SHADY COVE — My driftboat hovers in a favorite upper Rogue River riffle in the shadows of a giant oak that houses a large nest rebuilt by two bald eagles after a windstorm ripped the bottom out of it.
It's a perfect metaphor to this year's fishing season on the upper Rogue, where an excruciating spring chinook season needs to give way to something new, something smaller, but definitely something better.
Just then the right-side rod bows to the water, pulsing with heavy tugs from the other end. The river surface opens to a hurtling summer steelhead, its neon shoulders and silver sides reflecting in the evening sun as it cartwheels nearly four feet above the surface.
Ding-dong, the witch is dead.
"Steelhead rock, spring chinook suck @%*!," Mail Tribune photographer Jamie Lusch says. "There's your lead."
Though the spring chinook season still has almost two months to go, the early showing of summer steelhead marks a welcome transition from a tiring, frustrating two months of stalking an unwilling and largely nonexistent competitor in favor of one that's more than willing to come out and play.
In short, spring chinook are your enemy, summer steelhead are your friends.
For those of you who don't repeatedly stick your finger in the fan expecting it won't hurt this next time, here's what spring chinook fishing actually entails. The drill's always the same, but this year brings extra pain: You know the upper Rogue spring chinook run is shaping up to be the smallest in 24 years. Still, the lure of the big, thick, best-tasting fish caught anywhere in Oregon's freshwater streams makes your IQ drop 20 points.
You set your alarm for 3:30 a.m. and hit the water well before daylight to beat other equally stupid people to the best spots, hoping that one of those two bites you get a day turn into that scarlet chinook flesh in the fish box.
On the rare instance that a spring chinook hits, it's like falling in love on the dance floor. You pull it close to you, closer, then see it's got one too many fins and you know this girl ain't coming home with you.
You may, if you're lucky, land one fin-clipped hatchery spring chinook for every three or four wild beauties you have to let go. Salmon-steelhead harvest tags have 20 spots for notches, but most guys have hooked up with only a few qualifiers.
My dance card is clean. Haven't tagged a hatchery spring chinook in three years.
But right now, that doesn't matter. My new best friend is jumping near the boat again. Lusch giggles as he fires off frame after frame to best capture its essence for the jpeg moment needed to help tell this story.
Steelhead-friendly means you can work a legit day, be on the water by 5:30 p.m. and fish until dark.
Just a few hundred steelhead in the upper Rogue collectively offer more action than several thousand springers. That's because they bite anything from real worms to pink plastic ones to nymphs or streamer flies so sloppy they look like you tied them with your elbows. Steelhead won't snub their chrome noses at your offerings like those other bitchy debs do.
And one of them almost always comes out to play under the eagle's nest.
My new friend has bitten a pink-and-blue plug, the same one that more than a dozen of her cousins did last year. When she ends up in the net, she reveals a nice, smooth back with a hard bump where her adipose fin had been.
This friend's coming home for dinner.
@&*! spring chinook. Summer steelhead really do rock.