The Steamboater Whistle


      Spring 2017

               Volume 56, Issue 2


North Umpqua River, Oregon


Announcements and Club Events
Please Welcome the Following New Members:

Lille Asher, Portland
James Cox, Portland

Save the Date: Annual Steamboaters' Picnic and River Clean-up
August 5, 2017. River Clean up volunteers meet at Bogus Creek raft pull out at 9:00 AM. Picnic and meeting with election of board members at 12:00 at Susan Creek Day Use picnic area. Food and drinks provided; come and meet some new members and reconnect with those of us who have been around for a while.

We need new board members! Contact Tim Goforth at 541-496-0780 or if you are interested. The board meets once a month for two hours.  

Umpqua River Appreciation Day is Scheduled for July 15, 2017 at Whistler's Bend Park.

We Welcome Your Comments! Please Send Feedback/Discussion of Whistle Articles to: Unless You Indicate Otherwise, We Will Print Them in the Next Issue.

In This Issue


President's Message by Tim Goforth

Please join with me in welcoming the new owners of the Steamboat Inn, Travis and Melinda Woodward, and their daughters McKenzie and Carmen. Also join me in wishing Jim, Sharon, and Pat all the best as they hand over this wonderful place that they worked so hard to run so well for many very good years. Averi Wratney's article in this issue provides some history, a tribute to the Van Loan's and Pat Lee, and a look forward to the future with the Woodwards.
Also join me in extending congratulations to Lee Spencer, whose book, "A Temporary Sanctuary", has just been published by Patagonia. In this issue we have included a review of the book by Michael Checchio, reprinted with permission from "California Fly Fisher Magazine".
It is with much regret that I have to say our membership has dropped below 200 members. People ask me "what do we get for our $40 annual membership fee"?  Right off the top I say you get an active group of Board members that protect your ability to fish the North Umpqua and make sure the wild fish are here for future generations. Board members are volunteers, and as such not paid for their time spent writing letters, contacting people to advocate for the North Umpqua, meeting with the Umpqua National Forest personnel, or meeting with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) to discuss such topics as regulation changes and best practices, or any of the expenses associated with attendance at our monthly meetings.
You dues are also used for projects such as the ones listed below: 
This year, after one and a half years of discussion with ODFW, we have a new fish passage monitoring system put in place. The new fish monitoring system, called Fish Tick, was installed on Thursday June 22, 2017.  Hopefully we will be able to get 100% fish counts again. The Steamboaters  used members' dues to help purchase over 43% of the cost of this monitoring system. The North Umpqua Foundation and a private donor will cover the remaining funds. Joe Ferguson has provided an article for this issue on the effort to work with ODFW on this project.
We work with Pacific Power and ODFW to monitor the upstream migration of hatchery steelhead to assess the potentiality of them spawning with Wild Steelhead. There is only a 10% allowance of hatchery fish on the spawning beds, as stated in the Federal Coastal Management Plan.  We discuss this issue with the agencies often.
The Steamboaters helped purchase, along with Western Rivers Conservancy, the 211acre Swiftwater Park from Douglas County. The Swiftwater property contains nearly 1 mile along both banks of the North Umpqua and was rededicated this June. We hope to have funds available to assist again in the purchase of property along the North Umpqua that could be taken out of public access.
We give money annually to the historic Glide Wildflower Show, which draws people from all over the Pacific Northwest. This show is another way of drawing visitors and getting them to become familiar with the North Umpqua watershed.
We give money annually to support the Osprey Steelhead Journal, a publication from Federation of Fly Fishers.
We have provided funding to support Pacific Rivers' efforts to promote the Frank and Jeannie Moore Wild Steelhead Sanctuary.
We continue working with the US Forest Service to place signage along the river denoting areas of spawning salmon and steelhead, educating anglers that fishing over spawning fish disturbs them and can possibly prevent them from spawning, limiting future generations. Karl Konecny has written an interesting article on this topic that is included in this issue.

Steamboaters submitted Mitigation Funds requests for four projects to Umpqua National Forest on March 6, 2017. The request for the use of Mitigation Funds has been accepted and fully funded. The proposal was assembled by Jeff Dose, Vice President of the Steamboaters, and the projects are:
  • Decommissioning un-needed or damaging roads;
  • Continuing the macro-invertebrate census;
  • Beginning a program of habitat inventory/monitoring on all fish-bearing streams; and
  • Improving in-stream, stream adjacent, and aquatic organism passage.
These are some of the projects that your Steamboater membership is involved with. Some of these projects take years to come together as we iron out the issues and details. And while we need your money to work with, we need also need you to be vocal to the appropriate parties about these issues.
Have a great summer, and come and enjoy our beautiful river and its fish.


Forgotten Flies: Seeing Red by Joe Howell

The Thor

The Killer

Red is often a forgotten color when it comes to steelhead flies. A couple of red fly patterns not in much use by the majority of today's steelheaders are the Thor and the Killer.
The Thor is a pattern developed by Jim Pray of Eureka, California, in 1934. It was named for his fishing partner, Walter Thorensen. The Thor's early fame began in California's Eel River, quickly gaining popularity as a very productive pattern.
Stan Knouse tied steelhead flies for Steamboat Inn in the early 1970s. The Thor was a pattern that he tied commercially at that time for use on the North Umpqua.
The Killer steelhead pattern came out of Washington sometime in the 1940s. Though not as widely known as the Thor, it is nonetheless a good choice when you want to present something different than just another black fly.
I prefer fishing the "red" patterns when the sun is on the water, and they have produced very well for me under bright water conditions.
The Thor and Killer steelhead flies are proven patterns that consistently produce summer and winter steelhead-tied in size 6 - 2 for summer and 2 - 1/0 for higher winter flows.

Thread - 6/0 - 3/0 size in black or red
Tail - dyed orange hackle fibers
Body - large red chenille, size 3
Hackle - natural brown saddle hackle
Wing - white bucktail
Hook - 6, 4, 2, 1/0 heavy wire

Thread - 6/0 - 3/0 size in black or red
Tail - dyed red hackle fibers
Body - red chenille, red yarn, or your favorite red dubbing
Rib - silver oval tinsel
Hackle - dyed red saddle hackle
Wing - dyed black bucktail or black bear
Shoulder - Jungle Cock
Hook - 6, 4, 2, 1/0 heavy wire


Fishing Over Spawning Fish by Karl Konecny with Pictures by Rich Grost

If you have fished the North Umpqua during winter steelhead season over the past few years you have noticed a sharp increase in angling pressure.  While the increased numbers of anglers allows for more comradery and commiserating, or sharing our stories of success on a cold winter day, a disturbing trend has emerged;  more anglers are fishing over visible spawning steelhead during April and May. 

This has led to strong discussions. Some are concerned with the impact this practice will have on the population, some feel this violates the ethics of angling that is the bedrock of our sport, and some arguing that with catch and release this is a non-issue.  Everyone agrees that spawning fish on shallow gravel bars are more aggressive and are easier to catch.

There has been very little, if any, scientific studies of the impacts of catch and release angling on spawning anadromous fish.   That is not a valid argument for condoning the practice.  While it is not illegal to fish over spawning salmon or steelhead, the practice has long been considered unethical in the northwest.  This is not true across the country. In the east, where our Pacific salmon and steelhead have been introduced and maintained by extensive hatchery programs, fishing over spawning fish is encouraged.  After all, with a 100% hatchery run, natural reproduction is not valued and an un-caught adult is a wasted fish so targeting them when they are the most vulnerable is a common practice.  On the North Umpqua, we are blessed with a healthy wild run and natural reproduction is a critical link in the chain of success.

On most Oregon coastal rivers, fishing over spawning fish is not an issue.  The upper portions of the rivers are closed to angling for salmon or steelhead to protect the spawning fish.  The Elk River is closed above Bald Mountain Creek.  The Sixes is closed above the South Fork.  The South Umpqua is closed above Jackson Creek.  The North Umpqua tributaries are closed to protect the summer steelhead but the river is open year round throughout the spawning waters of the winter steelhead, which are main stem spawners.

While fishing over spawning steelhead is not explicitly illegal, ODFW's angling synopsis discourages the practice.  In the section on Freshwater Angling Ethics, ODFW encourages anglers to "avoid actively spawning fish".  Fishing over spawning fish is always a key management issue on coastal salmon runs.  There is continuing debate among anglers, ODFW staff, and the Fish and Wildlife commission between protecting spawning salmon and providing angling opportunity.  On north coast streams, the state police have cited anglers fishing over spawning chinook for harassing wildlife without a permit.

Many long time anglers on the North Umpqua, alarmed by the increasing incidents of anglers fishing over visible spawning steelhead, have called for a closure of the upper river in April and May.  ODFW, citing a healthy population of winter steelhead, is not inclined to add restrictions at this time.  But if ODFW senses a problem they certainly will act.  For example, the Sprague River (a tributary of the Williamson) had been closed to angling in the winter to protect spawning trout until 2014 when it was opened year round to increase angling opportunity.  This year, due to reports of excess fishing over spawning fish, an emergency closure was ordered.  ODFW will now push to close the Sprague in the winter in the future.

Your Steamboaters' board of directors is concerned with this issue.  Some offending anglers plead ignorance.  The Steamboaters', working with the Forest Service, and with ODFW's blessing, have posted signs at many steelhead spawning areas.  Many of us choose to quit fishing for winter steelhead on the first of April.  We can still satisfy our fishing bug by targeting the just arriving spring chinook, or the awakening trout, or the non-native shad and striped bass.  Or we leave our rods at home and walk the river, enjoying the rebirth of spring, the wild flowers, and watching the spawning steelhead.  Miraculous fish that have left the Pacific climbed the river to a height greater than the Empire State Building, to find a clean gravel bar to place all of their hope of the future.  It is a sight to behold.

What can you do?  Learn about the life cycle of these fish, learn to recognize spawning areas.  Avoid fishing where there is a chance of disturbing spawning fish.  Talk to other anglers fishing where they should not.  Think of the future.  As out board member Josh Voynick says, "Friends don't let friends fish over spawning fish".

If you have any thoughts or comments on this subject please email them to for publication in the next Whistle.  Keep the discussion going.

Hen digging pit into redd within which to deposit and bury eggs

Buck and hen steelhead paired on a redd, close to laying eggs

The Steamboat Inn...the Next Era by Averi Wratney

If you haven't already heard the big news, the sale of Steamboat Inn is final and the new owners took possession May 1 st .  As I sit down to write this, I am tempted to launch into a long story of how special and sacred Steamboat Inn is to me.  How I ended up there. How I fell in love and was married there.  Why I am a better person for working alongside Jim, Sharon, Pat and Keith Lee at the Inn for 8 years. How I am consistently inspired by knowing and listening to Frank and Jeanne Moore.  How my commitment to conservation and passion for wild steelhead deepened . . .
Then I realize my story is not unique.  I am just one thread in the web that connects us all to Steamboat Inn.  We are a community; all with our own story of how we found ourselves head over heels in love with the North Umpqua, and at the heart of it all, the Steamboat Inn.
Originally on the South side of the river, Clarence Gordon's North Umpqua Lodge set the foundation for what was to become Steamboat Inn.  This is where the large sugar pine dining table and benches were hand hewn by a logger named Scott and 16-year-old guide Knute Kershner.  

The North Umpqua Lodge ended its run in 1955 when the Forest Service purchased the Gordon's interests and moved the Steamboat Ranger Station to his site.  Across the River the Gordons still had their Steamboat store which they sold to Frank and Jeanne in 1957.  Building the café and the original 6 cabins, the Steamboat Inn came to be.  At some point, they moved that big sugar pine table to where it still sits today and continued many of the traditions, like the fishermen's dinner, that originated at the Gordon's Lodge.  The Steamboaters Club was born around that very table.  Our founders, who were way ahead of their time in the notion of conservation, came to understand and act upon the fact that the North Umpqua and the wild Steelhead that call her home, needed protection. Frank and Jeanne spent 18 years feeding, guiding, and making each guest feel like family.          
The torch was passed to Jim and Sharon VanLoan who purchased the Inn from the Moore's in 1975.  They were joined by Pat Lee as managing partner in 1978.  Embracing the strong sense of community, they coined the phrase and embodied the saying," You are a stranger here but once."  They spent the next 42 years building on traditions and bringing their own flair to Steamboat Inn. 

Again, much ahead of their time and the current popularity of the "farm to table" movement in the Pacific Northwest, Pat and Sharon's style in the kitchen was to serve locally sourced seasonal cuisine.  They published two cookbooks, highlighting some of their very best work.  When they weren't in the kitchen creating, they were outside establishing the gorgeous gardens that continue to bring guests and visitors so much joy.  (Yes, those two talented women built all those rock walls by hand!!!)

Continuing the tradition of guiding out of the Inn, Pat Lee not only shattered glass ceilings for women in the sport of fly fishing for steelhead, she became the first woman to guide the North Umpqua.  She enjoyed 15 successful years of helping guests discover the North Umpqua and her secrets.  Her most famous clients, as many of you may remember, were President Carter and his wife, Roselyn.  Surrounded by secret service, they each landed a fine fish in the Camp Water.  Roselyn out fished her husbands' catch of a 6-pound buck with a shiny ten-pound hen.  The dedication to conservation also continued.  Jim helped publish conservation magazines for wild fish before it was cool, and served on the Oregon Game Commission for 8 years.  He also served on the board of Oregon Trout, and was a founder of and still currently serves on the board of The North Umpqua Foundation.  Pat served on the boards of Oregon Trout, Steamboaters, and the North Umpqua Foundation, where she broke ground for women not only out on the river fly fishing, but also on conservation boards that were mainly a "boys club".
As we highlight their accomplishments, we must talk about wine, Pinot Noir in particular!  You may not know this, but Jim, Sharon, and Pat were each personally given an Outstanding Partner Award from the Oregon Wine Board for their contributions to Pinot Noir in the state of Oregon.  Again, they were leading edge in foresight and creativity in the food and wine industry and continued to receive multiple awards for the Inn's wine list.  In addition, they founded the Pinot Noir Conference, which has brought wine makers from around the world to Steamboat Inn every summer for the last 30 odd years. 
There is another important character that has been in the background of this leg of the journey of the Inn, and his name is Keith Lee.  Pat's good natured and super handy husband Keith assisted in the building of the back porch, cabins 7 & 8, and then in 1987 was the lead builder of the 5 woodland style cottages up Steamboat Creek, the Suites, the library and an add on to the kitchen.  He always kept an excellent sense of humor as he responded at all times of day and night to all those little emergencies that kept the Inn up and running smoothly. 
Now a new era is upon us as we warmly welcome the Woodward Family as the fourth keepers of the Inn, and ambassadors to the North Umpqua River.  Travis and Melinda Woodward are native Oregonians and hail from the Eugene area.  They have two adorable daughters, Carmen (3) and McKenzie (9), who are helping to create a fun family atmosphere.
As Melinda and Travis make Steamboat Inn their own, some traditions will change, while the heart of the Inn will remain the same.  One change is the dinner options and times.
The reservation only 7:00 family style fishermen's dinner is being replaced with open restaurant hours.  The day café is still open from 8 - 5, serving breakfast until 3 p.m.
Dinner hours will be from 5 - 9.  Reservations are not necessary, but appreciated.  There will be fine dining options as well as house made soup, salad and sandwiches.
So that means those of you out late chasing the last cast, you will still have time for a burger and beer after fishing.
I consider myself blessed to know 3 generations of Steamboat Inn and be a part of a great history continuing to unfold.   Let us take a moment to reconnect to the passions that brought us here.  To drink in the haunting beauty of the North Umpqua River and all the creatures that call Her home.  A moment to appreciate the little Inn nestled up next to Her.  Let us recommit to the importance of protecting and preserving Her for future generations.  And most importantly, let us celebrate our Community and continue our conversations around the Big Table.

Melinda and Travis Woodward with their daughters, Carmen and McKenzie 

Steamboaters Offer Help to Support Winchester Fish Counts by Joe Ferguson

As a cost-saving move, ODFW in 2015 went from a 100% count of fish passage at Winchester Dam to a more limited count with final numbers extrapolated from 15-year averages.  While the Department has a great deal of confidence in their   methods (+/- 10%), after two years we have questioned the results for summer steelhead:
  • In 2015, the temperature and flow conditions were unlike anything in the 15-year period used to establish the baseline; it's unclear how that affected timing but all agree it was a disaster for the summer fish.
  • In 2016, the process yielded an estimated run of nearly 7,000 fish.  Nobody who spends time on the River believes that; there were almost no fish after July 4th.
The current system is slow and outdated; downloads can take more than two hours and are hard to share.  ODFW's funding for the Winchester counts is only good through October.  The Steamboaters has offered to purchase the system used at the Columbia River dams (Fish Tick) and have it installed at Winchester Dam.  Tim Goforth has been in discussion with them for weeks, and they've been very receptive.  We're hoping it's less costly and more efficient, and later on could also be used at Rock Creek so that hatchery fish could be counted and provide a much better estimate of the hatchery/wild ratio in the spawning population, a critical element in the management plan and for the long-term health of the summer run steelhead.

Update on North Umpqua Steelhead Genetics Study by Jeff Dose

The primary objective of this research is to determine if there are spatial (locations within the watershed) differences in spawning and rearing of two races of O. mykiss (rainbow trout) in the North Umpqua River.  The North Umpqua hosts robust populations of both premature (summer run) and mature (winter run) anadromous O. mykiss, commonly known as steelhead. 

While winter run steelhead are relatively common in Oregon coastal rivers, wild populations of summer run steelhead are rare, only found in three coastal Oregon river systems. These are the Siletz, Rogue, and North Umpqua rivers.  Recently developed genetic analyses are now able to differentiate these races from juvenile tissue samples.  

The researcher at UC Davis will be sampling up to 800 juvenile steelhead in over 30 sites throughout the North Umpqua basin, beginning this year.  The project is scheduled to run for 3 years.  Sampling, a small fin-clip, is considered relatively non-invasive and all samples will be released into their native habitat.  Genetic analysis will occur at the UC Davis lab, which will match genetic analysis with sample locations to determine spatial differentiation. This cutting-edge research should help management agencies in developing sound management policies.

Book Review: "A Temporary Sanctuary: Fourteen Seasons with Wild Summer Steelhead" by Michael Checcio

A Temporary Refuge: Fourteen Seasons with Wild Steelhead
By Lee Spencer. Published by Patagonia Books, 2017; $ $27.95 softbound (to be published in June). Reprinted by permission of "California Fly Fisher" magazine.
There once was a time when Lee Spencer would spend up to 15 hours daily fly fishing for summer-run steelhead on the North Umpqua River in Oregon. These days, he is content to sit in a makeshift perch on a ledge above Big Bend Pool on Steamboat Creek, which is a major spawning tributary of the North Umpqua, patiently observing resting steelhead while taking copious notes. When he bothers to fish at all in the main river, he cuts the points off his hooks so his flies won't hurt the steelhead.
Lee Spencer is the "Fishwatch Caretaker" at Big Bend Pool. His function from May through December each season is to be a "human presence" that will deter would-be poachers from wiping out the wild steelhead that gather by the hundreds in the pool to await winter rains that will send them upstream to spawn. Big Bend was once known as the "Dynamite Hole," but thanks to Spencer's presence, the explosions that would turn massive numbers of fish belly-up are now a thing of the past. Spencer is now in his eighteenth season at Big Bend, patiently observing his surroundings and taking meticulous field notes. He has given up secure employment and a comfortable life in order to study and protect these fish. A prehistoric archeologist by profession, Spencer says he is "peculiarly trained to document the unknown."
What he found, A Temporary Refuge, is a distillation of 14 seasons at Big Bend Pool, mostly in the company of Sis, an Australian cattle dog, a heeler who saw her "job" as greeting visitors and herding them down a footpath to an observation platform that her master had set up for his fieldwork. In season, Spencer lives on site in an old Airstream trailer, with no phone, e-mail, or Internet, and it is almost too easy to think of him as a modern-day Thoreau. No doubt comparisons to Walden will prove irresistible.
But if Spencer's book brings to mind any literary antecedent, let me suggest it is another, older classic, Gilbert White's The Natural History of Selborne. First published in 1789 and never out of print, it is one of the most beloved works in English literature. White's classic was the first natural history to suggest that the lives of birds and other animals have their own richness and rhythm. Like White's masterpiece, A Temporary Refuge is a natural history written by an amateur "naturalist," a distinctly old-fashioned term. And like White's book, A Temporary Refuge is in essence a work of phenology, which is the study of seasonal changes in plants and animals from year to year - such as flowering, the emergence of insects, and the migrations of birds and fish - especially in their timing and in their relationship to weather and climate. Both White and Spencer based their books on their field notes, which became a sort of annual calendar of observations that took in all the flora and fauna, migratory patterns, and seasonal shifts and transformational changes in their immediate habitats. White was a Protestant clergyman focused primarily on birds. Spenser is more Zen-like and inclined toward salmonids. Neither seems to have missed a thing.
In making the transition from obsessive steelhead fisherman to the guardian of a single pool - first as a volunteer at Big Bend, later as a full-time "fishwatcher" getting paid a modest per diem by the North Umpqua Foundation - Spencer learned to see his riverine habitat afresh.
The first day of that season, I realized that the pool represented an unusual opportunity to take notes on whatever these wild summer steelhead did. Note taking and observation are what I had spent more than twenty-five years doing as a prehistoric field archeologist. . . . For the previous four or five years I had been spending fifty to a hundred days each summer and fall casting flies to steelhead in the North Umpqua, and my interest in this species of Pacific salmon was fully developed, though I had far more questions than answers. Plainly, so did everyone else. In the more than seventeen years that I had been casting flies for these fish, the how-to and the whys of steelhead and flies had accumulated in random layers of half-truths . . . .By [now] I have spent more than 3,400 days mostly without a fly rod in hand, just sitting with the wild steelhead at the pool. I can now leaven most angling myths with natural history observations.
Big Bend on Steamboat Creek is what Spencer calls a "refuge pool," a place where steelhead can gather to wait out the warm-weather months. They choose the pool at Big Bend because it is refreshed by a feeder creek that provides water that is much cooler than the temperatures found in the rest of Steamboat Creek. Over the summer and autumn months, as many as four hundred to eight hundred wild steelhead, along with a few spring chinook salmon, come to rest in this pool. They are exquisitely attuned to their surroundings, especially to the presence of visitors at the pool. No fishing has been allowed on Steamboat Creek since the 1930s, but the presence of humans can stress the fish. Because he is now getting around fifteen hundred visitors there each season, Spencer has chosen not to name either Steamboat Creek or Big Bend Pool in the text of his book. Which is a bit ridiculous, because its location is common knowledge, and both Steamboat Creek and Big Bend Pool are named prominently on the book's Amazon page, on the cover of the advance reading copy I received, and in the promotional literature put out by its publisher, Patagonia. (Spencer also appears in Patagonia's documentary film DamNation.) Perhaps this is a Zen riddle we are supposed to solve, because this book could have come out of the mind of Chuang Tzu. Is Spencer dreaming he is a steelhead, or is he a steelhead dreaming he is a prehistoric field archeologist?
This is to say that the author has the ability to think outside the ordinary human perspective and perceive things from the point of view of an animal whose mind is mostly a mystery to us. For example, based on long observation, he believes steelhead leap out of the water primarily for a better view of their surroundings and often in response to even the smallest changes in their environment. One season, a lightning strike caused a protracted wildfire near a tributary stream three miles above Big Bend Pool.
The steelhead were more active than I had ever seen them. They carried out an estimated 25,000 jumps, flashes, accelerations, and rises. Eleven days after the start of the fire, I counted 303 jumps during the course of one day. On an average day prior to the fire, a large number of jumps for a day might amount to forty.
Virtually all jumps by steelhead are for the purpose of getting their eyes above the surface. One, undertaken for the sake of taking a good look around, involves a steelhead jumping as much as six to eight feet out of the water. During this vertical jump the steelhead keeps its head up, which causes the fish to drop back into the pool tail first or on its belly. These "looking leaps" were the main type that I saw executed during the time of the fire.
My guess is that the steelhead in the pool were receiving continuous signals of the fire carried to them by the currents of the [tributary] creek. Seeing very little in the water, they jumped up into the air to look about. Because they could discern nothing above the surface either, they continued making their jumps.
Why do steelhead take flies? Is it aggression, fear, or some latent feeding response? Steelhead and salmon don't feed in any meaningful sense once they return from the ocean to their natal river. Spencer thinks they seize flies out of what we humans call "curiosity." ("The curious eat themselves," said the poet Theodore Roethke.) Steelhead are constantly rising to organic debris such as leaves and twigs - seemingly more often to this stuff than even to living insects - and are forever nosing around the flotsam and jetsam of a stream. To "match the hatch," steelhead anglers might as well tie their flies to resemble twigs.
The wild steelhead pay sharp attention to the world around them, both above and below the surface, and they are interested in even minute changes. When the first few red leaves of the Pacific dogwood drift through the pool in the fall, steelhead line up close to the surface and take turns examining or mouthing the leaves. The same thing happens with the first brilliantly yellow and lanceolate Pacific willow leaves, the first woolly bear caterpillar, the first gigantic and yellow broad-leaved maple leaf, the first orange vine maple leaf, and other first-time events. In the quite rare event that a steelhead actually takes an item floating through the pool, the steelhead moves into the path of a leaf or lichen, opens its mouth, and shakes its head to release the item after mouthing it. The same is true when certain bugs first appear.
Spencer used to think all steelhead rising to his flies were would-be takers. Now he knows better. "I [am] more prepared to regard steelhead as fellow creatures adapted to their own perceptual world, and not as myopic creatures responding to the magical reality of steelhead flies." This "curiosity," he believes, is part of a steelhead's adaptability to an ever-changing environment. "With a creature the size of a steelhead, its interactions with its environment must include learning, and that curiosity can be a powerful tool in any learning process. Learning is especially useful in dealing with change, and the Pacific Northwest high-gradient streams are one of the most changeable environments on the North American continent."
What they might not be able to adapt to, he says, are the ecological ravages mankind has brought about with our modern way of life. The author makes a compelling case for closing hatcheries in every river basin that has sustaining populations of wild steelhead and salmon. "Native" hatchery steelhead can't really be considered "native" to a given stream, because "there are probably more than twenty-five different local breeding populations of summer steelhead in the North Umpqua Basin, and each is native to a different tributary or main stem reach."
Finally, "the best we can do for them is to let them be." Fly fishers will have to think long and hard about that. Or start cutting the points off our hooks.
There is more to dwell on in this book than in any other I have read about fly fishing. It's not just about the way of the steelhead. It's about an entire world of forest and stream teeming with life amid seasonal changes: plants, fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles, mammals - and the people of the river basin who tell their stories. Spencer seems to know everyone up there by name. A Temporary Refuge is arranged in the form of an almanac, with each month in the vigil from May through November being given its own chapter. His narrative is drawn from his working diary of 16 volumes of annual notes that he kept and posted on the North Umpqua Foundation Web site (where they can be viewed at His field notes are often used by biologists and other employees of the U.S. Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. But the real appeal of this book is to a general audience and to anyone who savors fine nature writing.
In that regard, it is very much in the spirit of Gilbert White's classic The Natural History of Selborne, whose admirers have included Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Darwin, John Ruskin, Virginia Woolf, and W. H. Auden. David Attenborough called White "a man in total harmony with his world." You can say the same about Lee Spencer.
Lastly, this is the story of a relationship between a human and a dog. While heartfelt, the story avoids the kind of sentimentality that usually dooms such narratives - especially in their "Go toward the light" chapters. When the time comes for Spencer to put down his beloved heeler, there is grief. But there is also a deeper understanding. Every living thing dies, though it may only be humans who "know" death. Spreading the ashes of his pet, the author summons the opening stanza of the Eighth Elegy by Rainer Maria Rilke.
With all its eyes, the animal world
beholds the Open. Only our eyes
are as if inverted and set all around it
like traps at its portals to freedom.
What's outside we only know from the animal's
countenance; for almost from the first we take a child
and twist him round and force him to gaze
backwards and take in structure, not the Open
that lies so deep in an animal's face. Free from death.
Only we see death; the free animal has its demise
perpetually behind it and before it always
God, and when it moves, it moves into eternity,
the way brooks and running springs move.
Rilke's famous sequence of poems called Duino Elegies begins with lamentations but ends in rapture. And in The Sonnets to Orpheus that are the companion poems to the Elegies, the poet finds complete acceptance in all things alive and earthly. Rilke's openness is the eternal and infinite nature of reality into which all animals gaze.
But our human perspective is limited. We set up barriers around what we see, and these become traps to our living a life that is fully aware and in the moment. But there is a way to experience the world more fully and joyously. Fly fishers know such moments. They come to us when we find ourselves caught up in the flow of an activity that is so immersive we lose ourselves in the fascination and joy of what we are doing. But we tend to think of such moments as circumscribed - reserved for special activities, like fly fishing. If we can learn to see the world from all perspectives - not just the human one - we might see life as always flowing and transformational. And we might come to know, even within the limitations of our human perspective, some of the freedom that animals must feel. And find in love and nature consolation for our mortality.
For Lee Spencer, Big Bend Pool is the Open in Rilke's poem. I can hardly think of a more profound testament to a river or of a scientific and sociological document that is so human, beautiful, and moving.
                                                                                                Michael Checchio

About Us
PO Box 41266
Eugene, Oregon 97404

The mission of the Steamboaters is to preserve, promote, and restore the unique aesthetic values, the natural production of wild fish populations, and the habitat that sustains these fish on the North Umpqua River.

Board of Directors
               Tim Goforth, President               
541 496 0780
Jeff Dose, Vice President
541 673 2665

Karl Konecy, Secretary
Lee Lashway, Treasurer
541 953 4796
Averi Wratney, Board Member

Josh Voynick, Board Member
541 496 0077 
Dillon Renton, Board Member
Chuck Schnautz, Board Member

Associate Directors
Peter Tronquet
      541 261-5041
                                                                       Dick Bauer
541 688 4980
Joe Ferguson
541 747 4917
Dale Greenly
541 863 6213
Pat McRae
541 496 4222
Charles Spooner
541 496 0493

Lenny Volland
541 673 2246

PO Box 41266
Eugene, Oregon 97404

To join The Steamboaters go to:
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