Slimy vignettes on the Rogue River

Sometimes, as I'm clutching my graphite Lamiglas steelhead rod fitted with a yogurt-smooth Abu Garcia reel in one hand and a gourmet ham-and-turkey sandwich (with sauteed peppers and the perfect glaze of tangy-sweet horseradish in the other), I think about how much different fishing was for a dude back in the "Jeremiah Johnson" days.

For them, a day on the Rogue River wasn't a holiday away from womenfolk, nursing Lagunitas IPAs and bragging about all the real or imagined female action they used to get in college. No. Fishing was a stressed endurance test, whereby one either successfully worked salmon holes in the most primitive conditions or failed to bring home food for the night and had to withstand the pleading eyes of wife and children as they boiled roots for dinner once again while hungrily eyeing the family mule.

I find the true test of fishing to be sunblock. I can't stand that junk. It never seems to stay on my nose and forehead, rather turning to syrup in the heat and dripping into my eyes. It sort of burns, and I begin complaining at around noon.

"Ugh," I whined last week as I fished the Rogue with Fishmaster, my guide, co-worker and friend. "I wish they made sunblock that would stay in place."

Fishmaster was working hard on the oars as I whined. He issued a terse grunt in agreement as he labored to keep us steady through one of the many steelhead holes we carpet-bombed with green and pink plugs throughout the day.

I turned back to monitor the tip of my rod as it danced to the rhythms of the current. My left eye was mostly sealed shut from SPF 50, but my right was undamaged. I focused it directly on the tip, waiting for that all-important .00023 of a second when it would snap down toward the water as a steelhead in a 'roid rage-like fit would slam it and attempt to jerk $300 worth of fishing gear out of my hand.

When we are not battling 12-pound steelhead, which is most of the time, Fishmaster and I engage in drifting conversations that include NBA basketball (he likes the Miami Heat, which tempts this diehard Chicago Bulls fan to sneak into his garage one night and fill his prized driftboat with Styrofoam balls soaked in dog pee), work dynamics (we have come to refer to the Mail Tribune as The Island of Misfit Toys, in reference to the isle where Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Hermey the elf were marooned amid flawed playthings that no kid would want, such as Charlie-in-the-Box, Bird Fish and King Moonracer) and, finally, his impending fatherhood.

Fishwife is five months along and cannot accompany us on the river much these days. The writhing ball of goo and eyeballs in her torso doesn't take well to a day in a rocking driftboat. It's understandable.

Fishmaster now exists in the strange netherworld of the young, professional man who is staring down the barrel of an existence in which diaper prices mean the difference between a new steelhead plug and his home covered in baby graffiti.

"You know, I don't think it's going to change our lives that much," he said last weekend. "People have babies all the time and still have fun doing the things they used to do."

"For sure, man," I replied.

Ah, such are the lies we tell ourselves to sleep at night, I thought.

As we drifted toward the next hole, I thought about a story Fishmaster told me about some friends of his cousin. They were recently on the Umpqua River, which had swollen to dangerous levels in the spring rains. They hit an unexpected rapid and were dumped into the current. They fought hard to swim to safety, losing the boat in the process.

I guess the river remains a dangerous place, even in these days of luxury, I thought.

I turned to ask Fishmaster a question about river safety.BAM.

My rod thrashed in my hand, the cork handle springing up into an area between my thighs that ranks among the more vulnerable parts of the male body.

"Ooof," I said.

Fifteen minutes later, I had boated this beautiful, 10-pound steelhead. We cheered as Fishmaster dug out his camera to capture the moment.

"Hold it out in front of you," Fishmaster ordered, as I gripped the slimy package of fish steaks.

However, this fish did not want to go gentle into that good night. He gave one last thrash, his macelike tail swinging up to whap me in the upper chest. Meanwhile, his head, armed with a battering-ram nose, swung down and solidly connected with my "… well, you probably can guess.

I eventually gained control of the beast. Fishmaster chuckled as he shot the photo, which shows me looking both satisfied in the afterglow of the hunt but also a bit pained by some unknown malady.

I wish I could show the pioneers that picture. Would they be proud?

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