James Sampsel was just 5 years old when his dad took him fishing on a river for the very first time. With a spinning rod and a nightcrawler — and a little first-timer’s luck — Sampsel caught a 16-inch rainbow trout. “I was pretty hooked right then,” he says.
After teaching himself to fly-fish and working whitewater trips on the Deschutes and Rogue rivers, Sampsel now is the co-owner — along with his wife, Kait — of Humble Heron Fly Fishing and Fine Art in Port Orford. The guide service, founded in 2016, specializes in year-round fly-fishing trips focused largely on the Rogue’s renowned steelhead runs, some of which may be captured in the landscapes Sampsel paints. We chatted with Sampsel about his passion for guiding on the profoundly beautiful Rogue River.
What’s unique about fly-fishing on the Rogue River?
The mystique and magic of this place have always just captivated me. It’s also a real steelhead learning ground. It will challenge you, but it’s just a cool place to be. And the camaraderie of all the guides creates a real river community, unlike any other place.
When is the best time to visit?
You can fish for steelhead all year. We have summer, fall, winter and spring steelhead runs, plus a late-summer, sea-run cutthroat run. Some people try for the famed half-pounders — which are juvenile steelhead found mostly in the Rogue, Klamath and Eel rivers — in fall and winter. Fall is probably my favorite time. I really love November because the crowds kind of dissipate, the jet boats are off the river and it just quiets down.
What would you say to those who’d like to try fly-fishing on the Rogue?
We try to show anglers it’s not always about the fish but the entire process. To reduce the intimidation factor, we try to give tools to our guests so they can continue their pursuit beyond here and explore their own journey. So much of it is about sharing knowledge and creating a safe space for them to enjoy the river and be themselves. And there’s also just breathing and being present on the river.
Are the kind of trips you offer good for families?
Absolutely. It’s usually two people per boat, plus a guide. There’s lots of hands-on experience and learning, so it’s a great family trip. The float itself and just being on the river is worth the price of admission. So many families have come up to us at the end of a trip and hugged us and thanked us for getting them out together. The kids aren’t on their phones or iPads. They’re just out connected to nature and one another.
What other attractions in Southern Oregon would interest visitors?
If you’re not fishing on the Rogue, there’s the Rogue River National Recreation Trail for hiking. A lot of people will make a trip over to Crater Lake, which is near the headwaters of the Rogue. You can go down to Cave Junction to see the Oregon Caves National Monument. There’s the Britt Festival in Jacksonville, which always has great music. The Shakespeare Festival in Ashland has performances that can work well timewise with a fishing trip. And there are lots of vineyards around, too, for tasting wine after a trip.