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Updated Friday, June 21, 2013 at 12:08 PM

Oregon’s ‘Wild and Scenic’ North Umpqua River is beautiful, bountiful

By Christy Karras
Special to The Seattle Times

When it comes to your honeymoon, you want to go to a beautiful place, maybe a spot that means something special to you, one where you can do the things you most enjoy.

That’s why my newly minted husband and I went fly-fishing on the North Umpqua River in west-central Oregon.

Why the North Umpqua? First, it’s beautiful: As it tumbles westward from the Cascade Range, the North Umpqua more than lives up to its Wild and Scenic River designation, which includes a 34-mile stretch of water along Highway 138 between Boulder Creek Wilderness and the community of
Idleyld Park.

Surrounded by National Forest land, it feels far removed from the noise and hubbub of urban life. Even at its deepest points, its turquoise-tinted waters are often so translucent that colorful shale and sandstone rocks seem to glow against the dark basalt bottom. Thick stands of evergreen and deciduous trees line its banks in some places while blocky cliffs rise directly from the water in others.

Many visitors explore the North Umpqua’s scenery via whitewater raft or by walking, cycling or driving its banks. Anglers know another reason to love it: its plentiful four-season fish supply.

Steelhead season now

The Umpqua and its North and South tributaries are in the middle of a productive winter steelhead season. That will last until the first of May, but by mid-March, you can also fish for spring chinook, said Gary Lewis, who’s been guiding on the river for 30 years.

May is the time for shad. In June and July, people flock to the river to catch smallmouth bass and summer steelhead, with chinook in September and October. Sometimes you’ll even see a sturgeon or striper.

“You have something to fish for all year ’round,” Lewis said.

This abundance is no quirk. Local anglers, businesses and government agencies have worked together for years to improve habitat. The annual Umpqua Fishery Enhancement Derby, held the first weekend of February for 21 years, has raised more than $1 million to help fund conservation efforts throughout the Umpqua drainage through matching grants. During this year’s two-day derby, teams of anglers caught (and released) about 200 steelhead — a decent year, but not quite the 300 they caught last year.

The derby’s auction banquet is the single biggest event in Douglas County, said steering committee member Audrey Barnes.

“There are just oodles and oodles of projects that we have helped sponsor,” she said. Many of them are geared toward improving fish habitat, while others help pay for programs that bring local school kids out on field trips.

Rafters love it, too

In late spring and early summer, rafters floating this popular whitewater spot combine with anglers looking to hook fish. Fortunately for those seeking peaceful days on the river, 31 miles of the North Umpqua is open only to fly-fishing during steelhead season. The sole hatchery is downriver, so catch-and-release is mandatory.

Those who relish the steelhead challenge see fly-fishing the North Umpqua as a pilgrimage as much as an outing. One of the Northwest’s best steelhead rivers, it has won praise from the likes of Jack Hemingway, Zane Grey and fishing legend Ernest Schwiebert, who called it “the unmistakable royalty of the Pacific Coast.”

Casting here is a pleasure, if not a breeze, almost any time of year. In winter, fishing holes are long and deep, which means indicator fishing with a bobber and an egg imitator. In the summer, he’s swinging flies at smaller holes, Lewis says. “It’s fun because you’re liable to catch an 18-pound steelhead on a fly.”

I fell in love with fly-fishing the Umpqua even though I had the luck I usually do with steelhead. (I’ll blame it on how busy I was gawking at the scenery.) Suddenly, fishing for smallmouth bass in the summer seemed more appealing than it had before. Lewis said he routinely catches 60 or more fish on an outing, which makes it the perfect fish for beginners, kids or those of us who magically cause steelhead to disappear.

When you take a break from fishing, make time to see the river in other ways: Drive all the way to the coast as highways 138 and 38 parallel the Umpqua past tiny towns snuggled between forested hillsides and meadows full of wildlife, including an elk herd that makes its year-round home at the Bureau of Land Management’s Dean Creek Elk-Viewing Area three miles east of Reedsport. Or hike a section of the 79-mile North Umpqua Trail, which follows the river.

One of the best and most family-friendly recreation options along the river: Tackle one of the (usually) short trails leading to the 15 waterfalls on or near the North Umpqua between the town of Glide and the Diamond Lake area.

Many of the falls spout from vibrant moss- and fern-covered volcanic rock cliffs just off the main highway, and each has its own shape and personality. They are most spectacular in early spring, when water flows are highest. Stop in at the North Umpqua Ranger Station in Glide or the visitor information center in Roseburg for a brochure and advice.

Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelance writer.

If you go

North Umpqua River

Where

From Interstate 5 at Roseburg, Ore., follow Highway 138 east 21 miles to Idleyld Park and the start of the North Umpqua Wild and Scenic River area.

River details

The Bureau of Land Management has an interactive user guide to the North Umpqua Wild and Scenic River: www.blm.gov/or/districts/roseburg/recreation/wild_and_scenic_river

Where to stay

Forest Service camping is plentiful along the North Umpqua corridor. See www.fs.usda.gov/activity/umpqua/recreation/camping-cabins

The fishing-oriented Steamboat Inn, with cabins and dining, is off Highway 138 about 40 miles east of Roseburg: www.thesteamboatinn.com

Traveler's tips

Always have the proper state fishing license and follow regulations for the section of river you will be fishing. For specifics: www.dfw.state.or.us/fish

Roseburg is a good starting point to explore the Umpqua. Find information about lodging, recreation companies (including fishing guides) and attractions at www.visitroseburg.com

Download a brochure about the area’s waterfalls: www.co.douglas.or.us/parks/brochures/north_umpqua_river.pdf


Christy Karras
Bill Harper, left, gets steelhead casting tips from Jeff Carr, of Summer Run Guide Service, on Oregon's North Umpqua River.








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