Winter fishing explodes on Lower Rogue River

By Mark Freeman / The Associated Press

AGNESS — One of the driest winters on record, which has shut down winter steelhead fishing in the Rogue Valley, has created a perfect storm of sorts for fly-fishers barely east of the salt air.

Near-record, low-water conditions on the Lower Rogue River during the height of winter steelhead season have generated unseasonably good fishing, particularly for disciples of the fly.

Swinging streamers or drifting nymphs through waters that are normally much higher and darker during January have suddenly made fly-fishers the hit of a party.

“The fly-fishing really has been tremendous,” said Jim Carey, of the Rogue Outdoor Store in Gold Beach.

“I’ve never sold this many flies, especially at this time of year,” Carey said. “We just don’t see this kind of fly-fishing in winter.”

That makes the Lower Rogue’s nymphers and streamer-casters and spey-rodders this year’s first angling group to realize that, while drought conditions can be very bad for fish in the long run, they can be a short-term boon to fishing, particularly fly-fishing.

The riffles and runs around the sleepy little hamlet of Agness, 33 miles east of Gold Beach, have been well-known to fly-fishers since author Zane Grey spilled the beans 80 years ago.

Often, it’s a swinger’s show with historic streamers such as the golden demon, red ant, royal coachmen and the juicy bug .

These conditions typically don’t exist in winter, when the Lower Rogue runs high and a little off-color.

Fly-fishing? Not so much. Winter steelhead usually can’t see far enough to chase a fly.

“And why would they?” Carey said. “The water’s normally almost brown. You’d have to put a fly right at their mouth for them to bite.”

But not this January, when some of the driest weather ever recorded in Medford has all but redefined what’s low in the Lower Rogue.

The Agness gauge bottomed out late Monday at just a hair above 1,500 cfs. That’s just 50 cfs above the record low set in 1977.

The low flows have stalled migration through the canyon and into the Grants Pass area, which normally is lousy with steelhead by Super Bowl Sunday. Steelhead likewise aren’t shooting up the Illinois River, a main Rogue Basin steelhead factory whose confluence is just downstream of Agness.

They’re stuck, all around Agness.

Although the low flows are cold, the cold doesn’t bother winter steelhead like it does summers. And the clarity makes straight gin appear murky.

“With the clarity of the water, it’s unbelievable,” Carey said. “You can pull a fish in from 6 or even 10 feet away.”