McKenzie River Fly Fishing, Oregon
As an overview for McKenzie River fly fishing, the river courses for about 90 miles, draining part of the Cascade Mountain Range east of the city of Eugene. It is followed for the majority of its length by Hwy 126, and flows into the southernmost end of the Willamette Valley, where it joins the Willamette River.
Fish in the McKenzie River and some of its tributaries include spring Chinook salmon, mountain whitefish, and bull, cutthroat, and rainbow trout. It has a considerable run of hatchery summer steelhead.
McKenzie River Fly Fishing Flies and Techniques
Flies are most simply divided into three general groupings: dry flies, wet flies, and nymphs. Dry flies are meant to imitate adult aquatic or terrestrial insects floating on the water’s surface. Wet flies represent such things as swimming or emerging aquatic insects, smaller fish, crayfish, leeches, and scuds (“freshwater shrimp”). These are fished in the water column from just subsurface to near the stream bottom, a wide range of depths. Lastly, nymphs imitate immature aquatic insects living in, on, or near the stream bottom.a bank-hugging rainbow that made a mistake
The Beginner’s Trap
If given a choice I suspect that 99% of all fly fishers would choose dry fly fishing as the single technique that holds the most pleasure and satisfaction for them. Watching your dry fly drift on the currents when suddenly a trout pierces the surface to inhale it is always exciting and memorable. These are the most dramatic moments in fly fishing, an unmatched visual fishing pleasure.
“Pleasure” is, too often, a pejorative term. It has a bad rap, as if pleasure is selfish and sinful. Most normal people are hedonists. They seek pleasure. Whereas pleasure can be fattening food, drunken fun and frolicking on Saturday night, it can also be enjoying time with your family, or the joy of volunteering at the local nursing home. Fly fishers are hedonists in the best sense of the term.
What I am leading up to here is the alluring trap into which fly anglers — especially beginners — may fall when it comes to fishing the dry fly. I, too, fell under the Sirens’ Song.
Here’s the familiar story. The determined fly fishing beginner acquires some good equipment, reads a book or two, learns the rudiments of an adequate casting stroke, and eventually finds a few good places to fish. Most fly fishing beginners I encounter are familiar with dry flies, so that is where they start. It is clearly understood to them that a fish is interested in their fly when they can actually watch the trout take it. Confirmation and positive reinforcement are received. And, a little success goes a very long way in embedding dry fly fishing behavior in the angler’s psyche. Successfully fooling a trout on a dry fly is pleasurable. More pleasure is, therefore, sought. Just like the rat pressing the food-release bar in its cage, more casts are made until another rising trout is caught. The dry fly habit is being reinforced.
The standard, classic presentation of the dry fly begins with a cast that is angled upstream, somewhere between 45 degrees and straight into the current. As the fly drifts back to you with the current most, but not all, of the slack line is gathered by stripping it under one or several fingers of the rod hand. It is often helpful to put little “s” curves in the line so that the fly is not readily pulled unnaturally fast by a tight line and leader. To accomplish this simply shake the rod tip laterally and quickly before the line lands on the water as you make the cast.
For casting across or down-and-across the current, make a regular straight line cast, but just before the line settles on the water thrust the rod tip in the upstream direction. Then, follow the drift of the line downstream with the rod. That is, move your rod tip downstream as the line drifts downstream so as not to tighten on the line and retard the natural float of the fly.
Caddisflies are very active as they emerge. As the adults emerge they flit, flutter and bounce on the surface. At such times casting the dry fly downstream at 45 degrees, skating it on a tight line, can be very effective. And, add an occasional twitch to the skate. You may be pleasantly surprise.
The Parachute Adams and Stimulator are two excellent dry flies. I carry the Adams is sizes 14 – 18, and the Stimulator, a buoyant skater, in sizes 10 – 14. Olive, orange and yellow are productive Stimulator colors. Use a 9’ leader with the tippet diameter matched to the fly size.
There WILL be those days where the fish will eat floating insects with abandon and the dry fly angler will dwell a spell in Nirvana. But, problems arise (pun intended) when the rise to the dry fly does not happen on a very consistent basis throughout the fishing year. Most of a typical fishing day finds few, if any, fish striking surface flies. The one-dimensional dry flyist will be disappointed, even discouraged. The moral: learn and practice other fly fishing techniques.
Simple Can Be Best
A wet fly, as the descriptive name would imply, is fished subsurface. Wet flies represent such things as swimming or emerging aquatic insects, smaller fish, crayfish, leeches, and scuds (“freshwater shrimp”). These are presented to the fish in the water column from just subsurface to near the stream bottom, a wide range of depths.
The simplest method of presenting the wet fly is to cast it on a floating fly line down-and-across the current. If straight across the current is 90 degrees, the wet fly is most commonly cast between 45 and 75 degrees. A short blink after the fly line has started to drift downstream lift the fly rod high and move the tip upstream, drawing an imaginary vertical semicircle. In fly fishing jargon this is called a “mend”. The mend situates the fly line upstream of the slower drifting fly, and straightens the alignment of the line-leader-fly system. You get a better presentation of the fly, a better chance to detect the strike, and a greater likelihood of hooking a striking fish.
After mending the fly line, merely let it drift in the current until it swings straight downstream from you. Don’t pick up the line immediately. Instead, let it hang momentarily. Twitch the rod tip up and down a few inches several times. This sometimes entices a reluctant trout which followed the fly but was not convinced it was edible. The twitch made the fly look alive.
A simple variation of this technique is to impart small twitches throughout the entire drift of the fly. I have found this most effective by alternating twitches with a two-count pause. Twitch. Pause, pause. Twitch. Pause, pause. Remember the twitch of the rod tip moves the fly only a few inches.
As for fly patterns, I am very partial to dull-colored soft hackle flies such as the Pheasant Tail Soft Hackle. I use the bead-head version when I need some extra depth. A copper or gold bead. Select the un-beaded version when the fish show a preference for the fly presented very near the surface. Another excellent pattern is a Hare’s Ear Soft Hackle. For the streams of western Oregon I find hook sizes 10 – 14 most useful. A 9’ leader with a 4X fluorocarbon tippet is a good universal choice for these flies in the recommended sizes.
If I spy rising fish that refuse some of my reliable dry fly patterns I quickly change to a wet fly. I position myself upstream at an angle of about 45 degrees to my target. Cast upstream of a riser and let the fly swing across the suspected lie of the trout. Cast, mend, swing without a twitch. Twitch once or twice as the fly hangs in the current straight below me. Recast. Mend, twitch, pause, pause, twitch, pause, pause, twitch, . . . No response? Change my position angle to the fish, or search out another riser that might strike. Move around, covering different water. Experiment with fly size before switching to a different pattern.
It is common that as I survey the McKenzie River fishing scene — my Oregon trout favorite — there will not, most likely, be rising fish to be seen. The sporadic, occasional rise may be the exception. But, because many of my guided fly fishing clients have the urge to fish the dry fly, they may act against common sense, and my advice, to tie on a floating pattern. If they insist, I have a suggestion: fish near the stream bank.
Trout, like people, display individual differences. Bank-feeding trout have learned that they have increased the likelihood of a meal by positioning themselves near overhanging vegetation, bushes and grass where adult aquatic and terrestrial insects rest and roam. These insects — ants, beetles, crickets, caddisflies, stoneflies, mayflies, grasshoppers — often fall or get blown into the water. A bank-feeder will take advantage of the opportunity. An astute fly angler can create an opportunity. And, these streamside trout are rarely selective. Some of my favorite McKenzie River flies: Parachute Adams, Elk Hair Caddis, and Parachute Royal Coachman are excellent choices.
The best shoreline holding areas are those that have some depth and accompanying structure. The ideal flyfishing water is usually 18″ – 30″ deep with a boulder, ledge or wood debris to break the current a little and provide shelter in the event of a threatening intrusion. The best cast is often the one that has the fly landing barely a few inches from the the bank. My preference is to cast from a comfortably-distant upstream position, casting downstream with a soft parachute cast presentation. This best insures that the fly will float over my quarry before leader and line. Consider using a light tippet for the most natural, non-drag drift of the fly.
The Samurai’s Sword
I’ve saved the best for last: nymph fishing. If I had to catch a fish to win a bet or feed my family using only one fly fishing method I would choose nymphing. Compared to wet fly and dry fly method, nymphing is more complicated, more detail-intensive. However, once mastered you have the equivalent of fly fishing weapon of mass destruction. Yup, it’s that deadly! (You understand that I am speaking figuratively, don’t you?)
Want to see how good nymph fishing the McKenzie can be? Take a few minutes to watch this video.
Let’s start with the classic upstream presentation of the nymph. In order to entice a stream trout into eating your artificial nymph, know that your end goal is to get your fly near the river bottom, and have it drift naturally with the current. Toward this end, I want some weight (lead, tungsten, split shot, or metal bead) in the fly, on the fly, or attached to my leader. The astute angler will adjust the amount of weight to match the combination of current speed and depth. Too much weight, the fly is slowed or stuck on the bottom. Too little weight, the fly drifts over the heads of fish unwilling to ascend from the bottom to strike it.
Though it seems counterintuitive to those new to successful nymphing, I suggest and use only a floating fly line in streams. Since I try to confine my nymphing to water depths of 6’ or less, my nine-foot leader has no trouble allowing my fly to sink to the bottom. Because a trout will hold an artificial fly only a very short period of time — often, a second or less — a sinking fly line is not nearly as effective for detecting the subtle “take”. Let me elaborate.
During my underwater observations on Oregon State University’s Berry Creek property, among other things I discovered that trout casually move to intercept a potential food item as it drifts into their vicinity. They don’t charge it, then dart away to eat the morsel. It would be easier for the fly angler if they did. In that case the trout would immediately signal to the angler that the fly had been grabbed and the line tightened, perhaps even obliging to hook itself in the process. But it doesn’t often work that way.
Once a fish has determined that the item taken into its mouth for examination is inedible it quickly expels it. The time lapse is often less than a second. This is a major challenge for the fly angler who attempts to dead-drift (drift naturally with the current) a fly along the bottom of the creek. Whatever line type is chosen – floating or sinking — the line must have some amount of tension-free slack in order to allow the fly to move with the flow naturally. Once the line is tightened by the angler in hopes of feeling the fish strike, the fly is pulled off the bottom, no longer drifting uninhibited and, perhaps, removed from the fish’s zone of interest. If the fly is presented with slack on a sinking line the submerged curves and coils created by the stream currents prevent a full tightening of the line to let the fisherman know the fish has intercepted the fly. The telltale hesitation of the fly is absorbed into the slack line, momentarily tightening a bit of the slack line but not all of it. The fish releases the fly before the angler knows anything has happened.
You may read about the Brook’s Method of nymph fishing. This employs the use of a fast-sinking fly line. It is my belief that, because the line must be drifted tight to detect the strike, that many fewer fish strike the fly, and fewer fish are landed than with a floating fly line in skilled hands. Additionally, because the fly line has a larger diameter than a normal leader, drag on the drift of the fly is increased as the current sweeps the line downstream. In my chosen profession I know scores of skilled nymph anglers. None use a sinking line to present a natural-drift nymph. However, if trout are willing to take a sweeping or ascending nymph at the end of a drift as the line tightens, you can catch stream fish on a sinking line. But, you might as well use a floating line to accomplish the same thing. It’s easier to pick up to recast, usually casts more pleasantly, and is far easier to control and manipulate once in the water.
I am often asked if a bright red, orange, green, or neon yellow fly line alarms the fish. New Zealanders, in particular, are strident proponents of neutrally-colored grey, beige and olive lines. In my experience, which includes fishing a broad variety of streams and conditions in New Zealand, I have never felt that my success was in any limited by the color of my fly line. It is the splash and shadow of the line, and the exposed position and movement of the angler that disturbs wary trout, not the line color. One man’s opinion.
To detect the subtle strike of a nymphing trout, some anglers will scrutinize their drifting leader where it enters the water. If the visible portion of the leader hesitates or gets pulled under during the drift, the hook is set. Others will watch the very tip of their highly visible floating fly line for the same visual cues. Just as I recommend to my guided clients and students, I use a strike indicator on my leader to detect that a fish has intercepted my nymph. This is a floating attachment made of bright adhesive foam, cork, or synthetic yarn. I prefer to locate the indicator about to feet farther from the fly than the water depth I’m fishing. As an example, if the water is three feet deep the indicator is attached to the leader at a distance of five feet from the fly.
Fishing Two Flies
Fishing two flies can increase your chances of catching a fish. There are a variety of methods to secure a second fly to your leader. My preferred method is cut a new leader about 15″ up from the end of the tippet. Rejoin the two pieces with a Double Surgeon knot. You will have two short sections of line to trim at the knot when finished. Trim only the short end that points up the leader towards your rod tip. Leave the short end that points down to your terminal fly. With a little planning the short end that remains is long enough to secure a dropper fly with a Clinch knot. The dropper section should be no longer than 2″. If longer, the dropper line will tend to wrap around the main leader as you fish it. The flies on your leader for NYMPH fishing in a stream should be about 12″ apart. For fishing two wet flies, or a wet fly / dry fly combo, separate the flies by 24″.
Pick a stretch of likely fish-holding water. Position yourself at the downstream extremity of the water you choose. Cast the nymph anywhere from 45 degrees upstream to almost directly upstream as you systematically cover the run. The approach in covering the water is essentially the same as that of the classic dry fly method. Approach from downstream to cover fish which are facing into the current, looking away from the angler. After the cast, allow the fly to sink on a slack line. Gather some of the slack as the line drifts back to you. Watch the indicator for any deviation from its normal drift. Know that this interruption can be quite subtle, a very slight hesitation. If there is any suspicion whatsoever set the hook by smartly raining the rod tip.
There are three flies you will always find in my nymph box. The first, the Prince, in sizes 12 and 14. Some with a gold bead head, some without. The second is a Flashback Hare’s Ear, in 12 and 14. No bead. And, I always carry heavily-weighted stonefly nymphs, sizes 6 and 8, black, dark brown and dark golden olive. Some with gold bead head, some without. Use a 9’ leader with the appropriate fluorocarbon tippet.
Be versatile. Be open. Take what the fish will give you. Think of them as tiny dance partners. The fish always gets to lead.
During most of the average fishing day trout are not rising on any consistent basis. In this scenario think of fishing the bottom first, mid water as a second resort, and dry flies as the last option. If fish are rising, try dry first, experimenting with fly size and pattern. Experiment with presentation. Be willing to quickly change to a wet fly fished barely subsurface on the chance the trout are preferring emerging insects as the bugs struggle in the surface film to free themselves from their nymphal or pupal skins to emerge as winged adults. Vulnerable emergers are easier targets than a floating adult which may fly off just before the trout rises to eat it.
Have fun. Enjoy the endless journey of fishing discovery.
Guided McKenzie River fly fishing trips are available with professional fly fishing guide Michael Gorman.
For details click here.
330 NW Autumn Place
Corvallis, OR 97330
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