The Greatest Steelhead State that Never Was
STATE OF ARMS
AS WOULD ANY GUY SPAWNED FROM THE gravels of Oregon, I had deep reservations about driving the backroads of my home state in a rig blasphemed by California plates. It was a red Tacoma with a watertight canopy and a rod rack permanently bolted to its hood, an otherwise brilliant fishing truck, but in this case fatally compromised by that white rectangle and its frilly red cursive. See, on the steelhead streams of Oregon—especially those of southern Oregon—advertising your California-ness can be a bad idea.
So when Justin Miller pushed open that canopy at dawn, crawled out of his sleeping bag, and said, yawning, “You John?” I replied, even before shaking his hand, “Yes. Cool if we take my rig?”
A mutual friend put us in touch, and the plan had been to meet near Miller’s place in Nor Cal and chase winter steel. For weeks we’d watched the weather as front after colossal front pounded the California coast. And finally, when we could wait no longer, Miller proposed we meet across the Oregon line, where the storms had been tamer. I laughed, remembering a friend who’d grown up on a dope farm along a tributary to the Rogue; his dad built a pill box on the roof of their home and in it mounted an illegal but perfectly functioning thirty-caliber machine gun—its barrel aimed south.
As we drove upstream—sitting tall so we could get a better look at the pools—I was about to suggest that Miller refrain from using California words if we met any locals, and instead use the Oregon equivalents. Just then he pointed to a long glide and said, “What do you call that one?”
I cleared my throat. “California.”
He laughed. “Because it’s within easy sight of the road and never holds any fish?” “Exactly.”
STATE OF JEFFERSON
ON NOVEMBER 27, 1941, HEAVILY ARMED men erected a barricade on U.S. Route 99 south of Yreka, California. Cars coming north were stopped, their doors pried open, and their occupants charged a toll for crossing the new state line.
“State line?” the confused motorists asked. Yreka was still hours south of Oregon.
“The State of Jefferson,” the men responded, handing the motorists a proclamation of independence that read in part, “This State has seceded from California and Oregon” because of “gross neglect” by the legislatures of Sacramento and Salem.
When a highway patrol officer responded to the scene, he was told to “get back down the road to California.” Out-manned and out-gunned, he retreated.
These rebels weren’t the first to declare the independence of the mountainous Klamath-Siskiyou region, a place so unlike the remainders of California and Oregon that even the Spanish in 1542 identified it as a separate territory. Spanning the Umpqua, Rogue, and Klamath drainages and including dozens of shorter coastal rivers, this Ohio-sized area drains roughly the same run-off as the remainder of Oregon or California. Its forested in swaths of oak savanna, ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, and redwood, with secluded pockets of madrone dotting the south slopes. Roosevelt elk, black bears, and cougars bed within a double-haul of the tributaries, and many locals still trust the authenticity of the Patterson-Gimlin Bigfoot film—that one of the creature glancing over its shoulder— which was taken in 1967 at Bluff Creek. And if you’ve ever seen pot from Oregon or California, odds are it came from here; the area is considered the nation’s premier outdoor growing location because of the coastal winds, hot days, and lax enforcement.
Jefferson is a state unto itself. But in 1850, when federal politicians began divvying up the western fringe of the Louisiana Purchase, they hadn’t seen the Klamath- Siskiyou region and so split it along the arbitrary 42nd parallel, a move that left part of the Rogue in California and much of the Klamath in Oregon. A secession movement was launched immediately, and when the Civil War broke out, residents of the area attempted to leave the Union all together and form a new nation called “Cascadia.”
But none of these movements gained the momentum of the 1941 attempt. For too long, the men with guns claimed, Salem and Sacramento had neglected this place they called Jefferson. Instead of paving the main roads, which at the time still consisted of axel-busting washboard, or building new roads into the gold- and copper-rich upper basins, the state capitals were building campgrounds in the area for San Franciscans and Portlanders. For too long, the wishes of Jeffersonians had been drowned out by the whims of the more numerous urbanites to the north and south. But no longer. This time Jefferson was forming its own state, and on December 4 it elected Judge John Childs of Crescent City to become its first governor. Four Hollywood newsreel companies attended his inauguration, and for a few days it looked as if Jefferson might just become the 49th state. But then on December, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the winds of secession left Jefferson’s sails.
Less than a year later, the Japanese would be dropping incendiary bombs on the forests outside Brookings in an attempt to burn the Klamath-Siskiyou region, which they presumed, based on their reconnaissance, must be the most valuable resource on the West Coast.
Though the formal movement died on December 8, the State of Jefferson remains vivid in the hearts and minds of its residents. It has its own public radio station, and liberals and conservatives alike proudly wave the state’s flag, which is bud-green and has a gold pan in the middle with two Xs, signifying the double, double-crossing of Salem and Sacramento. As the state’s most articulate advocate, Robert Leo Heilman, once wrote, “Like the Kurds, we are a people without sovereignty and we suffer, culturally, politically, and economically from a lack of control over our own destiny.” As Miller and I wadered up, a truck passed with a bumpersticker that read: “If at first you don’t secede…”
STATE OF STEELHEAD
WE’D COME TO JEFFERSON TO DETERMINE once and for all if this, the almost 49th state in the union, might just be the best steelheading state that never was.
Certainly the area has left a lasting mark on the culture of steelheading. The Klamath, Rogue, and Umpqua have spawned dozens of the sport’s most trusted fly patterns, including the Silver Hilton, the Green Butt Skunk, and the Burlap. These rivers also gave us our first high-profile steelheaders, including Zane Grey, Clarence Gordon, and Enos Bradner, plus modern luminaries like Scott Howell. And the area’s unique run of half-pounders, 14- 18 inch steelhead that return to freshwater for a practice jaunt in late summer, have taught us much about the importance of a diverse escapement to the genetic wellbeing of a stock.
But, as we descended a steep bank of ferns to a green canyon pool, we were too smitten with the place to consider its significance. Overhead, the sun appeared from behind rain clouds, and in its light the pool turned electric emerald.
“It’s all you,” I said, though not out of generosity. Like many steelheaders, in Jefferson and elsewhere, I believe that fishkarma is everything, and that it is best accumulated by gifting first water to your buddy. Even if he is a Californian.
Miller stepped tentatively onto a large basalt column, the water before him a blur of carbonation from the prodigious rapid upstream, and began stripping running line from his reel. The cast had to be a long one. On the far bank, under a veil of limbs, a small tributary cascaded into the pool and fish were known to hold at its base. But on this bank, alders hung low. Miller kneeled, found a narrow lane between limbs for his rod to travel, and took a careful look at the lie across the river.
Unlike the big sweeping runs of steelhead rivers in northern Oregon or Washington, where a guy and his buddy can break a place in half and still fish all afternoon, the runs in Jefferson are often tight spots, sometimes offering only one casting platform. And so I took out my camera and picked a seat on the bank that offered a prime view: I had a feeling about this.
Miller dropped his fly in the current and let it come tight downstream. Then, with a deft motion, he snapped the fly out of the water and to his feet, brought the rod around and over, and that Intruder was catapulted out from under the alder limbs and delivered to the soft water under the limbs of the far bank, just a few feet up from the tributary. A pro move, for sure.
So often, fishing Jefferson’s rivers requires learning to load a two-hander in a space only slightly more spacious than a phone booth. Add a stiff winter wind and quarter ounce worm weight, and you’ll understand why many of Jefferson’s winter rivers are considered the sport’s doubleblack diamonds.
The first swing came across a little fast. Miller stripped in, repeated the cast, and this time kicked a big upstream flip-mend. It all looked prime and I brought the camera up moments before the line tightened—and there: a flash of chrome where his fly would have been. The steelhead was off immediately but I was left thinking, This Californian can fish.
STATE OF EMERGENCY
THE 1941 MOVEMENT HAD THE RIGHT idea—but for the wrong reasons. The armed rebels were miners mostly, and they wanted statehood for federal funding that would help them extract copper and gold more efficiently from the headwaters. These weren’t the kind of miners who sat in a riffle with some quaint gold pan; they were dredge and strip miners of the worst kind, SUMMER 201 1 THE DRAKE 7 3 men who turned rivers into troughs by sucking out the spawning gravel and reduced hillsides to rubble by blasting away the soil with hydrologic guns. Their dream was to pillage the oar remaining in the headwaters—to get rich, even if it destroyed the ecosystem.
By 1941, gold mining in the area was already a hundred years old, and five generations of miners had largely succeeded in demolishing the salmon and steelhead populations of the Klamath and Rogue rivers. At times, the Rogue reportedly ran “brick red” with mining waste. Though the 1941 movement failed, World War II brought about the changes the miners wanted anyway; the federal government paved old roads and blasted the new ones, and the next thirty years saw mining move deep into the remaining salmonids sanctuaries. And the fisheries of Jefferson collapsed.
Today, legal and illegal mining continues in Jefferson and to great harm. Even in those areas miners have abandoned, the rivers continue to suffer from its effects. The Blue Ledge Mine in the Rogue drainage, for instance, hasn’t been active in nearly a century, and yet its toxic vomit continues to obliterate all life for a mile downstream. Eight million federal dollars have been spent at that site alone trying to contain the disaster As if mining wasn’t enough, the watersheds of Jefferson have also seen extensive damming, irresponsible logging, and catastrophic water allocation decisions. As recently as 2002, George W. ordered precious water be diverted from the Klamath and spread over grass crops of the upper basin, resulting in the death of 33,000 adult chinook salmon and who knows how many juvenile salmon and steelhead. The majority of the grass seed produced was sold cheap to China, and an unsustainable farming model survived another season.
It’s of little surprise then that most of Jefferson’s native populations of steelhead have been lost. Visiting anglers might hear of steelhead returns well into the six digits and be tempted to think all is well, but the vast majority of these fish are hatchery stocks, which area guides—like Justin Miller—believe are less grabby than their native counterparts. More to the point, recent science demonstrates that these hatchery fish weaken the fitness of the remaining native stocks, in effect, further shrinking wild populations.
Times are desperate for Jefferson steelhead. And yet, hope remains. The Smith River, which flows into the sea between the Klamath and Rogue, is a glowing example of what can be accomplished when anglers unite to defend the water they cherish. Due largely to the persistent efforts of the Smith River Advisory Council, which organizes monthly meetings with stakeholders to identify and solve problems within the watershed, the Smith’s runs of salmonids, including big winter steelhead, appear to be on the path toward recovery.
Come stand on a windblown ridge in Jefferson and survey the extensive headwater tributaries, the countless miles of what could be spawning water, and you’ll be overcome by what might be. This could be the greatest steelheading state.
STATE OF BEING
LIBERTARIANISM AND STEELHEADING overlap. Consider the most infamous pockets of anti-government radicals across the nation: upper Michigan, Idaho’s Salmon watershed, the Olympic Peninsula, northeast Oregon—Jefferson.
Every chromehead I know is a mild anarchist. My buddy Perky, for instance, spent his only non-fishing years touring the US in a punk band, and before that was “allegedly” involved in acts of environmental terrorism. Even those of us who haven’t (yet) poured sugar in the gas tank of the local stocking truck or stormed a Board of Forestry meeting have harbored thoughts of detonating a federally sanctioned gas pipeline or mining complex. And who hasn’t on occasion failed to return a steelhead harvest card—just a little fuck-you to the Man.
If you chase steelhead long enough, you can’t help but become countermainstream. On the most basic level, catching steelheading requires you have a nimble work schedule; a nine-to-five means you’re sure to be working that one day in seven when the fish are grabby. And so, as if by the force of gravity, committed steelheaders become anti-career, and anti-career naturally leads to more extreme forms of rebellion. Moreover, being a lover of steelhead means watching as our state and federal agencies inact policies that harm the fish for the benefit of irresponsible businesses, for instance gear guides who demand the “right” to kill two fish a day and power companies that demand the “right” to keep our rivers dammed.
Also there’s something about the ragged, untamed landscape in which steelhead still persist that teaches a person to trust himself. No government agency will help you when your tire goes flat on a snowy dusk fifteen miles up a backroad.
These were the issues Miller and I hashed as we compared green butt skunks in a band of sunlight, the river melting by below, bluegreen and shaded. We wanted Jefferson to be its own place: him on its south end and me on its north, a vast wilderness of mountains and chrome between us, the state’s government comprised entirely of fish lovers, men and women who understand that if you protect salmonids, you protect the entire ecology of the watershed— and that with a healthy watershed comes a sustainable future for its human inhabitants.
Miller gazed down at the water below and cupped a hand to the brim of his baseball cap to neutralize the glare, and I was struck at how similar we steelheaders really are. Whether we’re in Terrance or Travers or Pulaski or Portland, we’re the same bunch of well-intentioned misfits. Sure, maybe we can be a little hostile to tourists and militant to those we see as hurting our rivers—and maybe we’re a little to quick to jump on our high horse—but deep down we’re good folks: passionate, motivated, and like fly anglers across the nation, some of the only Americans paying attention to ecology.
So we walked down to the large pool, a place we could break in half and fish together, and Miller nodded toward the water. “You pick, top or bottom.”
I waded into position and stripped out enough line to reach the ledge on the far bank, and sent a cast off my shoulder.
The fly sank deep and drifted past me and came into swing, and anything seemed possible in this green place.
Just then I heard Miller call, and looked up to see his rod forked in half, a slab of silver thrashing in the tailout.
We’d known each other only a matter of hours, and yet we were both steelheaders, and so no words were needed. As he backed up the bank, I tailed the winter hen, native and seven or eight pounds, and held her in the current until he could take her himself, the big fly slipping free of her lip. With a kick she was gone, and Miller turned to me, the same glowing smiles on both our faces.
THE STATE TO COME
IMAGINE IF WE STEELHEADERS CONVERGED on Yreka and Redding and Arcada and Brookings and Medford and Roseburg and used our two-handers to stop traffic, to force drivers to open their doors and listen, if we charged them a toll for entering our nation, and handed them a proclamation of independence that read:
We hereby secede from the states of Oregon and California, and from the nation of the United States, because of those governments’ gross neglect of the long-term interests of this area’s watersheds and people. We invite you to join our new nation, one conceived on the premise that all people are created to be stewards of their homes, and that all homes deserve stewards.
Better yet, imagine if we steelheaders converged on our local rivers, if we formed a vast union of watersheds, a nation divided by geography but united by its highest calling: to save what is—at this very moment— slipping away forever.
Maybe we could call our nation, The United Watersheds of Steelheadia.