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A steelhead is released on the Rogue River near Shady Cove. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch

Let 'er fly

EAGLE POINT — If Steve Nicovich ever carried a fly rod down to the Cole Rivers Hatchery dike to fish this fall, Rogue River summer steelhead would have absolutely nothing to fear.

"I couldn't get a fly out there," says Nicovich, 38, a life-long fly-fisher from Sams Valley. "There's no room to back cast and I can't roll cast to save my life."

So he arms himself with his trusty spinning rod and a $2 bobber, and he's just as effective as a seasoned fly-caster, if not more so, during fall on the upper Rogue.

"When you're out there, a spinning rod is not only the best you can do, it's magic," Nicovich says.

Fishing with flies doesn't have to mean fly-fishing this September and October during the flies-only steelheading season on the upper Rogue, where a long-standing asterisk to angling rules means everyone's invited to this steelheading party.

But it's definitely BYOB, as in bring your own bobber.

Rules special to the upper Rogue allow spinning rods and bobbers to be used to fish flies for steelehad during these two months - when steelheading is te best of the year - above and below the town of Shady Cove.

It might not be fly-fishing, but catching an 8-pound Rogue summer steelhead on a prince nymph or ugly bug without gear that says Sage or Orvis certainly isn't something shameful.

"I don't think it cheapens the experience," Nikovich says. "It makes it a unique experience."

The flies-only season runs Sept. 1 through Oct. 31 along a 32-mile stretch of the Rogue from Fishers Ferry boat ramp near the old Gold Ray Dam site to Cole Rivers Hatchery.

The season goes back decades and is crafted with a nod toward steelheaders and a sneer to snaggers.

The two months are prime spawning time for spring chinook salmon in the upper Rogue, but it also happens to be prime time for summer steelhead migration.

Poachers of past generations used to snag spawning chinook with conventional hooks, weights and stout rods under the guise of steelhead fishing. Others not trying to snag chinook often did so anyways, especially when fishing for steelhead stacked below chinook redds and sipping on loose eggs that tumble by.

Most Oregon rivers with chinook spawning in the main channel simply are closed to salmon fishing during these times with little downside. But streams like the Rogue, with overlapping summer steelhead runs, create a conundrum for fish managers wanting to protect spawning chinook but still allow as open a steelhead season as possible.

The local solution on the Rogue is a study in inclusion.

Traditional summer steelheaders use dry or sink-tip lines to swing streamer flies through steelhead riffles. This technique pre-dates Zane Grey and contains an arsenal of historic Rogue fly patterns such as the green-butt skunk, silver hilton and bucktail coachman.

The past few decades have brought nymph-fishing to the fray.

Anglers use floating lines and long leaders with two flies and a bobber-like strike indicator.

The so-called "dropper" fly is a weighted fly - usually an ugly bug or some other version of a stonefly nymph - that's tied anywhere from 6 to 8 feet from the fly line. About two feet down from that is the "point" fly, such as a prince nymph or an egg pattern.

Though the dropper occasionally convinces a steelhead to bite, its main duty is to act like a legal weight to drop the point fly to the bottom and into the steelhead's strike zone. This is a version of fly-fishing.

Then there's simply fishing with flies.

Upper Rogue rules state that only artificial flies may be used during these two months, and a bubble or similar floating device - but no lead-core fly lines and no other added weighs or attachments.

It also states that any type of rod or reel is allowed, purposely opening the door for nonconventional fly-fishers.

The typical set-up is a light spinning rod and the dropper-point fly combination of a nymph fishermen. The key add is a bobber made for such an occasion.

These bobbers have a rubber tube through the center. Anglers feed the leader through to the desired depth and twist the tubing so it cinches fast against the line.

Conventional bobbers are legal, but they can be troublesome to adjust. Sliding bobbers are no-nos, because the requisite bobber-stopper is illegal as an attachment.

The bobber acts as a strike indicator as well as provide the weight needed to cast.

Anglers like Nikovich know it's not only doable, it's often desirable.

Nikovich grew up fly-fishing the mighty Metolius River so he's no slouch. Spinning rods and bubbles often carry a distinct advantage, he says.

"When you don't have a backcasting opportunity, the spinning rod is absolutely perfect," Nikovich says. "It's the best you can do."

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @MTwriterFreeman.

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