Fish Coup: Lines of Demarcation in Steelhead Country

A road sign in southwest Oregon. Unremarkable in shape or color—brown rectangle, white lettering, white border. It conveys no traffic regulations—maximum speed, no passing, curves ahead. However, it does express a rule. No, more than a rule—a law, an ethic. To some, this sign marks paradise. To others, it signifies elitism. But to most, this sign likely means nothing, never noticed through the windshield of summer vacation.

I am of the some. A pilgrim to this paradise, which is a paragon of native runs and preserved habitat. A notorious paradise, productive but demanding. The steelhead are relatively plentiful, but they are not easy. I pass the sign but do not stop. I want to see paradise, where Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has decreed an ethic initiated by steelhead bums turned renowned stewards. For all intents and purposes, on this river you can only swing.

The road curves and the river bends, two narrow lanes carved in a conifer thicket, and as they intersect, I see the unfamiliar river below. A river, like a novel, takes time to parse, but I turn the pages rapidly, absorbing only the images: pristine water cascading over shining bedrock, infinite emerald tailouts of promise and wise cedars stretching tall and mossy. I have time. Two weeks. Days to go slow and learn the language, to appreciate and understand. At least enough time to catch a steelhead. Hopefully enough…

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