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Hookless Fly-fishing: Angler likes fish too much to hurt them

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STEAMBOAT, Ore. (AP) — Back in 1998 Lee Spencer did two things that changed his relationship with the big steelhead of the North Umpqua River.

He agreed to become the first full-time FishWatch guardian of the Big Bend Pool on Steamboat Creek, where as many as 400 large steelhead spend the summer in startlingly plain sight after swimming up the North Umpqua to spawn.

And he started cutting the points off the hooks on his flies.

Even people who know Spencer wonder why he would want to spend summers on Steamboat Creek 12 miles upstream from the nearest pay phone watching fish wait.

"No one else would do it," said Joe Howell, owner of the Blue Heron Fly Shop in Idleyld Park.

It is even harder to understand why the 57-year-old would cut the points off his hooks and file the wire stump smooth — denying himself the satisfaction of controlling, touching and ultimately setting free something so wild and beautiful.

"I was uncomfortable fishing," Spencer said. "I like these fish too much to kill them, even accidentally, or even to stress them out, unduly.

"It took me a month or a month and a half to not want to see the fish up close," he added. "I am not proselytizing fishing pointless, but my fishing is as good or better than it ever has been, as far as my own satisfaction."

Western writer and gentleman sportsman Zane Grey proclaimed the North Umpqua the America's premier fishing river in a 1935 article in Sports Afield magazine. He landed 64 fish in the summer of 1934, casting down and across with a wet fly on a floating line and allowing it to swing back across the current in the British tradition of fly-fishing for Atlantic Salmon. His son, Loren, landed 100.

Still, the author wrote, "It was the steelhead I raised and could not hook, and those that I hooked and could not land, which counted."

Spencer's best season was that summer of 1998. A field archaeologist, he had saved enough money from his last dig to spend the summer camped in the fly-fishing-only section of the North Umpqua. It had taken him seven years of trying to catch his first North Umpqua steelhead on a fly. By 1998 he was good enough to raise 77 steelhead in 102 days of fishing and land about half of them. He had intended to release every one unharmed, whether wild or hatchery born, but killed three — two were bleeding from the gills and a third got disoriented and went belly-up out of his reach. A fourth left its eyeball on his hook.

"I am not a Buddhist, but I read a lot of Buddhism," Spencer said. "It is my impression that the less harming or the more harmless my actions are in the world, the better. It probably comes down to as simple as that. It gets down to the heart of the question, 'Why does a person cast flies,' or 'Why does a person catch steelhead in the first place?"'

He got the idea from reading about Harry Lemire, a steelhead fly fisherman and fly tier from Washington, who started cutting the points off his hooks in about 1975 whenever he would get into a bunch of fish and didn't want to waste time playing them.

"Everybody thought I was crazy," Lemire said. "To me the whole peak of everything is the strike or the boil. Everything after that is downhill. Especially if you have to wait a long time to land the fish.

"When you get a fish on, you get a run and a jump and at the jump it will throw the hook. That was satisfying enough for me."

Spencer also gets a lot of satisfaction from watching the fish in the Big Bend Pool, once known as the Dynamite Pool for the preferred technique of local poachers. He sits at a meditation bench with Sis, his 17-year-old Australian cattle dog, for hours on end, watching the fish and talking to the visitors who stop to see this remote and remarkable place in the Umpqua National Forest.

Steelhead are rainbow trout that spend most of their lives in the ocean, where the food and water are more plentiful than in Northwest rivers, before returning to freshwater to spawn. Steamboat Creek accounts for 70 percent of the wild steelhead in the North Umpqua, and the 400 in the pool this year — some up to 20 pounds — account for about 30 percent of the wild fish counted over Winchester Dam.

The North Umpqua Foundation, which is dedicated to helping wild steelhead in the North Umpqua Basin, pays Spencer $39 a day from spring to winter, provides the trailer he lives in, and pays a stipend over the winter, when he finds somewhere else to live and compiles his notes on the pool.

He drives an old van once owned by Dan Callaghan, the inventor of the green-butt skunk, widely considered the best traditional steelhead fly. Callaghan's widow gave it to him. A rubber turtle hangs from the rearview mirror. Spencer gets his mail and phone messages 12 miles downstream at the Steamboat Lodge, which overlooks the waters Grey once fished.

Though he has no religion, Spencer admires the observations on human nature in Buddhist writings from China more than 1,200 years ago, and takes joy in the way the Milky Way runs directly through the crack in the trees that gives him his only view of the night sky.

"Something appeals to me about the simplicity of this existence," he said. "Nothing else I have done allows me to take books this thick, that I never had the momentum to read living in an urban setting, and open them up and go through them page by page and read 'em.

"I've read 'Don Quixote,' that ingenious gentleman of La Mancha, three times since I've been here, and not because I haven't had other things to read, but just because it's a fabulous book."

He knows of just one fish poached while he has lived on the pool. He found a splash of blood on the trail and a spool of line.

"I felt pretty used and abused, but then realized that one fish in nine years is better than regularly dynamiting and snagging out of the pool, which is what was true before FishWatch started," Spencer said.

Based on watching the fish in Big Bend Pool, he has concluded that the conventional wisdom of steelhead angling is wrong. The fish don't hold on the bottom, but a few feet from the surface, closer when the water is cooler. Dawn is not the best time for fishing, because the fish act like they are asleep. He has documented 1,466 items that steelhead have risen to in the pool. They include leaves, mayflies, plant down and even a bat.

"Were I trying to tie a fly pattern that represented what was most commonly risen to, it would be a pattern that represented a red dogwood leaf, a stick with stringy lichen attached, or a rolling piece of plant down," Spencer wrote in his latest notes.

After the bat swooped down and landed on the river, two steelhead swam out from the pod to investigate.

"One of them turned away and the larger of the two accelerated and took it explosively," Spencer said. "There was water everywhere. Then I watched the steelhead go downstream and 10 seconds later that bat bobbed back to the surface in the middle of the rise rings. It swam to the bank, climbed out about 4 feet, and dried off licking its belly for about an hour and flew away."

Like Lemire, Spencer became a devotee of the skated dry fly. Unlike dry fly-fishing for trout, where the point is to make the fly look like a natural insect the trout will want to eat, the skated dry fly is dragged across the surface, creating a wake intended to pique the curiosity of the steelhead.

Spencer fishes a simple muddler minnow. First he cuts off the hook point with a wire cutter, then carefully smooths the jagged stump with a file. He wraps the shank with synthetic yarn, then spins on a bunch of moose hair that flares to form the head and collar of the fly. He soaks the fly in water and burns the long ends of moose hair off to the length of the hook, leaving a smell in the air that led one of his pals to dub it the Burnt Toast. Without a hook point to keep it in the mouth of a fish, one fly will survive months of fishing.

On the North Umpqua, he seeks out runs no one else fishes, starting at the head and making long graceful casts downstream and across the current. That puts a big belly in the floating line as the fly drags across the riffled water, leaving a wake. After a cast, Spencer steps a few feet downstream and casts again, methodically covering the run.

"Steelhead," he called out as his rod bowed, then flexed back to straight.

"It felt like an engine block," he said reeling in his line and stepping to shore, then invited another angler to take a turn. In nearly the same spot, a steelhead hit a wet fly with a point, and allowed itself to be drawn into view in the shallows before thrashing and spitting the hook. -->

Since Spencer has been fishing without points on his hooks, he has landed five fish.

"There was one about a month ago," he said. "It was a little hatchery fish of 5 or 6 pounds. I just stripped it right in. It had its mouth closed firmly on my fly, which was coming out the front of its jaws. I reached down, turned it out of its mouth and the fish swam away. Now tell me why that happened."

On the Web: North Umpqua Foundation: www.northumpqua.org/index.html