Thick fog hung low over the main fork of the Umpqua River as a steady flow of drift boats slowly passed by. Wood ducks and Canada Geese expressed their displeasure with honks and quacks or quick flaps against the water as they took off and flew to other areas during the 2023 Annual Umpqua Fishery Enhancement Derby’s catch-and-release steelhead event.
Evan Leonetti, assistant fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said 41 boats participated in the event Friday, but only 26 came back with fish.
“The water is so low this year because we haven’t had a good rain that boats hit rocks on the North and South Umpqua, so this year we extended the range down to the Sawyer Rapids in Elkton,” Leonetti said.
With the Umpqua getting three-quarters of the angles and guides for the two-day event, a few fishermen took to the banks.
“I like the peace and quiet on the riverbank,” said Kaleb Carlisle, an angler from Winston. “Plus, I enjoy the competitive nature of fishermen and steelhead are not an easy fish to catch.”
Carlisle barely remembers a time when fishing wasn’t a part of his life, “I started with my dad at around five years old on Thomas Creek by Scio,’” he said. “I have been catching steelhead my whole life.”
The green water, rich with nutrients, passes gently, hiding just below its skin, the fish everyone is seeking.
“I have been steelhead fishing somewhere between 25 and 30 years,” said Ken Rice, event volunteer. “They are a real challenging fish, but a fun challenge.”
Rice and a group of volunteers bring trucks and trailers down the river as a group of fishermen and guides launched their boats. Rice and crew would drive those trucks down to the next launch and park them.
“I coordinate with the derby,” Rice said, “but we have been moving trucks like this for longer than my 11 years doing this.”
As Rice and his team park trucks and then manually lift trailers into the perfect position, more boats come into view and then float by into the mist.
“Participants are allowed to keep one hatchery fish per angler per derby,” said Leonetti. “Plus, we spread the fishermen out and around the three forks of the Umpqua as best we can so one area is not overfished.”
Beyond those particular derby rules, all normal fishing regulations apply regarding the rigs and jigs people use to catch steelhead.
“For 31 years this derby has provided funding and grants up and down the Umpqua Basin,” Rice said. “Some of our funding went to the fish viewing window at the dam.”
To date, the derby has contributed more than $1.9 million toward fishery enhancement, watershed restoration, and outdoor education projects. All monies raised by this event remain in Douglas County.
A blue heron sat atop a large mossy boulder and watched for fish keeping one eye on a passing drift boat when, in the distance, the zip of a line pulled tautly and the whoop of a fish on rang through the thick morning air.
Sam Temple is a reporter for The News-Review. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-957-4217.
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