Last Saturday, the Rogue Fly Fishers had their annual steelhead tournament. Participants pay $150 each for the privilege of being rowed down the Rogue by a guide or knowledgeable member to fish for steelhead with flies. There are nice prizes for the participant who catches the most inches of steelhead, and the one who catches the biggest fish.
I was rowing my driftboat with two participants, a woman and a man, from Dodge Bridge to the Touvelle State Park takeout. I am an experienced oarsman and have rowed and fished this stretch many times. The guy in my boat hooked and landed a nice 21-inch steelhead early in the float, then hooked and lost a much larger steelhead below Horseshoe Falls after fighting it for almost 5 minutes. He hooked and lost another steelhead a little farther downstream. Things were looking good. I figured he had a good shot at winning one of the prizes if he kept it up, and the woman in the boat was having a good time, too.
About 1 p.m., just below the land that used to be owned by the Elks Club, we floated into a stretch containing ledges and big rocks I knew to be good. I dropped my 35-pound anchor in fast water above some of the big rocks, but the anchor didn't hold. It kept dragging along the bottom, then suddenly caught right in fast water. The sudden tension pulled the stern down and caused the boat to yaw back and forth in the current. Some water came over the gunwale near the stern, and I started madly trying to pull the anchor in. I did eventually get it in, but it was too late. The boat took on water very quickly and started bucking up and down while being pushed downstream.
As the boat swamped, all the equipment came to the surface and started floating away. The woman and I got our lifejackets on, but the third lifejacket was carried away. Luckily another boat of participants rowed by guide Rich Phillips was on the other side of the river and saw all of this happening. They rowed down and were able to get the woman and some of our equipment, including all of the fly rods, out of our boat and into theirs. They stayed nearby holding a rope attached to our boat by a carabiner as this strange flotilla slowly scraped and bounded downstream.
My boat does not have positive flotation, and we were getting perilously close to a deep run where I knew the boat would plunge to the bottom. I had visions of the other guy and I trying to swim to shore in our waders. The boat finally came to a stop about 30 yards above the deep hole, in strong current perhaps 3 feet deep. Rich Phillips' boat rowed to shore and everybody got out to come help. Another boat of tournament participants rowed by Dave Haight of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife floated into the area, saw what was happening, and also stopped to help us. My extra oar and the middle seat where I had been sitting were gone.
Under the direction of Rich Phillips, an experienced raft guide as well as fishing guide, we pulled and pushed the boat until the bow pointed upstream and the gunwales were above water. Then everybody pitched in with empty coolers, coffee cans and a hand pump somebody had, to get all the water out of our boat. The whole process took about an hour and a half. Rich Phillips lent me his big cooler, full of beer, which I promised not to drink, to sit on so I could row the boat the rest of the way down to Touvelle.
The other boats, after determining we were all OK, went on downstream but kept looking for our stuff that had floated downstream. Both boats waved us over on our way down to give us stuff they found in the bushes, including a bag full of flies and a reel, and miraculously the middle seat of my boat.
Those six guys ended up spending at least two hours of their precious tournament time to help us, selflessly giving up their chances to win. I learned a good lesson in humility and gratitude.
No one was hurt, and we even got back most of our stuff. The real importance of those RFF members and supporters was clear — they didn't hesitate to pitch in when we were in big trouble. Thank you guys from the bottom of my heart!
One thing still bothers me though. Will anybody want to be in my boat next year?