A Great Honor: Wild Steelhead on the North Umpqua

District Angling ambassador Mike Cartechine recently returned from a trip out west to Oregon’s North Umpqua river to fish for beautiful steelhead with fellow ambassador Kevin Hospodar. Read his trip report below.

A business trip last month, afforded the opportunity to join fellow District Angling Ambassador Kevin Hospodar, on the North Umpqua for the tail end of summer steelhead.  I love work n play trips, so 2 days were carved out.  The weather forecast wasn’t especially favorable.  The week before had high 90’s each day.  Low water conditions.  Then a text from a good friend, that fishing had been very poor for many weeks.  It didn’t matter though, we were in.  

This canyon is a very special place.  Not only remarkable in terms of scenery, but in tradition and etiquette.  It’s regulated during the summer, meaning dry lines, unweighted flies and leaders, and single barbless hooks.  There is equal respect for the fish and other fishers.  A road runs along the river, and if someone is already parked, you move on to the next turnout.  We fished 2 days, saw plenty of other fisherman, but not a single one in any run we fished.  Experiencing this strong nod to tradition, in both theory and practice, was such a great part of this trip.  I can’t begin to say how refreshing that is.

Sunday started the same way Saturday did:  coffee, breakfast, suiting up before sunrise, finding a pull off, dropping in on a goat path to the river, drinking in the sheer beauty of the place, and stepping into the river to survey the water.  The only noticeable difference was the overnight rain had greened up the rock veggies, and the light drizzle continued through the morning. 

The second spot that morning is one I’ll never forget.  We started through a large standing grove of old growth forest.  The trees were towering, and the well, worn trail was delightfully low gradient.  Kevin wanted to fish the tail out of the pool above, so he pointed out the spot he wanted me to fish. 

The downstream view had a high mountain peak, flanked on each side by medium slopes, there was a bridge off in the distance, it had stopped raining, but you could still see the moisture in the air.  Before unhooking the fly to fish, I snapped this picture.

North Umpqua fly fishers have an affinity for muddlers.  They skate well, and fish well subsurface.  My friend, Rick Harrington, introduced these to me on the Great Lakes Tribs before moving home to the Pacific Northwest.  Since this was my first trip to this area, we spoke at length.  He suggested muddlers tied traditionally or dressed as an October Caddis.  A sparse purple and black variation was a good option.  Foam skaters have their place too, he offered.

Kevin suggested I fish a 10’ floating poly leader with 5’ of 12# mono.  It was a good setup for a light scandi head, and a pleasure to cast.  The idea is to get the muddler fishing/skating right away, so an across and down presentation is ideal.  If a fish takes a swipe at it, or swirls, you fish it out, and let them see it again.  If nothing happens on the next cast or two, you switch to a “comeback” fly.  This, I learned,  is a traditional steelhead wet fly of your choosing, that is fished just under the surface on the same floating poly/mono setup.

Shortly after starting down this pool, a fish moved on my traditional muddler.  No take, so I fished it out, and showed it again.  Nothing.  Switched it up to the comeback fly – I chose a No. 6 October Caddis Hairwing.  Second cast through, the line loop disappeared through my fingers, and the vintage English clicker started to growl.  I raised the rod to the side, and it was on.  I yelled upstream to Kevin, “HERE WE GO!”

 By the time the fish really felt the rod, it was already through the pool, and down through the next rapid.  15’ leader, 41’ head, and 100’ of running line had disappeared, and I’m now looking at the white backing of this reel gifted by a midwestern friend.

A detail not yet mentioned, is this river is treacherous to wade.  There are sharp drops, holes, large boulders, and bowling ball size cobble.  None of it is hospitable to even the strongest of waders.  The water is so clear, what looks a depth of 6” is really more like 36”.  I’ve only waded one other river that was on par with the North Umpqua – the Pit in Northern California. 

Due to where this fish was, I had no choice but to give chase.  Precariously working down, I never realized that Kevin had ditched his gear, and was holding onto me.  When we got to the top of the next pool, something wasn’t right.  I could feel the weight of the fish, but it was muted.  The fish was still on, but looking through the water I could see that the leader was wrapped around a rock.  By any account, that fish should’ve been gone at this point.  I didn’t panic, worked my way carefully upstream, played the current and hydraulics, and the fish was forced back up into the heavy push of water and washed from around the rock.  Sometimes it helps to be lucky.

Several more good runs, and she was tailed by Hos.  At that moment, I was truly stunned.  Against all the odds – Kevin slides her through the water to me, and I’m now gently tailing my first Pacific Steelhead, while watching it catch its breath in the eddy.  Keeping the fish in the water, we rushed to get some pics, then took a video of the release.  In that video, it looks like the fish is moving its tail – in reality, those are my hands trembling.

The hookset was textbook, and even with a barbless fly, it was buried in the upper jaw bone.  The hook is popped out, and she swims away.   

Walking back up on the path, Kevin looks at me and says, “You’re pretty geeked out.  That’s cool.”  I couldn’t utter a word or sound.  

Later in the day, I took a face first fall into the river.  A full scoop if you will.  It was bitterly cold, as was the beer I had tucked into the front of my waders.  All I could do was laugh.

There were a lot of things to celebrate with that fish.  Being there.  New water.  Breathtaking scenery.  My first PNW Steelhead that had swam in salt water.  The first fish on a gifted vintage clicker reel.  Fishing hard, but not desperately.  Moving a fish up on a skated dry fly.  Then coming tight to her with the comeback fly a few casts later.  Getting her off the rock.  Tying both flies.  Sharing it all with a good friend.  Everything happened right. 

We learned later that this fish was one of a few brought to hand over several long weeks.  It is, and will remain, a great honor.  -M.C.

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Mike Cartechine

Mike is a Rust Belt resident that started fly fishing before The Movie. He cut his teeth on the warm water fisheries in Ohio before moving east. His home river is the Upper Delaware, and in 2017 he founded the Upper Delaware River Native Fish Society, which raises awareness and respect for the native shad, chub, sucker, and black bass of this fabled fishery. He can also be found swinging muddlers for lake run fish on Great Lakes tributaries, and learning more about salt any chance he gets.

Mike prefers medium-fast action 5-weights with clean lines, sharp knives, meats cooked over fire, real Neapolitan pizza, and a well stocked & organized drift boat.

Check out Mike’s InstaGram profile.