Interview: Frank Moore on the North Umpqua

By Scott Richmond

The North Umpqua River is the most revered steelhead stream in America. No river inspires more awe, generates more superlatives, or has more passionate adherents than this legendary stream near Roseburg, in southern Oregon.

Anglers come from all over the world to try their skills in the river's rocky runs. Many come away humbled and empty handed, for the river does not yield its secrets easily. But fishing the North Umpqua has its compensations: you'd be hard pressed to find a more beautiful spot to be skunked, and you can always lick your wounds at the Steamboat Inn.

The Inn is Oregon's most famous fishing lodge. Renowned for good food and straight-forward hospitality, it was started by Frank Moore, the North Umpqua's most legendary living angler, and his wife Jeanne.

This month, we talk to Frank about how fly anglers can improve their chances of success on the North Umpqua, and about the Steamboat Inn and caring for the river.

Frank came to the North Umpqua after combat service in World War II (seen the movie Saving Private Ryan? Frank was there on D-Day). He has lived and fished here for over 50 years. Now 77, he is fit and agile. He fishes the river regularly, and can wade its powerful currents better than most men a third his age. A superb caster, Frank apologizes for losing a little distance with age (he can "only" roll cast 80 feet any more).

Frank has served on the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, where he was instrumental in implementing fish conservation measures such as the wild fish policy on the Deschutes River. He is still a strong and respected advocate on conservation issues.

In 1975, Frank and Jeanne sold the Steamboat Inn and built a log cabin in the forest above the river. Waders hang from pegs near the living room, and fly rods lie ready for use in the hand-hewn rafters. The walls hold photos of people, both famous and unknown, who came to the North Umpqua as guests and left as friends.

We are fortunate to have Frank Moore with us this month to share some thoughts about fly fishing on the North Umpqua.

Frank, what makes the North Umpqua such a difficult river to fish well?

I don't think it's that difficult. For me, the Deschutes is harder to fish. The Deschutes is bigger and less personal. The North Umpqua is smaller and more intimate. You can fish both sides and cover all the water. You can even wade across it in some places, if the water is low and you're careful. There's never a time you can do that on the Deschutes.

Of course, you've been fishing the North Umpqua for over 50 years.

That probably helps. When you fish a river often, you learn where to stand to get the right drift. You develop confidence in certain runs and know how to fish them in different flows.

So the answer is to go fishing more often?

Sounds good! Actually, I think most anglers who come to the North Umpqua make it hard on themselves. The first place most people go is the Camp Water below Steamboat Creek. That's a difficult place to wade when the water is up, and it sees tremendous fishing pressure. There's a lot of other good water where the fish see fewer people.

I admit there are some things about the North Umpqua that make it difficult. For example, most anglers fish from the road side of the river, and because the banks are steep, it's harder for a right-handed angler to fish from that side.

What other obstacles do anglers face on the North Umpqua?

Of course the wading is tricky because of the structure. There are many ledges and sudden drops, so you need to know where you're going. I used to know every pebble in the river.

There's no substitute for knowing the river, is there?

No, there isn't. That's why a guide is invaluable for someone who comes to the North Umpqua for just a few days. A guide can get you started, show you a few good runs and how to fish them. An angler can hire a guide for a couple of days, then fish on his own. There's probably no other river in Oregon where a guide is more useful to a newcomer.

What else can an angler do to make this river less difficult?

First, recognize the difference between the North Umpqua and other steelhead rivers. On the Deschutes, for example, most fish lie in "transition zones," where there is a progression from fast to slow water; you get long runs that you cast-swing-step your way through for an hour or more. But the North Umpqua is different. You don't find much water like that here. Instead, the rocks on the bottom create breaks that fish lie behind. They hold more on ledge rock--along the sides and in front--and in little pockets where the current is broken by rocky structure. Also, steelhead in the North Umpqua will hold on top of bedrock; you don't see that in many rivers. There are pockets in the bedrock that fish like to lie in.

So anglers need to recognize that the structure of the North Umpqua creates different kinds of holding water than they may be used to on other rivers.

Right. This river has so many good places for fish to rest. It's not just a run here and a run there. The North Umpqua is full of good places to fish. That's one reason for its productivity. And that's why anglers need to explore more and not just fish the Camp Water or the big-name pools.

There's so much more pressure on the river than there used to be. It's harder to find fish that haven't been disturbed. But if you work at it, you can find them.

Are there other things anglers can do to improve their chances here?

Practice casting! A good caster can reach water that others can't, so he or she is more likely to find undisturbed fish. Also, practice roll casting. There are so many runs where the trees or the riverbank are at your back and you can't do a good overhead cast. If you can roll cast well, you can put a fly where other anglers can't. The roll cast is the easiest of all casts, but most anglers don't practice it. I have found that if I hesitate for a split second before driving the cast forward it works a lot better.

Also, most anglers use a weight-forward line for steelheading, which makes roll-casting more difficult.

I favor the Wulff Triangle Taper and the Wulff Long Belly. A long-bellied line is a good compromise between a double-taper line and a weight-forward line. With the Wulff lines you can have long overhead casts, but can still roll cast long distances . . . if you practice. The new rods like the Loomis GLX that I use make it easier, too.

What common mistakes do you see anglers make on the North Umpqua?

Too many anglers try to reach all the way across the river on the first cast. Some spots you should reach at once, but on most pools the fish could be anywhere, especially if it's a year when the run is strong. When there are lots of fish, they spread out more and are scattered. They don't just hold in one prime spot. Start short, and work your way up to longer casts.

Also, people often don't respect the fish enough. You can spook a summer-run steelhead from more than 100 feet away. Be careful wading, don't expose yourself when you don't have to, keep a low profile--especially when going down the banks to the river. I have seen Romer Grey, Zane Grey's son, crawl on his hands and knees long distances, then cast on his knees to keep from spooking the fish. He was a superb angler. Also, park your car away from the bank above the pools when you're fishing the road side. And it helps if you cast to water where it's harder for them to see you.

Another thing is, steelhead here don't like a dragging fly. Anglers need to do good mends--mends that don't move the fly. You need to be especially good with your mends in summer. On the other hand, a waking fly, such as a big Waking Muddler or a Bomber, can drive summer steelhead nuts. But the water has to be warm enough.

What are your favorite flies for this river?

Skunks, both regular and Green Butt Skunks--they both fish equally well. Big Muddlers (they work well in the winter, too), Black Gordon, Black Prince. For winter fishing, I often use a Muddler with a red squirrel tail wing instead of the traditional turkey wing.

Do you fish the river much in winter?

You can fly fish for steelhead in the North Umpqua all year, but these days the fishing is slowest from April 15 to June 15. You can have good winter fishing if the flows are low and clear enough. In winter, I use a Cortland Type III sink-tip line because that's less likely to get hung up. And I don't weight my flies.

Unweighted flies in winter? Most winter anglers won't go near a river without a weighted fly.

I haven't found it necessary. Unless it's unusually cold, the fish here will move to the fly, even in winter, so you don't need weighted flies. Also, when we put the fly-fishing-only regulations in place, we prohibited the use of lead or any additional weight (other than a floating device, such as a bubble) on the leader. That was to prevent people from dredging the deeper holes and catching too many fish; it's because of the unique structure of the river. A heavily-weighted fly is just a way to get around the regulations.

Even with catch-and-release, anglers who hook too many fish will deplete the resource. Steelhead need some rest. Over-zealous anglers can damage the fishery even if they release every fish. We need to take better care of the fish; there just aren't as many steelhead as there used to be, and more people are fishing for them.

What was it like in "the old days?"

Scott, you can't believe how good it was. You just can't believe it unless you saw it. When I first came here, there was a wonderful early run that came in around the 1st of June, and the river was full of fish by the Fourth of July. And nobody was fishing above Winchester. Anglers didn't come to this part of the river until after July 15. You could come here on the Fourth of July weekend and not see another fisherman. Fish were everywhere. In the old days, people figured that if they couldn't catch 8-10 fish a day, it wasn't worth the trip. Now, if you hook one a day, you consider yourself blessed.

What threats do you see to the river?

We're still plagued by poor logging practices and bad road building; they cause siltation and destroy the water quality in the spawning tributaries. Water fluctuations from the dam are another problem. Also, the dam blocks the flow of gravel that comes down from Fish Creek, so there's been a decline of spawning gravel. Lack of spawning gravel is a big problem in the Umpqua system. There used to be fine trout fishing on the upper river, but not any more; there's no gravel for them to spawn in. Another problem is that people are swimming in the big pools in the tributaries. That disturbs the fish; they use up too much energy and don't survive to spawn.

And the regulations still allow people to take one wild steelhead per day. We can't afford that. We still have poaching problems, too. One poacher can take the fish out of a single pool and destroy a third of the run. Judges aren't taking the poaching problem seriously enough and don't impose fines and sentences as they should.

And as we discussed earlier, I don't agree with the use of weighted flies in the fly-fishing-only area

Is there any good news on the river?

Yes. The cutthroat are doing well since they've been protected. Because trout fishing isn't permitted in the tributaries or the mainstem, the trout are rebounding. They're moving out of the tributaries and into the mainstem. The native rainbows are coming back, too.

The Steamboat Inn seems to be doing well. When did you start it?

I started it in 1957. Before that, Clarence Gordon had The North Umpqua Lodge on the other side of the river. He had lots of business, and I guided for him. But in 1952 the dam building project made the river unpredictable. Anglers wouldn't come, and the lodge was closed forever. But Gordon also had a store at Steamboat, where he served hot meals from a small lunch counter. My wife, Jeanne, and I bought it from him 1957. Jeanne and I already had a restaurant in Roseburg, so it was a natural move for us.

Part of the dining room and the living quarters were already there. I built the cabins along the river for guests. We moved the old sugar-pine table over from Gordon's Lodge into the dining room.

Were you surprised at the Inn's success?

Not really. Gordon's lodge always had clients. All we needed was for the dam building to stop so the river could recover and the anglers would come back. We contacted the fisherman who used to stay at Gordon's, and the anglers I used to guide. As soon as we had the cabins built, we were full.

When did you sell the Inn?

We sold it to Jim and Sharon Van Loan, who still own it, in 1975 and moved up here. We can hear the river, and I still fish it often. I've got a little pond where I practice casting, and I run three miles a day to keep in shape. I'm sometimes bothered by a touch of arthritis, but I'll keep fishing the North Umpqua as long as I can. It's a great river.

It certainly is. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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).