Fly Fishing the McKenzie River in Oregon
Feb 16, 2014
Fly-fishing from the boat on Oregon’s McKenzie River
Fly-fishing proficiency isn’t created overnight. Accomplishments in the sport are made bit by bit and wins are very personal: some gauge their learnedness by quantity of fish caught; others by size; some by numbers of species landed over the years. Many simply assess their fishing happiness by uplifted spirits in getting outdoors and into the natural environment. For beginning fly-fishing clients, the learning curve can be daunting. New gear to understand how to handle properly, the process of deciding what fly to use, and casting techniques that change on a dime depending on the wind, river, and wading or boating environment. And then there’s the little nuance of understanding how to read water and recognize where it is most probable that a fish will want to gobble your carefully selected fly.
When you read water on the McKenzie River, you are typically looking from a comfortable position in a drift boat. On the Lower Deschutes you aren’t allowed to fish from the boat and must stop, get out, and cast with legs firmly planted in the water or on the bank. Regulations vary from river to river - you can fish from the boat on the McKenzie, which, especially for the beginning fly fisherman, can alleviate the intimidation factor of learning how to wade and fly fish at the same time.
The McKenzie River is by no means just a “beginners river”, however. It’s approximately 90 miles, winding west of the Cascade mountain range and merging with the Willamette River outside of Eugene, offers a multitude of fishing opportunities. Hatchery rainbow trout are planted by boat between May and September every year from Blue River downstream to Hendricks Wayside Park. Native “redsides”, an affectionate name for wild rainbow trout on the McKenzie and the Deschutes, reside throughout the river. Above Blue River you will find only wild rainbows and an occasional bull trout and cutthroat. As they mature these wild rainbows develop a deep red band on their sides, just as they do on the Deschutes. The McKenzie above Blue River is restricted to catch and release; it has some wading access but is also boated by skilled and adventurous whitewater oarsmen. In the twenty-five miles or so of river below Leaburg Dam, there are opportunities to fish for Chinook salmon in May and June as well as steelhead May through November. There is a strong population of wild cutthroat trout in the lower portion of the McKenzie near the cities of Eugene and Springfield. These fish often eagerly take dry March browns in the spring; larger wild rainbows join the mix in this area.
We can thank the McKenzie River for the evolution of the distinctive dory style boat you see floating high on the water’s surface on many of the rivers in the Pacific Northwest. The modern day drift boat has a rockered, or curved bottom design, with a high pointed bow and stern and is a scaled down version of the dory design used for years by ocean going fisherman on the east and west coasts. With a design specifically calculated to maneuver the white water, twists, and turns of the McKenzie, as well as comfortably accommodating a rower and his fishing guests, the McKenzie River drift boat is a staple on the Rogue, the Deschutes and many other rivers in the Northwest.
Being able to fish from the boat and reading water from the boat’s vantage point is a treat as it eliminates any jitters about learning how and where to walk in the current on the first day. The scenic McKenzie boat ride combines a white-water outing and the verdant green landscape found on the west side of the state with first-class fly-fishing. The drive time to the McKenzie River is nearly equidistant to the Lower Deschutes from Central Oregon. Fisherman from outside the State and even those in Oregon learning for the first time should consider a day of fishing on the McKenzie in preparation for a day on the mighty Deschutes east of the Cascades.