EAGLE POINT — The rod with a plug at the end of the line dove toward the water and pulsed wildly, revealing that this was no ordinary Rogue River steelhead.
By the time Mail Tribune photographer Jamie Lusch could get the rod out of the holder, the steelhead jumped and cartwheeled twice across the surface. Five jumps and five minutes later, the splashy red and gunmetal blue pastels of this eight-pound wild steelhead adorned the rubber net before darting out of hand for a perfect release.
"Awesome," Lusch says.
By then the sun had sunk below the horizon, signaling this was the last fish of the day. After all, it was 4:25 p.m.
That's one of several ironies about summers in December on the upper Rogue, where a mix of summer steelhead in varying degrees of ripeness make for a unique fishing opportunity that's easily overlooked.
Some of the same fish anglers caught while in shorts and flip-flops in July are joined now in the upper Rogue by late-run steelhead targeted by driftboaters wearing rubber boots and heavy rain gear, and even more steelhead are on their way.
Add to the mix the "retread" steelhead recycled from Cole Rivers Hatchery, and the upper Rogue can be as attractive to steelheaders in Gor-Tex as it was to anglers in sunscreen four months ago.
"There's not much competition up there right now, and the fish are definitely there," says Pete Samarin, an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist who oversees Rogue salmon and steelhead surveys. "It's a good fishery."
The reason for the season lies largely with the uniqueness of these steelhead.
They are known as summer steelhead because the first of these fish make their spawning run into the upper Rogue as early as late June. Early-run fish are a mix of wild and hatchery-bound steelhead that run the gamut from 18-inch, first-time spawners to the 10-plus-pound wild fish in their third spawning run.
That initial pulse of steelhead generally lasts into August, and those fish hang out in the upper Rogue before moving into tributaries to spawn in early December.
All the while, fresh summer steelhead trickle upstream weekly through December, with some of these late-run fish as thick and boisterous as the early-run denizens.
"A lot of the steelhead that come in late may not be ready to spawn for six weeks or two months," Samarin says. "They could be in the upper river another three months if they just came in."
While summer steelhead fishing in summer is largely an evening show, these fish now will bite during bankers' hours — particularly on cloudy days. Fishing conditions also get a boost from water releases from Lost Creek Lake, the same releases that put a damper on steelheading success in October.
Wild spring chinook salmon eggs are now incubating in the mainstem Rogue. ODFW biologists call for colder-than-normal water releases in October to retard egg incubation to make up for warmer-than-natural winter flows caused by solar effects on reservoir water that triggers egg incubation.
The cold October releases leave steelhead lethargic. While the water temperatures are similar now, there is a phenomenon occurring daily that actually helps trigger an afternoon bite.
Typical December river temperatures at Dodge Bridge fluctuate between 43 and 48 degrees, starting colder in the morning and warming thanks to the sun throughout the day. While mid-40s temperatures are not ideal for summer steelhead, these fish get more aggressive as the temperature rises a few degrees during the day.
It's the opposite when temps fall a few degrees during the day.
"I'm sure it helps summer steelhead fishing," Samarin says. "They're not just hunkered down. They're moving around either looking for one last meal before spawning or something to eat because they've just shown up."
But unlike that 9:20 p.m. sunset of July, dinner's over for these steelhead by 4:30 p.m.