The Rogue River in southern Oregon presents an exceptional opportunity to get into big numbers -- really big numbers -- of really big springers. You'll find them spread out in the river from now until July.
Photo by Dave Kilhefner
The Rogue is famous for a lot of things: killer fishing for fall-run Chinook; half-pounder steelhead so abundant that it's impossible to keep track of how many you catch in a day; a huge run of aggressive silvers; more than 100,000 winter steelhead; outstanding resident rainbow and cutthroat trout fishing; and green and white sturgeon on the lower river.
Of course the Rogue boasts a reputation as a wild and scenic splendor as beautiful and treasured a river as any you'll ever see.
In spring, however, the Rogue is famous for something else: broad-bodied spring Chinook -- massivus springerosa, as it were, that come barreling upriver like freight trains, fish fresh enough to smoke reels and spool the unlucky as they go.
Big spring Chinook begin to cross the Gold Beach bar into Rogue Bay usually around mid-March. The peak period for the lower river fishery is considered to be in April, but in some seasons that peak runs right on into May. As the fish move upriver, fishing gets better and better farther and farther up, from May all the way to July.
Because of predation from seals and sea lions, new fish don't stay in the bay for long. Instead, you can judge their arrival at nearby upriver fishing hotspots by hours and minutes as they enter the bay and then move up immediately into the lower river.
"They start up the river at the pace of a fast walk," says Rogue River springer expert and guide Steve Beyerlin, proprietor of the Rogue River Country Guide Shack (800-348-4138) at the mouth of the Rogue. The first hotspot is Elephant Rock, about 2 1/2 to 3 miles from the river mouth, where tidal influence helps bring the fish up on incoming tides. "They'll cross the bar at first daylight," Beyerlin says. "By 10 a.m. to 11 a.m., they're at Elephant Rock."
Timing the fish is more difficult once they're past Elephant Rock. "It's hard to figure out how fast they're moving," Beyerlin points out. "Sometimes it will take an hour for them to get to the Clay Banks area from Elephant Rock. Another 45 minutes or so past there, they'll be at the Ferry Hole."
Beyerlin fishes up higher than Elephant Rock early in the morning, working the early morning bite from the fish that came in the day before. But after that he'll slide back down to get in front of the newly arriving fish that crossed the bar that morning.
The Rogue can be a monster river in the spring, but that's actually good news. "If we have a lot of water flow, that's good for the fishing," Beyerlin says. "In low water years, we'll have bad springer fishing, no matter how good or how bad the run is. If we have high water, we'll have good fishing, again no matter how good or how bad the run is. It's all about water conditions."
Specifically, Beyerlin likes to see the river running between 6,000 and 10,000 cfs. "With that force of water, the fish stay out of the center, and travel to the sides in water that's three to six feet deep," he explains. Beyerlin also believes that water temperature is the driving force that brings the fish in. "Water temps need to get near 50 degrees, that's what pulls them in," he says. "But as anyone knows, springers are early morning biters. That's when the fishing is the best. But early in the season, the water temperature doesn't reach 50 until the afternoon. Early in the season, that's when you'll do the best."
The most ideal conditions are 8,000 to 10,000 cfs, 52- to 54-degree water, with 18 inches to two feet of visibility.
LOWER RIVER VS. UPPER RIVER METHODS
When there's high water on the lower river, the springers will travel via back channels and off to the sides of the river. "They don't travel in big schools," Beyerlin says. "But they do come on in bunches. I've seen so many fish at one time it was like raining 20-pound hailstones. You can sit there in your boat and see fish roll below you as they move up. When you see that, get ready. They can be there real fast."
During the early part of the springer season, including through May, the fish are constantly on the move. "Until about the sixth of June, virtually every fish is a moving fish," Beyerlin says. "They'll be in 'moving fish spots,' going through holes but not populating holes." The fish will be traveling inside, close to the banks in shallow water.
The best method for intercepting these lower river fish is anchoring up and fishing with a Rogue Bait Rig spinner and whole anchovy. Luhr-Jensen makes the bait rig, or you can purchase customized versions made by Beyerlin at his store. Beyerlin, in fact, was one of the originators of the rig, back in 1994, together with Dave Carney.
Beyerlin favors a 14-inch dropper, using 2 to 8 ounces of weight. He'll change blade colors to match water color, ranging from gold to green/yellow to rainbow. Anchor in a shallow-water travel lane, let out enough line to find the bottom, then put your rod in the holder with a light drag setting.
|ROGUE RIVER RESOURCES|
Steve Beyerlin, Rogue River Country Guide Shack, 800-348-4138; Sam Waller, Jot's Resort,
www.jotsresort.com/, 800-367-5687; and Ron Buntrock, Fishboss Guide Service,
For a list of other Siskiyou National Forest permit-holder guides, go to the Web site
Four Seasons RV Resort, 96526 North Bank Rogue, Gold Beach, OR 97444, 800-248-4503; Endicott Gardens Bed & Breakfast, 95768 Jerry's Flat Road, Gold Beach, OR 9744, 866-212-1200; Circle L Ranch Campground, 97075 North Bank Rogue Road, Gold Beach, OR 97444, 541-247-6639; Llahe Campground/Lobster Creek Campground, 29279 Ellensburg Ave., Gold Beach, OR 97444, 541-247-3600, and Jot's Resort, 800-367-5687. -- Dusty Routh
When you get hit, "You wait until the rod is down and line is going off the reel," Beyerlin says. "They really take off, really scream. It's not uncommon to get spooled. You'll need to have 150 to 200 yards of line. They can make that much of a run."
The light drag setting is to prevent these big springers from reacting to the drag and running on you even harder. Instead, you unhook from your anchor buoy and float down with the fish. As the springer tires, you then tighten the drag. "These salmon really react to drag," Beyerlin warns.
It's not uncommon to float down a quarter-mile or more fighting your fish. Pay particular attention to the Rogue's "mini" hog lines, usually four or five boats, sometimes as few as two boats, anchored together working a travel lane.
Beyerlin uses 20-pound leaders, and fishes Rogue Rod salmon rods with Shimano 400 Calcutta reels. "Those are the best reels out there for this kind of fishing," he says. "But one day I had two of them smoke, black grease pumping out the handles. That doesn't usually happen, but it can if you set your drag too tight."
The big springers usually get to the upper sections of the Rogue by around mid-May. "But the fish are funny up there," says Beyerlin. "The fishing style changes to back-bouncing eggs and Kwikfish." That's because as they move up the river and spring passes into early summer, the fish (which don't spawn until October), stop being so transitory, and begin to hole up. By early June, back-bouncing eggs and back-trolling Kwikfish around the Medford area starts to get very, very productive.
SIZE AND ORIGIN
In all his years of guiding for these springers, Beyerlin is pleased to report that the fish have been getting larger on average in recent seasons. "I'm not sure why," he says. "But they're bigger every year. The historic average is about 14 to 20 pounds." These fish tend to be broadly shaped, short and girthy, chrome bright, and not toothy. "They're so fresh in the lower river you can't hardly tell a male from a female," says Beyerlin. "They haven't developed any color."
Roughly half these fish are wild, and half are hatchery stock, Beyerlin says. "The fish and wildlife people will dispute that, but I think it's the truth," he reports. And as far as table quality goes, these are some of the best salmon you'll ever eat. "Rogue River spring salmon won the World's Fair for the highest quality salmon in the world every year they were entered," Beyerlin says. "They're butterball fat, and there's not a higher quality fish in the country. They're a real prize."
One of the things that makes these fish so tasty is the fact that although they're entering the river in the spring, they don't spawn until October, and in between they don't feed. That means they're coming into the river stuffed with oils and calories to live on until spawning, making their meat deliciously rich and exceptionally good.
No matter their origin, all these fish are headed for that stretch of river from Gold Ray Dam to Lost Creek Dam. "Every one of them will go there," Beyerlin says. "All of them. That's their spawning grounds, their habitat. They will not hold or stay below that section for any length of time." The hatchery fish are ultimately heading to the Cole River Hatchery.
Anglers have been coming to the Rogue for years to fish the springer run. At plunking holes like Lobster Creek and Huntley Bar, some anglers have been gathering and camping together for generations. "The thing that happens up there, at Lobster Creek, is people pull down there with travel trailers on the bar, and set up a trailer city. They have card games and barbecue, and people intermingle. When someone catches a fish, everyone does. Some of those people have been meeting there for 20 years or more," Beyerlin says.
|BOAT FISHING THE ROGUE|
The Rogue River in the spring can be big and brawling. Most of the fishing done on the lower river is accomplished by anchoring jet sleds, such as guide Steve Beyerlin's 22-foot Jetcraft Drift boats are not common on the lower river. You'll see more of them (and some rafts) on the upper river.
The key to successful (and safe) anchoring on the lower river is to have 100 to 120 feet of anchor rope, using a buoy and a Rogue River hook-type anchor. "It takes one of those kinds of anchors on the Rogue," Beyerlin says. "Columbia River anchors aren't suitable. You have to really dig in."
Because your boats position is so important (being off by so much as a rod length can mean missing fish traveling up the channels), boat anglers chock their anchor ropes to port or starboard, allowing them to work about 15 feet in either direction to intercept fish. "You want to keep the fish coming down the center of the boat." Beyerlin explains. "If we're catching fish on the right outside rod, we'll move the rope to the left, chocking the boat over to where the fish are."
The lower river can also accommodate prop boats, particularly when spring water levels are high. "There's usually enough flow to get around." Beyerlin says. -- Dusty Routh
Boat fishermen and guides pay attention to how the bar anglers are doing. That's because if the bank anglers are into fish, the fish are close to shore, and that's where the boats need to be anchored. "When the water's up, the pole holders in places like that can do real well," Beyerlin says. "In low water years, when there's not much flow, the bank fishermen don't do as well."
SPRING & FALL FISH
The Rogue is known not only for its beauty but also for the proclivity of its anadromous fish runs -- meaning, fish of one kind or another are coming in from the sea and upriver ever month of the year. The springers pour in from mid-March until around mid-July; what separates them from the fall-run Chinook, which start up about mid-July again, is water temperature, says Beyerlin.
"I think it's just a continual run," he says. "No one has found any genetic differences between the fish, although I think some DNA testing is being done. But, roughly, it's the same fish. The fall fish have less fat and oils because they don't have to go so long in the river before spawning. But what really separates them is the thermal barrier."
The thermal barrier is the warm water temperature of the Rogue that occurs in the summer. It keeps fall-run kings down in the lower river and in tidewater until fall rains cool the river.
REGS & CONSERVATION
There are new limits on Rogue springers this season. Anglers are allowed two fish a day, and only one can be wild, with a season limit of five wild fish. Beyerlin says the Rogue Spring Salmon Task Force is working on ways to protect and conserve wild springers on the river. "It's a pretty big thing," he points out. "It will likely impact other drainages in other parts of the state, too."