TRAIL — Fly-fisher Dave Hopfer carries two weapons in his fly-fishing arsenal on winter steelhead trips these days along the upper Rogue River. The driftboat's staple is an 8-weight fly rod stout enough to cast heavy flies and grapple with feisty, 10-plus-pound winter steelhead. But next to it Hopfer loads a lighter, whippier 3-weight rod to offer tiny flies to the upper Rogue's smaller, often overlooked fish.
The light rod is perfect to cast tiny dry flies like March Browns or Blue-Winged Olives that match the hatch in upper Rogue pools on winter afternoons — sustenance for wild rainbow and cutthroat trout.
"You see a hatch going on, you grab the 3-weight and cast," Hopfer says. "You never know what you're going to get. It's a lot of fun."
This is fly-fishing for trout in steelhead country, where traditional Rogue steelhead anglers more and more are turning to the river's bulging wild trout populations for catch-and-release entertainment when the big fish of choice don't present themselves.
A combination of wild cutthroat trout, wild rainbow trout and the occasional fin-clipped hatchery trout are found feeding each afternoon on insects that match the barbless flies in the boxes of Hopfer and others who sometimes find more action with trout than steelhead.
The bulk of the catch are trout 10-14 inches long. The grand prize is a cutthroat, a unique cousin of the rainbow whose numbers and sizes seem to be on the rise in the upper Rogue.
"The cutthroat are the best," Hopfer says. "They hit so hard that, for a minute, you think you have a steelhead."
Beginning Tuesday, however, Hopfer better leave his 3-weight at home and think only steelhead.
All trout fishing is banned on the main-stem Rogue from April 1 until the coastal trout season re-opens on the fourth Saturday in May — which is May 24 this year.
The ban is to protect out-migrating steelhead smolts that look identical to young trout while heading to the sea en masse in early spring.
"It's one of our keystone regulations that give quite a bit of protection for naturally produced steelhead," says Dan VanDyke, the Rogue District fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
"It's certainly a fun resource to utilize on a catch-and-release basis, during the open season," VanDyke says.
They are more than fun. They can keep you young.
Medford fly-fisher Otis Swisher, 85, rows the upper Rogue in his driftboat with friends like Hopfer three or four times each winter week. When he's not carrying two rods, he brings just one — the trout rod, especially on overcast winter afternoons when the Rogue's surface is its buggiest.
Casting in murky water recently at Casey State Park, Swisher coaxes a 12-inch trout to bite his fly, but it misses the hook. Swisher laughs, offering a thumbs-up to the trout.
"To me, that more than makes my day," Swisher says.
What makes this fishing day possible is the apparent rise in resident trout carving out a niche among steelhead, their sea-going cousins.
The resident wild rainbows likely are a combination of a trout strain that spawns in Rogue tributaries and wild steelhead that don't head to sea as smolts. Those fish are said to "residualize" and remain in the Rogue as rainbows.
The best of the wild trout are the cutthroats, named for their bright orange slash-like markings beneath their mouths.
Most cutthroat in the lower Rogue and Illinois rivers are sea-runs, whose life history mirrors steelhead, including time in the ocean and a river return for spawning.
The vast majority of upper Rogue cutthroats are called "fluvials." They use the main-stem Rogue like the sea, dropping into the Rogue to feed most of the year before heading into tributaries like Elk Creek to spawn.
While rainbows can be caught in faster water around submerged rocks and boulders, cutthroat are more often found in slower, deeper water and usually around submerged wood or cut banks.
They are very aggressive and territorial, so their rise to flies is a prize to fishers like Dave Roberts of Eagle Point, who marvels at each of the 16- to 18-inch cutthroats he hooks.
"Twenty years ago, if we got one cutthroat a year, it was like, yeah, they're still around," Roberts says. "Now, it's nothing to go out and get eight or 10 a day on some hatches.
"We're seeing more all the time and I'm jazzed about it," Roberts says. "They're a fabulous fish to catch and they're coming back."
VanDyke says the little data that exists on cutthroats supports Roberts' belief. A trap-and-haul program in lower Elk Creek used to capture fewer than 80 migrating cutthroats a year, he says.
In recent years, numbers have run from 130 cutthroats a year in Elk Creek to more than 300, he says.
Whenever catching wild rainbows or cutthroats, Swisher stresses that fly-fishers should use barbless hooks to reduce handling of the trout, which are rising in stature among the Rogue's steelhead fly-casters.
Though they will never replace steelhead as trout patriarchs, these smaller fish are finally earning the equivalent of a seat at the adult table at Easter dinner.
"I hope people get the idea that trout are almost as good as steelhead," Swisher says. "Not exactly, but close."
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail email@example.com.