Most Del Norte County drift boat owners make several trips each season to the Chetco River just across the border in Oregon to catch fall salmon or winter steelhead.
But when it comes to the Rogue River, especially the middle and upper sections near Grants Pass and Medford, Ore., few make the drive along Highway 199 to some of the best steelhead fishing in the region.
Right now, as steelhead season is practically over on the Smith, fishing is just heating up on the middle and upper sections of the Rogue.
The Rogue has one of the best steelhead fisheries in the Northwest. For the past few weeks, guides have been catching limits in the Grants Pass area.
Now, with counts over Gold Ray Dam nearing 8,000 fish, attention is turning to the section between Lost Creek Dam and Tou Velle State Park.
"Mid-to late-April and all of May should be hot for steelhead," says John Billows, the owner of Pat's Hand Tied Flies near Shady Cove, Ore., one of the West's premier small town tackle shops. "From the guides I've been talking to, they are catching a lot of hatchery steelhead in the Grants Pass area. I'm keeping my fingers crossed."
Steelhead fishing was good in January and February in the big water stretch of the Rogue between Gold Beach and Agness, Ore., some 150 miles below Lost Creek Dam. In March and April, the Middle Rogue near Grants Pass was the place to be. Some guides reported catching and releasing up to 18 steelhead a day. Many were hatchery fish, bound for Cole Rivers Hatchery at the base of Lost Creek Dam.
Peak season is about to arrive in the Upper Rogue, and this year's run is shaping up to be a good one.
While the Upper Rogue has some of the best drift boat water in Oregon, with classic steelhead runs, spectacular scenery and numerous launches, the shore is also top-notch.
Anglers can fish across from the fish ladder at the Hatchery Hole, one of the most productive spots in the river. The expansive park from the hatchery to Highway 62 bridge has several trails and river access points, with no day use fee.
There also is good bank fishing at Casey State Park and Rogue Elk County Park. Tou Velle State Park above Gold Ray Dam is another good spot.
A basic drift-fishing rig with pencil lead or a Slinky and 24- to 36-inch leader works well on the Upper Rogue. Aside from roe, Puffballs and worms and yarn soaked in scent are productive.
With a bait ban during the fall, locals are used to fishing without roe or worms. They've found yarn soaked in Pautzke Nectar is as effective as regular bait.
The Upper Rogue is also well suited for bobber and jigs, although few anglers employ the methods.
Drift boat fishing
The Upper Rogue is such a popular drift boat stretch it's the birthplace of the aluminum drift boat. Legendary boat builder Willie Illingworth called the Upper Rogue his home river and started Alumaweld Boats here. He later founded Willie Boats. Alumaweld also has its factory along the Upper Rogue, while Fish Rite is across the street from Willie Boats.
Most guides will side-drift roe or yarn balls, while some prefer to pull plugs. The easiest drift is from the hatchery down to Shady Cove. Be sure to go to the left of the island below Casey State Park.
From Shady Cove down, the water is a little more technical, especially between Dodge Bridge and Tou Velle, where Rattlesnake Rapids is located. This is the toughest water on the Upper Rogue.
The Rogue's steelhead average 6 to 8 pounds, although a few topping 12 pounds are caught each season.
For the latest reports on the Upper Rogue, contact Pat's Hand Tied Flies (541-878-2338). For the latest dam counts and river flow information, call (800) 472-2434.