Southern Oregon's Rogue River is barely half an hour's drive from my house in Ashland, and for 10 years I fished it regularly for rainbow trout, using a great variety of baits, lures and flies. I can remember using worms, grasshoppers, salmon eggs, marshmallows, gumdrops, cheese (Velveeta, Swiss, cheddar, even imported Limburger) and spoons, spinners and plugs of all shapes, colors and sizes. I also employed both floating and sinking flies tied to imitate everything from barely visible black gnats to three-inch-long dragonflies. And I caught a lot of trout, as would any angler who spent a couple of hundred hours a summer casting such an assortment of enticements into riffles and pools. But I never caught the big one I wanted. In a decade of trying, my largest trout was 18 inches long and weighed slightly more than two pounds. Most of the rainbows I landed were hatchery fish in the eight-to 12-inch range, and five years ago I gave up the effort, concluding, finally, that there simply weren't any large trout in the Rogue.
My conclusion proved wrong, to put it mildly. Last summer an unemployed logger named Mike McGonagle, fishing one of the pools that I have been through dozens of times, hooked and landed a rainbow trout that was very impressive by anyone's standards. McGonagle was actually trying for Chinook salmon at the time; he was bouncing a cluster of eggs along the rocky bottom when the big trout took. He landed the fish on 12-pound-test line in about 15 minutes. It was 37 inches long with a 27-inch girth and weighed in at 28 pounds—the largest rainbow ever caught in Oregon, from lake or stream.
When I read about McGonagle's record in the local paper, my initial reaction was partly astonishment, partly jealousy, but mostly it was satisfaction in the reaffirmation of my long-held belief that a fisherman's most notable experiences are usually those that come as complete surprises. Getting what you want can be very satisfying, but getting what you never even dreamed about can be even better.
I've repeatedly seen proof of this. One time a woman reversed McGonagle's experience by tying into a Chinook salmon while fishing for trout. This was also on the upper Rogue, at Laurelhurst State Park, which, thanks to the Army Corps of Engineers, is now beneath the waters of a reservoir.
May 1, 1983
A few years ago there was a spacious campground at the park with a lovely, gravel-bottomed pool just upstream that the state stocked regularly with trout. Through the summer months, from early morning until dark, there were seldom fewer than half a dozen fishermen there, most of them what I would call, with no condescension, uninformed and inexperienced tourists.
The woman I watched one July afternoon was an example. Middle-aged, rather overdressed in slacks and a frilly blouse, she was fishing in comfort from a folding chair that had been placed in the shade of an alder tree. Beside the chair, within easy reach, was a thermos bottle, a king-sized bag of potato chips and a jar of orange salmon eggs. Her tackle was one of those small fiberglass spinning rods equipped with a plastic reel that she had probably bought as a set for $8 or $9 at a supermarket or hardware store. The line on the reel, at least 20-pound test, was more suitable for tuna than for trout.
Around a bend upstream was a riffle I intended to fish for early summer steel-head, and I was sitting on a tree stump about 20 yards behind the woman, putting on my waders and rigging up a fly rod. Within 10 minutes she had landed three trout, and though none was longer than 10 inches, she was elated with each. Every time she hauled one in she laughed happily and held it up to show the other fishermen at the pool—there were six or seven of them—before she unhooked it and slipped it onto a stringer tied to a leg of her chair. "Guess I got the hot spot!" she said after the third trout. The others, all men, none of whom were catching anything, by now were doing their best to ignore her.
She baited her hook with another orange egg and cast it a few yards out into the pool. I happened to be watching when the salmon hit. Holding the rod across her lap in her left hand, she was reaching into the bag of potato chips with her right when she felt the tightening of the line. "Got another one!" she called.
The next thing she did was scream—a very impressive scream, too, of the variety loosed by the heroines of horror films when they open closet doors to discover things unspeakably gory. A lot happened in the ensuing two seconds. The bag she was reaching into flew into the air, and suddenly there were potato chips on the woman's dark hair, scattered around her on the grassy bank and floating downstream, too. As the woman jumped to her feet, she accidentally kicked the thermos bottle into the river, and it bobbed downstream with the current. She must have had the drag on her reel screwed down all the way, because the rod, which had bowed nearly double at the strike, finally snapped in two with a splintering crack. The men fishing upstream from the woman turned to stare open-mouthed, looking frightened themselves as she stood there screaming, clutching the bottom half of the shattered rod with both hands now.
I saw the tight line cutting downstream behind the thermos bottle and through a scattering of chips and then angling out toward the tail of the pool, where it stopped in the vee above a rapids. By then I knew it had to be a salmon, and thanks to the heavy line, the woman was still attached to it.
I thought more quickly than I ever had in a crisis situation of my own. Within 30 seconds after she'd hooked the fish—or it had hooked her—I'd run to her side, gotten her to stop screaming, loosened her drag, stripped several yards of line from the reel, assured myself that the salmon was staying put for the moment, cut the line, reached out with the tip of my fly rod to retrieve the front half of her rod, which I slipped off the end of the line and tossed away, then spliced her monofilament line to my fly line and finally handed her my rod.
She did a remarkably fine job fighting the fish and, after the first few minutes, didn't need much coaching. She kept a steady pressure on, gaining line when she could, giving it up when she had to, surely and gradually tiring the fish in the process, and in 20 minutes she had it on the bank—a lovely female Chinook, bronze-backed and silver-bellied, weighing just over 24 pounds. The woman—Marjorie was her name—hadn't even known there were salmon in the river, and the one she landed was the first she'd ever seen outside a can.
Not all fishing surprises turn out happily, of course. At the height of one fall salmon run on northern California's Klamath River, I once watched two experienced anglers embarrass themselves, and each other, profoundly.
Driving along the river highway, on my way home from yet another unsuccessful steelhead trip, I passed a line of at least 20 cars, trailers, pick-ups and jeeps parked along the narrow gravel shoulder of the road. Curious, I pulled in at the head of the line and then walked through a stand of second-growth pines and across a grassy meadow to investigate. There I found a dozen or more people on each side of the river, those on the opposite bank having crossed in rubber rafts and rowboats, all of them casting clusters of eggs or large treble-hooked spoons into a deep, swirling pool. I stayed to watch, curious as to whether or not it was actually possible to catch fish under such crowded conditions.
It was. Within half an hour after I'd arrived, three of the fishermen, two across the stream and one on my side, had landed salmon of 10 to 12 pounds. At their strikes, each yelled "Fish on!" and then everyone else at the pool reeled in quickly to watch the lucky angler play and land his salmon.
A few minutes after the last of them had killed his salmon, two more cries of "Fish on!" sounded simultaneously. Once again everyone else reeled in to watch the action. It was obvious that the two gentlemen supplying it had been around—obvious from their expensive tackle; obvious, too, from their properly worn and faded outfits, including tattered old hats; and perhaps most obvious of all from the air of calm authority each displayed, which was meant to convey the impression that hooking large fish was a regular occurrence.
Directly across from one another, 30 yards apart, their rods were bowed, their lines angling into the brown, rather murky water toward the middle of the pool. First one of them would gain some line, pumping the rod, reeling, then pumping and reeling again. Then the other one would gain line the same way, while the first one lost it.
"Tenth fish this season," the one on my side announced matter of factly to the onlookers around him, talking from the corner of his mouth. "Best damn one yet. Big male. See how the s.o.b. sulks down there? Thirty pounds maybe. Hope that guy across there knows what he's doing. I'm not letting my fish go too far."
That guy across there was talking to his audience, too, as likely as not in a similar vein, as he gained a little line and then lost it.
This went on for several minutes, each fisherman pumping and reeling harder and harder as the time passed, increasing the strain on his rod. Always, one would gain line as the other lost it, and then it would go back the other way.
A good while before the show ended, I was fairly sure I knew what was going on. Maybe some of the other observers did, too, but nobody said anything. Finally, both fishermen began to gain line at once, rather easily and quickly. "He's coming up," the one on my side muttered, sounding more like Humphrey Bogart all the time. "Tired. Whipped. Thirty pounds. Maybe more. Wait and see." He was smiling, and so was his counterpart across the river, as he cranked hard at his reel.
They had snagged lines out there, of course, and had been playing each other. For all that time, as one strained against the pressure of the other's rod, their entangled lines had been held on the bottom by some obstruction, most likely a sunken tree. Under the increasing pressure, the lines had somehow come free, and they popped to the surface at the very middle of the pool—a large silver spoon solidly hooked to a ball of red salmon eggs.
For a few seconds, the two of them stared as the spoon wobbled gently in the current on the surface in the evening light. Then, for a few seconds more they stared, their faces reddening, at one another. Then they began to scream and swear:
"Cut your—— line, you——," the one on my side yelled.
"You——, cut your line!" was the rejoinder.
"One of you loosen your drag," a bystander suggested, "and then the other one can reel in and untangle the mess. The rest of us want to try to catch some fish."
So that was how they worked it out, to a few snide remarks and general laughter. With their lines separated they left, in a hurry, their faces still red.
Such are some of the delights and possibilities of fishing, and each time someone tells me that it's boring I have to wonder what he's talking about.