Frank Powell, 80, fishes Casey State Park on the Rogue River near Shady Cove. Mail Tribune Photo / Jamie Lusch - Jamie Lusch

King for a day

TRAIL — With a freshly tied hook and leader on his rod, Frank Powell trudges down the Casey State Park bank and back into the Rogue River, pausing to peer into the shallows to see whether what he just accomplished truly is real.

Tethered to a willow by a long yellow rope is a 22-pound Rogue spring chinook salmon, finning upright near the bank. The fish seems to stare at Powell's hip waders like a defeated soldier at his captor.

At this moment, Powell is the King of Casey Park, the only man who's caught a salmon among this hub of upper Rogue bank anglers.

"First one all year," says Powell, 80, of Klamath Falls. "It's a good one. I've been fishing here 35 years, and they're all good ones, when you can get them."

Nearby stands Tom Price, a rod in one hand, a cigarette in the other, watching the man he knows only as Frank take his turn atop Casey's pecking order.

"Good for him," says Price, of Eagle Point. "He deserves it."

Bank anglers often are seen as selfish and solitary as they cast into rivers from shores. But there's nothing isolating or selfish about this swarm of "bankies" who each year turn this sliver of river into a three-month extended family reunion, where togetherness runs deep and the party's usually better than the fishing.

"There's camaraderie here that I've never seen anywhere before," says John Davidson, between sips on a morning can of Busch. "When he gets a springer on or anybody gets one on, anybody here would get in the river to help him."

For decades, Casey State Park has been a singular destination for spring chinook bankies who transform this Highway 62 outpost into a small city of sorts.

It has its homes in the rows of trailers parked beneath the tall firs. A picnic table is the park restaurant, which also has its own cook.

It even has its own mayor presiding over the park's faithful, who travel hundreds of miles or just down the highway during the Rogue's May-through-July spring chinook fishing season.

It's a place where everyone says hi, someone's got an extra smoke if you run out, and it's never too early for that first morning beer.

"This place is an addiction," says 76-year-old Otis Graves, aka "The Mayor."

For the past 25 years, Graves has made the Casey State Park pilgrimage from Bend with his son, Dirk Graves. In good years, they join the gauntlet of anglers casting corkies and beads in hopes of enticing a tough-to-catch Rogue springer to bite.

In the Rogue's slow years, like this one, they just sit in camp chairs and join the banter.

"Everybody gets along here," Otis Graves says. "You don't see that in too many places. That's special."

King Powell trudges out of the water, his broken leader dangling in the breeze.

Casey's fishing hole is riddled with rocks, trees and fishing debris that claim dozens of hooks and weights each day.

"The salmon are around the snags," Powell says. "If you're not snagging up, you're not fishing."

Nearby, Doug Spetter is neither snagging nor fishing. He's cooking eggs over a small camp stove at the restaurant.

For the past 10 years, Spetter has driven across the Cascades on weekends with four dozen eggs and a passel of sausage. As bankies arrive from Bend or just around the bend in Trail, they bark out their egg orders and grab a plate.

"The first time I was here was in the '70s, but I've been here steady the past 22 years," says Sandy Larsen of Trail, as she downs some of Spetter's eggs. "We've known a lot of people just from here, seen their kids grow up. And we've lost a few. But it's special, for sure."

Only after all are fed will the chef trade his spatula for a rod and try to catch a chinook.

"The hell with kissing the cook," Spetter says. "Give him a fish."

Steve Toloff crept in from Trail more for breakfast than fishing.

"It's not about fishing any more, believe me," Toloff says. "It's about this."

Ralph Peterson has been part of this the past five years.

He motors up from Mt. Shasta, Calif., in his pickup and camper, and parks in a choice shady spot.

He'll stay four days or so at a time, going through daily rituals built as much around defying the dirt and dust that permeates the park as they are around catching fish.

"I take a sponge bath, shave and change my shirt every day," Peterson says. "Even change my underwear. I've got a full shower in there."

Price gives Peterson's camper a once-over.

"I didn't know you had all that," Price says. "Ralph, you're a wimp."

Along the fringe, King Powell sits on the folding steps of his pickup camper. His fingers have the quiver of an octogenarian as he ties a new leader with a hook and beads, the staple of Casey casters.

Not since the Carter administration has Powell bothered to fish other upper Rogue holes like the Slide Hole, or the now-inaccessible Hoot Owl just a few bends down the Rogue.

"What's the point of going anywhere else?" Powell says. "Everything else is shut down."

All geared up, Powell shuffles back into the Rogue, pausing one more time to check his chinook tethered to the yellow rope.

This morning's King of Casey is back atop his temporary throne until the next bankie catches a bigger Rogue chinook.

Until then, he'll wear the crown proudly.

"Know what?" Powell says. "That's more than the first of the year.

"It's my first in three years."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail

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