The Summer Steelhead

A Californian, born and bred, of a family long interested in oil. CLARK C. VAN FLEET began fishing when he was a small boy. Over the past four decades, he has devoted most of his recreation hours to fishing for — and studying — the steelhead trout, the greatest game fish of the West Coast. From his letters and diaries he has drawn an exciting, edifying, humbling account of his favorite streams and his great warrior. This is the second of three articles, the first of which appeared in the Atlantic for August.



THE beginnings of the average Western river are pretty inconsequential — a trickle through a mountain meadow; a brook purling through a canyon strewn with boulders, with an occasional cascade over some precipitous dike; finally a fullblown stream, the home of quick fishes whose vigor is the delight of the summer angler.

The North Umpqua in Oregon has no such childhood. It springs from the living rock as did Minerva from the head of Jove. Presumed to be the outlet by underground cleavage for a part of the overflow of Diamond Lake, it is a full-grown river at its very source. It gathers some volume on its brawling way through the mountains to join the South Umpqua below Winchester, yet it would still be a tremendous stream without the additions brought by its few insignificant tributaries. The roar of its mighty voice fills the canyon of its passage from source to junction as it tumbles down the rough, boulder-strewn cleft carved by its journey. A mile of fishing along its banks is a very real test of endurance.

The steelhead to be found there are as wild and untamed as the river they ascend. In the cold clear depths are fish as fat, sassy, and full of fight as will be found in any stream in the United States. When you have beached a steelhead of over 10 pounds from the waters of this torrent, your quivering pride will be fully justified.

Roseburg is the jumping-off-place for the upper river, with Glide the start of the canyon proper. Of this you are scarcely aware until you reach Idleyld — unless you stop your car along the way and walk over to the bank where the stream is deeply cut below the level that the road traverses. From Idleyld the route mounts rapidly through the gorge itself in a series of climbs over intervening spurs of the main Cascades.

If it is early in July you had better head for Steamboat, some 30 miles away and nearly 1000 feet higher in the mountains. This is a tortuous passage, sometimes 500 feet above the bed of the river, sometimes down to its very edge. You are now in the domain of the Forest Service, which has provided a group of fairly commodious campgrounds in the vicinity of Steamboat for those who prefer to rough it.

For the more de luxe fisherman, North Umpqua Lodge, directly across the river from the guard station, is equipped to serve meals and provides wellfurnished cabins. The Gordons, who operate the lodge, are perfect hosts; the meals are delicious and are served to accommodate the best fishing periods. Make your reservations early, as it is very popular and likely to be filled from the start of the season until the rains. You will find Clarence to be an expert on the ways of the fish in these waters. He casts a beautiful fly himself and is fully acquainted with all the best fishing spots.

The first summer steelhead arrive in the Steamboat area sometime during the month of May. What brings them up the river 100 to 125 miles from the sea, so hard on the heels of late winter spawners, is another of those unanswered mysteries regarding this West Coast salmonoid. At any rate they remain sullen and uncooperative for a month to six weeks after their arrival. About the first week in July they start taking an active interest in stream food, after which time they continue to be a mark for both fly and spinner until high water drives the fishermen from the banks.

The interesting thing about this feeding habit is that, beginning at Steamboat, the activity of the fish works progressively down the river. It appears to me that the upper reaches first fill with a quota of fish; then as the holes below receive the later comers a period of quiescence is passed through before they begin to feed well. This supports my theory that the mature steelhead spend some time adjusting themselves to the difference between stream food and forage in the sea. At any rate, the fishing usually commences in the Steamboat region around the early part of July, yet the fish do not become active in the Winchester stretches much before the middle of September.

The North Umpqua summer runs are almost entirely mature steelhead. The early runs in the Rogue or Klamath are mainly grilse ranging in size from a half pound to a little belter than 3 pounds. It is very rare to take a sea-run fish this size on the North Umpqua River. The average for the early part of the summer is around 7 pounds, growing progressively larger as the fall months come.

The steelhead apparently come into the Umpqua from the sea in unusually good condition. When taken during the early season they are fat, broad, and short-coupled. As a consequence, I am given to underestimating their weight on first sight, whether surfacing or jumping. This superb fitness develops spirited fighters, and a fish over 8 pounds is an odds-on favorite to escape. My records show some three out of five steelhead landed where the weight was under 8 pounds, two out of five between 8 and 10, one out of five above 10.

The usual attack is launched with unbelievable speed and ferocity, followed by a long run and powerful jump. No fish on the West Coast takes as boldly or with such abandon as these rising steelhead. In smooth or quiet water there may be an instant’s hesitation before the start of the initial run, but if the current is sluicing along at a good rate, the take and that first sprint are almost simultaneous. Broken tackle will nearly always result if the fisherman is inattentive or is surprised into an offer of resistance, either by depressing the butt or freezing onto his line. You must be ready for the strike and prepared to give way when the steelhead first seizes the lure.


ON your first trip to Steamboat note the names as you come to them. All of the creeks have signs at their bridges and all the main trails have markers. These will be referred to time out of mind by your companions, as the river is passed in review, either at meals or around the campfire. For the sake of orientation it is well to learn the creek names in order — Rock, Susan, Burnt, Swamp, Bogus, and so on up to Steamboat, where, at North Umpqua Lodge, you are fronting the best piece of fly water in the United States for large summer steelhead.

From Steamboat to Idleyld the greater part of the river bed is hewn through solid rock. At intervals there will be a gravel bar or sluice through a plate of flat stone where the wading will be fairly easy. In the main, you scramble or pick your way through the roughest kind of going and from dry footing to waist-deep wading.

The spots where the fish are found are as irregular and unpredictable as the shoreline; here they hug a reef’s craggy sides, there they lie on a boulderstrewn bottom, farther on you work the lip of the overrun into the next chute. The angling requires versatility and patience, spot shooting, downstream dead fly drift, crosscurrent dead fly drag, crossstream and downstream manipulation, upstream pull along the edges of the reefs. You have to learn for yourself the most effective technique at any given spot, since it varies with each lie fished.

The reward more than compensates for your care and effort. The take is always bold even to the point of savagery, the fight dashing, spectacular, and heart-stopping. The footing calls for heroic measures if the fish must be followed any distance, with the chances balanced in favor of the quarry for the most part. Clarence lost the first five or six fish hooked at the beginning of last season; I parted with three of the first five. These odds are what make the North Lmpqua the delight it is, the supreme summer steelhead battleground in the country.

You will be up pretty early the first morning in camp. The chill in the air even in July serves notice of the altitude; so you shiver as you don waders and boots. The sun is just tipping the high flank of the bare western ridge opposite with a touch of gold, though it is still dusk under the fir and pine canopy that encloses the lodge. The trail from the dining room leads down the sharp bank to the Kitchen Pool. The quiet water mirrors swift reflections of the shining heights as you step out on the shingle. Approach the head of the reef through the deepening water where the trough of the channel shows green before you. The grip of the current will be surprisingly strong for such apparent placidity.

Your fly drops lightly at the edge of the further reef head and makes a slight riffle crossing the slick barely submerged. A thorough search of the now widening trough brings no response. Lengthen line and try a dead fly drift along the edge of the opposite rampart of rock, then work the crossing well below you with careful pull and slack. The slab under you shallows until a more abrupt rise gives you dry footing. The far stone ridge breaks into two parts with a deep pocket between the sunken portion and the exposed bulge beyond. This is the first good fishing spot, so you cover the water well from the reef to the shallow ledges on your own side. Gradually you extend your line until you are flicking the dry projection on the far side. Still no response. A few steps and you repeat the exhaustive search.

The channel widens to a bay as the opposing shoal breaks off abruptly and the flow speeds up for the long chute to the lower riffle. At the very tail the noses of three bedrock bumps somewhat divide the flow. In front of these is the final sure lie in the Kitchen.

As your fly crosses above the bulge of the first reef, there is a deep swirl, a shock on your line, a whir of your reel to announce the take of a steelhead. The thrill warms you like wine, the tingle of delight vibrates your rod as the rush ends in a powerful leap that sends a circling wave across the pool. Win or lose, you have hooked the first steelhead of the summer season.

The breakfast gong sounds in your ears as you splash through the shallows towards shore. Triumphant or disappointed in that engagement, no matter: the fish are there and the thrill of the search will fill the ensuing days.

At the table the real business of the day begins. Polite questioning brings out the plans of the camp for the morning; one will try the camp water, another Maple Ridge to Takahashi, the third elects the Ledges, others will tackle Williams or Archie Creek; dispersed the group is assured of noninterference and good water coverage.

Our lot falls to Williams Creek. From the foot of the trail where it expires on the smooth surface of the bedrock, one can cover the stretch from the Divide Pool back to this point, a distance of around 2000 yards, or take a trek to the Log and Discovery Pools less than a third of a mile downriver. If your companion decides on the upper water, leave him off on the road above the Divide. A sleep drop faces him to reach the shore, but it will save a tedious scramble up the bankside from the end of the trail.


BELOW Williams Creek there is around 600 yards of barren water until you reach the Log Pool. Don’t be too eager in your going — you may surprise a deer along the bank, and beaver cuttings are all about you. Last year I startled a cub in a shallow bay; his clumsy efforts to dive were ludicrous in the extreme until he found the outlet and disappeared. There is often an ouzel’s nest on one or another of the huge rocks breasting the midstream current; watch closely and you will see it cunningly concealed on some rock platform. The nest looks like a mossy igloo, side entrance and all.

The Log Pool is long and deep with a quickly rising bottom at the tail. The south shore is an undercut ledge extending from the head almost to the lip. A favorite lie for steelhead is just above the lip and in the shelter of the overhang for nearly 100 feet above the tail. A sunken gravel bar butted against a reef at the top of the next riffle offers a vantage point from which to cover the best part of the run. This shoal can only be reached from the lower end of the pool, whence it is a breast-deep wade to reach the projecting knobs of bedrock. Keep on the side of the slope away from the fishing water as deep as you comfortably can. If you walk on top of the bar, the steelhead will surely see you and stay down.

As you make your way through the reef points, start your fishing close and work from just above the lip upstream. Don’t cast wholly to the bank every time. Shorten line and cross the run again; there are submerged boulders in the middle of the channel that warrant attention. This is a beautiful run because, worked right, you can see the first shadow of a fish as he moves in for the take. The resultant thrill of the whole action is right before your eyes. Let me warn you that this facility can be a disadvantage if you are inclined to strike prematurely, since, at least on the dead fly drift, this is one pool where the butt must be depressed to set the hook properly. Be sure, then, that the steelhead has turned away from you before the strike is made.

The Discovery Pool, just below, is interesting because of its three distinct hot spots. A third of the way down its length, the entering current shelves off the gravel steeply as the near edge is turned by a ridge of boulders. The flow skirts this group of rocks for 40 or 50 feet before the main pool is reached. Some of the rocks are above water, some below. The fly should work around each, permitting the lure to take a course downwards at times, again to be manipulated against the current. If there are fish in the lie, they are most likely to be found from above the first to about the fifth rock. The fishing is almost directly downstream, but the majority of your casts angle inwards to the swirls above the boulders.

When you have reached a point nearly waistdeep in the wade, pretty well past the last prospect along the dike, you will find a rock showing about 70 feet away on the opposite side of the fast water. Fish the area above and below this very heedfully. Mostly dead fly fishing, you will have to make an upstream borrow and even feed line to angle the lure at proper depth and speed. You should nail one right where the smooth joins the main flow in little eddies and whirls. You may have to clamber up on one of the flat rocks to cover that lie properly, but do it, even if it entails a jump into deeper water should you hook a big one.

The last hot corner is on your side and below the end boulder. Generally I dislike to dredge a fly, but this is a deep slow eddy as the channel swings around and starts for the tail of the pool. Cast just below the last rock, let the fly sink well, then twitch it gently but not too often. Strike strongly should one take, as a deep fish picks up the lure tamely. From this point to the lip of the overrun is all a good prospect.

When the noon meal is over, if the day is bright, just take a short run down the road in your car to locate what fish can be seen in some of the holes below camp. Your first stop might well be the turnout just over the Kitchen Pool. From there you can see the bottom clearly, provided there is not too much breeze stirring the surface. A few moments of unblinking scrutiny and you note an undulating shadow just above the middle reef at the tail. Raising your glance, you finally make out a steelhead lying well above the cast shadow; then another crosses the light-colored ledge above. Before many minutes you have located three fish in the vicinity of the lower end of the pool.

The next view is from above the Ledges. You can see the whole run distinctly in the smooth glide of the main channel. In a few moments a steelhead shows from under the ledge on the far side. There is another just at the nose of the reef bordering the fairway. Alongside the ledge a flash of silver side is turned to the light and gone — not a steelhead this time, but a large sucker feeding among the stones.

You return to camp with a full heart; the fish are in and only awaiting your deceptive lure. If you then go fishless two or more days, as often happens, you can at least be comforted by the fact that there are plenty in the river. Keep your fly in the water and your mind on your work. One will probably come when you least expect it. If you assume every cast will yield a raise, you are less likely to do the wrong thing when one unexpectedly smashes your fly.

I once went three days without a sign of a raise. On the fourth morning, my first cast over the Ledges resulted in a vicious take after the fly had traveled less than 2 feet. My freeze of surprise was just enough to cost me a broken leader. In an hour and a half I hooked four fish from that point down to Williams Creek, landing two of about 7 pounds.

As the summer advances, more and more water opens up on the lower river. Bogus Creek, the water above and below McDonald Bridge, which is swung many feet above a deep gorge and is just two 6-inch planks for footing. Burnt Creek, with the pulpit at the lower end of the wade, where a down-running fish is a lost one since rock walls enclose the canyon for a good quarter of a mile before reaching the next shallows.

The Circle “ H ” smooths; Susan Creek, where the slab rock is flat as a table for 150 feet and you fish the channel deep cut into this sheet, with close attention to the pockets on both sides. If you are among the very knowing, you will go above the big “ V” of the gut and fish the wide glassy shallow. You can know it by a huge rock in the middle of the slick. Around that boulder is the hottest spot of all. I should add that the cast to reach it is atrocious on account of the fringe of brush and towering alders behind.

Don’t neglect the fine series of pools facing camp. From the vicinity of Mott Bridge to the falls a quarter of a mile beyond the lodge there is a good four or five hours of fishing for an active man. The Station Pool opposite the Forest Guard Quarters is one of the most productive in the whole reach since it is the main resting spot for fish ascending Steamboat Creek. Properly worked, this gut of fast water charging through a trough in the bedrock will produce a raise almost any day. It can be worked from either side but I am inclined to favor the drift obtained from the south shore. Just above it is the Sawtooth, also fine holding water for fish making the run up the creek.

On an off day, it is worth the trip to take the trail to Steamboat Falls and mark the congregation of shadowy monsters below this obstruction. If they are running the falls, it is fascinating to watch their slim silver shapes flash up the barrier to disappear in the comb at the top.

Once you are well acquainted with the stream and become familiar with the lies that hold the steelhead, take an extra reel along with a wellgreased line attached. Put a box of flies in your pocket tied dry. I have three patterns for this fishing: Pink Lady, a dark caddis (not palmer tied), and a spent wing Royal Coachman, all on No. 6 hooks.

As the afternoon draws on to dusk, there are four or five glides that will sometimes yield a fish to a dry fly. Then you will have the unsurpassed thrill of a vicious surface rise. No gentle sucking in of the floating fly here, but a hard smashing attack that will quicken your pulse and send your heart to your throat.

One of the really top smooths for a dry fly is just above the trail’s end from Williams Creek. Pass the two fast chutes until you reach a slow-moving pool where a rock juts out at the lip of the overrun which makes an excellent stand. Don’t hurry to extend your line, but fish both sides and the center alertly. When you have lengthened to 50 feet or so be extra cautious. On the near bank a rock has its top barely awash: here is a lie that almost always contains a fish. Cast 5 or 6 feet above and let the floater drift well past the boulder, since you will often have a long follow before the rise. In the center of the channel directly out. from this rock is a deeply submerged one, unseen, but a sure haunt. The fly should move at least 20 feet through the center before it is picked up. In the south bank of the reef at this point is a small quiet bay — this is the hottest spot of all.

Ox or Ix gut is fine enough for all reasonable purposes. Only one word of caution: be sure your line is kept clear on the retrieve; the fish are away like lightning.

(To be continued)