I’m back from the Rogue River Canyon in southwest Oregon, where I helped a friend put his cabin to bed for the winter. This is an annual event, and though the summer steelhead fishing tends to be well past its peak by mid-November, we spend a good part of the day on the river anyway, walking the trails, hunting for river teeth, casting a line, and generally soaking up the spectacular canyon action. Bald eagles soar overhead and otters frolic in the currents. There’s so much to see and do that invariably we wind up walking home in the dark, the “reptilian brain” tuned into every snapping twig (cougar!) and rustling leaf (bear!). Back at the cabin we warm ourselves beside an old woodstove. Meals are whumped up on a propane stove, light cast by kerosene lanterns. It’s a First Principles sort of deal.
This place is deep in my bones. I lived there for the better part of a year in my mid-20s and returned in 2004 for a second tour. Fifteen years ago I caught my first steelhead in one of the river’s hallowed holes and learned how to key out wild mushrooms found in the woods that stretch unbroken for miles around the cabin. It’s safe to say FOTL wouldn’t exist without my experiences in the Rogue.
Fishing for “half-pounders” is one of the local gigs. They’re immature steelhead that run up the Rogue for reasons scientists have yet to fully understand. Too young to spawn, they enter fresh water in the late summer and loiter all winter, eating just enough to stay alive, then drop back down to the salt to finish maturing before their actual spawning run the next year. It’s a puzzling phenomenon that occurs in only a handful of watersheds along the Oregon-California border, most famously in the Klamath and Rogue rivers. Fly-fishermen in particular admire the half-pounders, which generally tape out between 12 and 16 inches and lustily take a fly, providing good sport when the big fish aren’t ready to play.
I don’t eat a lot of half-pounders because I’d rather catch them as bigger adults of several pounds. But a trip to the Rogue wouldn’t be the same without a hatchery fish for breakfast one morning. Like the adults, their flesh is pink from eating shrimp and other saltwater crustaceans. The taste is more subtle than salmon—imagine fresh sautéed rainbow trout with a hint of the sea to it, an essence of shrimp or crab that expands the flavor without losing that fine, nutty troutness. It’s a noble taste that should be enjoyed with good friends.
In my next post I’ll be discussing a type of mushroom—common in the Rogue River Canyon—that might kill you if your identification isn’t up to snuff.