Time your trips to this river for a shot at your personal best.

By Gary Lewis

My biggest fish? It was a Columbia River white sturgeon, over 10 feet long. But when I think about my all-time best trophy fish, I think chinook, steelhead and smallmouth bass. The thing they have in common is they came from the Umpqua.

It was late in September, 2003. I met Lyle Andrews at the put-in at Cleveland Rapids. Temperatures had been high, the river wanted rain, but there were salmon in that long run.

Andrews tied on a nickel-plated Clancy spoon with a dimple in the metal. A big fish hammered it at 6:30 in the morning.

“Chalk up another one for the Clancy,” Andrews said and I battled my biggest salmon ever to the boat. We weighed that one at 42 pounds.

For years my biggest steelhead was a 16-pounder from the North Fork Lewis. I’d battled 20-pound class fish on the Kalama, the Clackamas and the Deschutes, but they’d beaten me every time.

Twenty-pound steelhead are tough. Everyone you meet on the river is secretly hoping to someday get their “Twenty,” but there is a fish rarer still – a nineteener. Have you ever had someone tell you they caught a 19-pound steelhead? Nope. They round up – 19-pounders, even a lot of 18-pounders, become 20-pounders.

We were on the North Umpqua with guide Chris Carson in March, 2008. He handed Brad Hester and me matching rigs: nine-foot G. Loomis spinning rods with identical side-drifting baits.

We motored up the edge of a long run and then Carson turned his drift boat and pointed the bow downstream, slightly angled toward our targeted drift.

This five-pound Umpqua River smallmouth was the boss of its little part of the river. When it streaked for the bait, a dozen smaller bass got out of the way.

This five-pound Umpqua River smallmouth was the boss of its little part of the river. When it streaked for the bait, a dozen smaller bass got out of the way.

My bait was bouncing river left, when it happened. Something had changed with the rod tip, I could feel it in my hand, but the signal hadn’t traveled to my brain. Carson was on it. “Gary! Hit it,” he said. I swept the rod up and buried the hook. There was a headshake, a wobble, then the fish took off like a freight train across the river on an 80-yard run.

Carson, on the sticks, followed it across and back again. The fish headed straight for the boulder where I’d hooked him and would have wrapped me around, but I got his head up and turned him. That’s when we saw him.

Three times in my life I’ve had fish on that were this big. And three times I’d lost them when the hook pulled loose after five minutes or the line snapped. I looked at Carson and thought he might faint.

Next to the boat, the fish saw the net and ripped off another 30 yards. I gained it back and Carson plunged the net down. Most of the North Umpqua’s winter steelhead are wild fish and this could have been the archetype. On the south bank, we revived him in the water and laid a tape alongside. 37-1/2 inches long with a girth of 19 inches. He was thick in the shoulders and had a hooked lower jaw. We watched him kick away. Stunned, Carson didn’t say anything for a minute.

Gary Lewis admires his biggest steelhead, a wild buck from the North Umpqua. This fish was taken on side-drifting gear and was released to make more steelhead.

Gary Lewis admires his biggest steelhead, a wild buck from the North Umpqua. This fish was taken on side-drifting gear and was released to make more steelhead.

It is hard to weigh fish that are turned back to the river. We rely on a cloth tape measure and a formula – length x girth x girth / 690. The formula says my fish was 19.62 pounds. Another formula in use says the fish was 18.5 pounds. Let’s just say it was a nineteen, the rarest of all steelhead.

In June 2011, we hit the Umpqua to fish for big smallmouth bass on the stretch that runs through the Big K Ranch. We were tired when we stopped for lunch on a rocky bar.

Brad Hester shows off a good-sized smallmouth bass taken on a river trip with guides from the Big K Guest Ranch. The Umpqua is one of the West’s best smallmouth bass rivers.

Brad Hester shows off a good-sized smallmouth bass taken on a river trip with guides from the Big K Guest Ranch. The Umpqua is one of the West’s best smallmouth bass rivers.

Our guides, Todd Harrington and Quintin Magee set up chairs. Brad Hester and Eli and Kelly Pyke looked into the coolers for sandwiches. I grabbed a rod rigged with a Gary Yexley crawfish jig and headed for a shallow bay out of the main current.

At the water’s edge, I spooked two 12-inchers. On the third cast, I threw to the far side of the channel and ripped it back.

A dozen fish streaked out of the way and a big dark shape pounded the jig. When she felt the steel, she burned 20 yards of line off the reel. Two more times, she ripped away.

In hand, the fish measured a quarter of an inch over 21 and weighed five pounds even. By more than half a pound, it was my biggest smallmouth. We watched her shoot back to green water.

I looked at Brad Hester. He has taken time away from his dental practice twice to fish with me and both times I’ve caught big fish.

It’s strange my biggest ones have come from the North Fork and the main-stem Umpqua, since I’ve fished everywhere else. I guess a fisherman has a good chance of catching bigger fish there.

Go in winter for big steelhead. Be on the water between April and mid-June for bass. Time the salmon runs for September and October. Go with a guide if you want to learn the river. Then fish a lot. If you have to take someone for luck, bring a dentist.

To order a signed copy of Fishing Mount Hood Country, send $24.95 (free S&H) to GLO, PO Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709 or visit www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com