THE FISHERMAN’S RIVER
THE SLICE OF LINE THROUGH SKY, the gentle kiss of fly and river, the quiet inhale of the back-cast—the North Umpqua’s siren is a powerful call, for there may well be no river in Oregon more synonymous with fishing than this. But the North Umpqua hasn’t always been fishermen’s favored stream. The emerald river piggybacked its way to fame on the shoulders of the Rogue thanks, in part, to Zane Grey. Beginning in the 1920s, anglers looking for pristine waters staked out camps for the summer on the banks of the North Umpqua, generally complete with a cook and a caretaker. Grey followed in the 1930s to escape the relative crowding on the Rogue River that his own work had helped create. His campsite at the North Umpqua’s confluence with Steamboat Creek eventually became the location of the legendary Steamboat Inn (see “Lodge Legacy”). Today, the river still draws anglers from across the region, particularly during the summer steelhead season. Long known as a purist’s proving grounds, the thirty-one miles in the heart of the North Umpqua’s upper canyon, near the inn, were some of the first public waters designated for fly-fishing only—no live bait, no lures—in 1952. In order to decrease pressure on the fish population, the Department of Fish and Wildlife also prohibited casting from rafts or drift boats. Instead, anglers must practice their art from the banks, or wade into the deep water, which is punctuated by plunging rapids. It can be treacherous, tedious fishing—and rhythmic and soulful and rewarding. So much so, that every year two thousand fishermen return to the fir-flecked banks along this stretch of the North Umpqua, unpack their flies and ties, and play their solitary song.
FISH The North Umpqua boasts one of the longest summer steelhead seasons in the world, lasting from June until November. As the river winds through steep canyon walls, it offers every imaginable version of steelhead Eden: from bedrock-rimmed chutes to choppy runs and deep pockets of water. The entire river is open for fishing, but the central thirty-one miles between Soda Springs Dam and Rock Creek are reserved for fly fishermen only. The stretch of river near the Steamboat Inn has been called “the most celebrated water in all of steelhead fly-fishing” by steelhead guru Trey Combs. Virtually every piece of river here has a story—from Kitchen Pool, named in honor of the cook tent of the Umpqua’s first camp denizen, Major Jordon Lawrence Mott; to Takahashi, named after Zane Grey’s Japanese cook, George Takahashi. The best spots may seem obvious—well-worn trails dive down from roadside pullouts directly to the river—but even there, the steelhead can be elusive. Eliminate the guesswork with Steamboat Inn’s preferred guide service, Summer Run (summerrun.net; full-day $400, half-day $200).
HIKE/BIKE Only forty-three rides in North America have earned the International Mountain Biking Association’s esteemed designation as “epic.” The seventy-nine-mile-long North Umpqua Trail is one of them. Built as a multiuse trail for hikers, bikers, and backpackers, the ride follows the North Umpqua river as it meanders through old-growth forest, past hair-blowing waterfalls, across narrow ridges, eventually crisscrossing the small stream itself several times near the headwaters at Diamond Lake, just north of Crater Lake National Park. Most cyclists tackle afternoon-long sections, but Western Spirit Cycling Adventures runs a five-day tour that includes meals and shuttles for your gear (westernspirit.com; $1,185), so all you have to worry about is keeping your eyes on the trail—and the breathtaking landscape, of course. (Note: This year the westernmost sixteen miles of the trail are closed beginning at the Swiftwater Trailhead for maintenance, so start your ride at the Wright Creek Trailhead instead.)
PADDLE Whether swelled from spring rains or snowmelt, North Umpqua tributaries like Copeland and Canton Creeks attract expert kayakers. But the main river, with its deep pools sitting behind short bedrock rapids, can be run year-round. Ouzel Outfitters, known for its long-tenured and knowledgeable guides, runs a two-day all-inclusive trip (oregonrafting.com; $325) that tackles the twenty-five rapid-packed miles between Boulder Flat and Susan Creek Campgrounds. Get your buzz on the steep upper segment, bouncing through Class III rides like Cardiac Arrest, Toilet Bowl, and Pinball as the river winds through a mountainous canyon lined with lichen-draped trees; then get your tan on the mellow lower section, where the river gurgles past stands of fir and cedar.