Fishing the North Umpqua with Frank Moore

By Scott Richmond

"Mend. Mend again. Mend again. One more time," said the man at my left elbow.

So I mended. Again. And again. And one more time. My fly swung slowly through the prime water. But there was no answering tug, not on this swing nor on the previous ten. I took a step downstream.

"Aim for that tree."

I aimed for the tree and let fly.

"Good cast!" he said.

It wasn't bad, about 90 feet with a type 6 shooting head rigged on my spey rod, and I was casting from the more difficult (for me) left side of the river. My drift was good; the fly moved slow and deep through the best water--which was not where I thought it would be, but farther to the left in what looked like faster, rougher water. "There're some rocks that the fish lie in front of," he told me. "In this river, they're usually in front of the rocks and ledges." I yielded to his superior local knowledge.

"Well," I said as I watched my line swing, "it's near noon and I know one guy fished this pool just ahead of me, and probably a couple of others before him." It was the first week of April, and the day--cool, overcast, and occasionally rainy--was rolling along. There were plenty of anglers on the water, and most of them were better than I. To our knowledge, none of them had taken a fish from this pool today.

I finished the pool and we swapped positions. Now I was at his left elbow while he cast. But I didn't have words of wisdom to offer, only inarticulate sounds of approval as he cast his fly 120 feet or more from a single handed rod with a shooting-head system. He mended and mended and mended again until the fly--a pattern he calls the Dirty Muddler--was moving slowly, then he let it swing through the short section of prime water. About a dozen casts into the pool, I saw his line straighten and his rod bend in a deep arc. He moved to shallow water and played the fish. I tailed it for him and some photos were snapped. It was a wild steelhead, a hen of about ten pounds.

You might think it was a fluke that I had my pocket picked in this pool, but my companion had done precisely the same thing to me in this very pool the year before.

You come to expect that sort of thing when you fish with Frank Moore.

What We Owe

Frank Moore is the Dean of the North Umpqua River. He and his wife Jeanne started the renowned Steamboat Inn, probably the most famous steelhead lodge in the lower 48.

In the 1960s, Frank became concerned about logging's negative effects on watersheds. Most people just complain about such things, but Frank took action. He collaborated with two friends in the advertising business, Hal Riney and Dick Snyder, to make the landmark film "Pass Creek," then flew his own plane all over the country to show it to the Forest Service, BLM, Congress, timber people, and conservation groups. The film had such an impact that major changes to logging practices were enacted.

Then-governor Tom McCall appointed Frank as an Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commissioner, where he spearheaded changes such as the 31-mile fly-only section on the North Umpqua and the no-stock, wild fish only, no-fishing-from-a-boat regulations on the Deschutes.

The crown jewels of Oregon fly fishing would be highly tarnished if it hadn't been for Frank Moore. And he still fights on from a standpoint of good science and common sense.

Oh Yeah, and He's a Pretty Good Fly Fisher Too

But Frank is not known just for his accomplishments in fish habitat protection. He's also one of the world's top steelheaders, a formidable caster, and probably the best wader you'll ever meet. And to top it off, he's a heck of nice guy--approachable, helpful, generous, and never self-promoting. He's one of my favorite people in the world, and I consider it a privilege to know him and come down here to fish with him once a year or so, even if he picks my pocket in some of the runs.

Today his hip is giving him a little trouble. Still, he's confidently wading more than waist-deep in the North Umpqua's strong currents, with a firm stance on the treacherously smooth rocks. I'm gingerly inching along with my wading staff, plotting my strategy in case I go for a sudden swim in the 44 degree water. I settle for a good 90-foot spey cast while he's regularly flinging his shooting-head rig 120 to 130 feet with a single-handed 9-weight Loomis. By the way, Frank is 83 years old. "I feel blessed by the Lord by having so many years to participate in such a magnificent sport," he says.

We move on to another pool, and Frank tells me to stand on such-and-such a rock and cast toward a midriver boulder.

"I guess after 50 years of fishing this river you know every rock," I say.

"Not this year. We had extremely high water in January. Things moved around a lot."

Fishing with Frank reveals the power of local knowledge. It's clear that his mind holds a vast catalog the North Umpqua's prime steelhead lies and that he knows the best way to present a fly to the fish in each pool. He can mend until his fly is near the target, then let it swim past the steelhead with a steady tease.

This slow presentation is the key to successful winter steelheading, he says. "They're not going to move far for the fly. Give them a chance to see it and react."

"Summer fish are different, aren't they," I say.

"Absolutely. The higher water temperature means they might chase a fly. In this pool," he says, pointing with his rod, "I used to hoist my son Frankie onto my shoulders and wade out. It was summer. He'd cast from up there on my shoulders. When he saw a fish start to move toward his fly, he'd say 'Here he comes Daddy! Here he comes!'"

"How old was he?"

"About five or six."

"You started him on a fly rod?"

"Yes. I worried about it at first. I didn't think a young child would have the coordination to cast a fly rod. But someone told me to just start him on it and he'd do fine. They were right. So when people say the only way little kids can go fishing is with a worm and a bobber, I know they're wrong."

"What fly do you use for summer steelhead?" I asked.

"A size 8 or 10 Muddler, dry."

How We Got Fly-Only Regulations on the North Umpqua

On a previous fishing trip, I asked Frank about the North Umpqua's fly-only regs. He said it was to protect the wild steelhead.

"This section of the North Umpqua," he said, "has a structure such that salmon and steelhead will stack up in certain spots. A bait fisherman could stand in one place and catch a dozen or two fish if he was any good. The fly-only regulations were put in place to protect the salmon from over-fishing, but it also protects the steelhead."

"So how do you feel about fishing this river with an indicator and a nymph?"

"I'm completely opposed to weighted flies in the fly-only water."

"Not because it isn't 'traditional, but because it's bad for the fish?"

"Exactly. Even if you catch-and-release every steelhead you catch, it stresses them. A nympher with a weighted fly could stand on one rock and hook two dozen steelhead, just like a bait angler. It's too hard on the fish. It's weighted flies I'm opposed to, not nymphing."

So to this day, Frank will not fish with a weighted fly on the North Umpqua. He might use the fastest sinking tip he can get, but his fly is always presented on the swing. And he always knows just when to mend and where the fish live.

Scott Richmond is Westfly's creator and Executive Director. He is the author of eight books on Oregon fly fishing, including Fishing Oregon's Deschutes River (second edition).