs on a hook beneath a float. When the bobber goes down, it descends 3 feet, 4 feet or deeper. The hookset connects you to one of the strongest, hardest-fighting, best-tasting fish on the planet.
This tactic is favored by Darren Roe of Roe Outfitters. "You can use either just eggs or just sand shrimp or a combination -- which we call a shrimp cocktail," he said. Reach him at RoeOutfitters.com, or phone (541) 884-3825.
Knot a 3-way swivel to your main line. Attach 24 to 30 inches of leader, terminating at a 1/0-4/0 single hook. Attach a sinker (1/4 to 4 ounces) to the other leg of the swivel. Fix an adjustable bobber to the mainline.
Thread the sand shrimp all the way up the line, then put eggs in the egg loop and let the shrimp drop down on top of the eggs. Roe employs 24 to 30 inches of leader and 50-pound braided line. He greases the line with floatant. That way you can mend the line as a flyfisherman would and keep the bait drifting naturally with the current. Fish the bait at or slightly above where fish are holding in the water column.
Adjust according to the depth, knowing that even though the hole may be 15 feet deep, you might want to be fishing only 6 feet deep.
Pay close attention to your float. Bites can be powerful, but may also be soft. At the slightest movement, set the hook.
"There's no doubt about it when the bobber goes down," Roe said, then offered one more tip. When he has several people in the boat, he uses different-colored bobbers for each person. "When we're fishing a back eddy, the bobbers might make a daisy chain, and it's easy to lose track.
"One moment, you're watching three bobbers. You look away for a moment, then look back and there are only two!"
In the springtime, Roe looks for two different types of water-- traveling water and holding water. "I catch over half of my salmon in traveling water," he said. "Those fish that are moving are the most aggressive."
Traditional holding water is 6 to 30 feet deep in holes that may be 20 feet to 200 yards long. Such places hold numbers of fish where they stack up. If the fish are fresh, getting them to take the bait or lure is easier than if they've been there awhile. Stay on the move until you find the biters.
In April, Lobster Creek and Quosatana Creek upstream to Agness is where most of the locals spend time. Here, anglers change tactics and anchor up to fish spinners or anchovies.
"Virtually any inside corner is a good run," Roe said. "You're looking for 4 to 6 feet of water. Anchor one side of your boat on 4 feet, and the other on 6 feet. If you miss that mark by more than six inches, you'll be out of fish."
If you fish spinners when the weather's sunny and the water's clear, use gold or brass. When it's murky and overcast, try a dark green and fluorescent green.
RAINIE FALLS TO GRANTS PASS
Spinner fishing is effective upstream, as well. Brass and copper-plated spinners in No. 4 and 5 work well throughout the river.
Rainie Falls is one of the best bank-angling hotspots in the lower middle Rogue. The road crosses the river at Grave Creek, the upper limit of the Wild and Scenic Area, and there are trails on both banks downriver.
"Put your walking shoes on and take your heart medicine," Roe said.
Most people carry backpacks with a couple of garbage bags to pack the fish out. Many also bring a spare rod, since broken r
ods are common on the spring run.
"The first mile and a half below Rainie Falls really stacks up the fish," said Roe.
You can use bobbers and eggs and sand shrimp, or just eggs, or use traditional drift gear. Sturgeon eat eggs and sand shrimp, too, and they're the wild card at Rainie Falls.
Upstream, consider the good holding water, some of it deep, above Pierce Riffle. Springers suspend in the run called Pierce Boil. There may be a lot of fish, but people miss them by fishing close to the bottom. Try different depths until you get a grab.
GRANTS PASS TO LOST CREEK RESERVOIR
Native fish spawn from Rattlesnake Rapids upstream to the dam. Hatchery fish stack in the Shady Cove area above the bridge, but don't overlook the traveling water downstream. The water from Shady Cove down to White City can hold a lot of fish.
Back-bouncing and pulling Kwikfish can pay off with big grabs for boat anglers. When a lot of fish are rolling in the back-eddies, employ the bobber and bait.
For the shore-bound, other good bets for springers are at Macgregor Park, Casey State Park, the Slide Hole (right below Casey State Park) and the Cable Hole (near the confluence of Brush Creek on the south side and Bush Creek on the north bank).
Upstream, fish the Glass House Hole and Betts Hole (for boaters) and the Chief Hole, just below the hatchery. Bank anglers can fish that inside turn very well and put the steel to a spring king. When the bobber goes down or your rod arches in the rod-holder, there's going to be a battle.
Reel-burning runs, aerial acrobatics, surface rolls and deep-water dogging tactics are all part of the chinook's bag of tricks. And if the fish is big, the contest can last up to an hour.
It's rare to hook a freshwater fish that has the muscle to make a mockery of the tackle designed to subdue it. But the opportunity exists whenever you match your brains against the brawn of the kings of spring.
Daily limit is two chinook, except that you may keep only one non-adipose fin-clipped salmon and no more than three per year. See the 2007 Oregon Sport Fishing Regulations for restrictions specific to the Rogue and its tributaries. The state's Web site, dfw.state.or.us, is also a good resource.