McKenzie River, Oregon

When the Cascade Mountains came to be, by a shrugging of the shoulders of massive tectonic plates beneath Mother Earth, volcanoes erupted, splattering ash, pumice, dust and boulders into the sky, to later fall to the ground. Lava squirted and rolled, undulating as hissing liquid rock snakes that redefined the ground. Much later, rocks and ground cooled and the McKenzie River flowed, flavored forever by microscopic bits of minerals conductive to growing aquatic plants and animals. Of these, the fly fisher finds primary significance in nymphs, sculpins, minnows and our beloved trout.


Cutthroat were native to the river, and probably rainbow, but hatchery plantings have disturbed the tracing of genetic trout heritage, particularly with rainbow.

There is a strong population of wild rainbow, with more numbers of wild cutthroat in the lower river. The McKinzie hosts a small but stable population of bull trout. Current regulations [as of 1996] require that all wild trout be returned to the McKenzie River unharmed. McKenzie trout average 8 to 14 inches, with some going 16 inches, and an occasional fish 18 inches or better. Many of the larger rainbows exhibit the same dark coloration and deep red stripe that Deschutes rainbow do, and proudly bear the same moniker, "redside". However, the McKenzie is not a trophy trout river.

McKenzie Redside (Rainbow)

Steelhead in any number are not native to the McKenzie, although it's possible these migratory rainbow established remnant colonies because steelhead go upriver to spawn, instituting new runs in an evolutionary fashion. Since biologists estimate that some 400 to 1,000 steelhead now spawn in the wild in the McKenzie system, we can guess that eons ago there may have been some native steelhead in the McKenzie watershed, although whether they could negotiate the Willamette Falls is unknown. From a yearly release of 108,000 smolts, there is now a modest hatchery summer steelhead run of 2,000 to 3,000 adult fish that spend two years in the ocean and run from 7 to 9 pounds, with an occasional three-salt fish that weighs 12 to 13 pounds. While some continue upstream and spawn in the McKenzie system, most pause at Leaburg Dam, which is somewhat logical because these fish originate at Leaburg Hatchery.

The McKenzie is a classic Pacific Northwest semi-rainforest river, cloaked in fir and hemlock, swatted with rain much of the fall, winter and spring. It runs blue-green in its upper stretches where the river canyon squeezes tumbling runs between boulder strewn pockets; the lower river below Hayden Bridge is flatter, but can still trick the unwary.

March Brown The McKenzie runs close to civilization; the cities of Springfield and Eugene house over 100,00 people; access via 1-5 is a quick springboard to her waters. From the March Brown hatch on through the season, the lower river is often excessively loved by its admirers on foot and in floating craft; the water in the upper river is continually churned with oars in the sunshine months. You can still get away from people, but it will take some effort on your part - you may want to avoid peak times and the more popular sports on the river. [For a MAP of the McKenzie River region, click here.]

In many places the river veers from public access, making extensive stretches of the McKenzie a boater's river. While there are miles of river that are navigable with only moderate boating expertise, many sections are dangerous, even to skilled boaters. Public access offers fishing opportunities at numerous boat launches, parks, Willamette National campgrounds, and along the McKenzie River National Recreation trail.

The portion of the McKenzie below Hayden Bridge is open to year-round fly fishing, barbless hooks; the remaining waters open the fourth Saturday in April and close October 31. Hatchery catchable rainbow are stocked in the South Fork McKenzie above Cougar Reservoir and in the middle portion of the main McKenzie from Paradise Campground to Hayden Bridge. The river above Paradise Campground is not stocked, barbless fly and lure only. An additional steelhead season extends to December 31, furthering legal fly fishing for steelhead and whitefish up to the deadline just below Leaburg Dam.

January and February on the River

Trout fishing on the McKenzie in these winter months is legally open from Hayden Bridge downstream, but your success is totally dependent on water level and clarity. Typically the river is up some, with water temperatures in the low 40s. If the river is clear you may encounter Blue Wing Olive hatches in the early afternoon, matched with size 18 and 20 dries and emergers. The winter stoneflies occasionally hatch in February, and trout and whitefish do take them, but it's sporadic.

This probably won't come as a surprise: you'll catch most of your fish this time of year by nymphing the riffles and throats of the runs. One word of caution though: don't charge into the river, wading out and pitching your nymph setup into deep water - you'll wade right through feeding fish.

. . . Successful nymphs include the Hare's Ear in natural tan, a darker brown version, or olive, the Red Fox Squirrel Nymph, Soft Hackle, and Pheasant Tail in sizes 10 to 14. Some nymph fishers prefer to watch the end of their brightly colored floating fly line to detect the strike, but some type of fluorescent strike indicator greatly aids most of us.

Of course, then there are those wonderful afternoons when everything seems to be to the liking of insects and trout, Blue Wing Olive (Baetis) mayflies hatch, trout rise, and you're on the stream. Tactics are the usual for dry fly: a nine - or ten-foot leader tapered down to two or three pound test (with a nice long springy tippet of two or three feet long); a size 18 or 20 Adams, Adams Parachute, or Blue Wing Olive Comparadun, dead-drifted over the trout's feeding station. [For the FLIES for the McKenzie River, click here.]

Spring on the McKenzie

Spring on the McKenzie Spring announces herself with swallows sifting the air for insects; the swallows migrate from warm southern climates, the insects migrate from their aquatic homes to emerge as creatures of land and air. When swallows arrive mid-March they may find a hatch of Blue Wing Olive mayflies, size 18 or 20, or they may dine on hatching Western March Brown mayflies.

The Western March Brown will hatch on sunny days, but they prefer overcast, misty or light rain days, which seems to make sense because the McKenzie has many of those days, particularly in the spring. In fact, the hatches are sparse on bright spring days, but can be glorious on soggy wet river rat days when only the devoted are on the river. River height and clarity only seems to affect dry fly fishing and the predilection for trout to take the duns, and dry flies. Some of the most intense hatches occur when the river is high and off color, too brown to fish but not too chocolate for March Browns.

The second important hatch is also a toothsome insect for trout, the McKenzie Caddis, size 10, with gray wings and an iridescent blue-green body . . . This robust caddis begins hatching in late April, tapering off in June . . .Because the hatch stretches out several weeks, trout key in on this caddis, eagerly pouncing on the naturals.

Summer on the McKenzie

One of the first mayflies of early summer hatches is a fluorescent yellow size 14 dun that almost glows in low slanting sun. Interestingly enough, although juvenile fish and sometimes whitefish rise to this bug - which often results in a dampened but still floating insect - adult trout seem to disdain this mayfly. At times I've had good success with a size 14 bright yellow Comparadun on the Santiam River, so maybe others have done well on the McKenzie by matching this hatch.

Summer on the McKenzie

I've had more success matching the more prevalent size 14 and 16 cream mayflies . . .with cream Comparaduns, Parachutes, or a favorite traditional, the Light Cahill. The Cahill is excellent for simulating a variety of cream bugs that hatch during the summer; besides the pale mayflies, the Cahill can pass for pale caddis or the Little Yellow stonefly.

When fly fishers talk about summer hatches, it's common to hear the "PMD" code word bouncing off the pegboard canyons of fly shops throughout the West, including those that service the McKenzie . . . The PMDs on the McKenzie are light brown or creamish-brown, usually close to a size 16. Water and air temperature, as well as water depth and clarity determines the timing of the hatch, which starts in June and continues until it compresses down to the last bit of daylight during the hot weeks of late summer. . . However, during the heat of summer you might want to consider some alternatives to fishing the main river, such as in the High country.

Fall on the McKenzie

Author below Leaburg Dam Although the calendar may indicate that fall is here, the first of September finds the McKenzie Valley still wrapped in summer's clutches, with warm nights and hot days, which continue until the first cooling autumnal rains hit around the third week in September.

The first major hatch of the late season is the Fall Caddis (Limnephilidea discomoecus), a size 8 rusty orange caddis that provokes the larger redsides to the top, especially on overcast days . . . However, on the upper McKenzie this caddis begins hatching during the first part of September.

You might bear in mind that a modest run of Chinook salmon glides upriver about mid-September. These fish have traveled some 200 miles in freshwater, and as such are not bright fish and should be allowed to spawn without harassment from fly fishermen. However, trout don't overlook the fact that while spawning, some salmon eggs drift loose in the current, offering a tasty snack for rainbow and cutthroat holding just downstream. With micro eggs and a weight on the leader you can catch trout by easing your fake egg downstream from the salmon without disturbing their spawning.

Fall Steelheading

Author Zeke Meyer with Steelhead

The McKenzie summer steelhead are Skamania stock hatchery raised at the facility at Leaburg. The run is sustained by a yearly release of 108,000 adipose-fine-clipped smolts.


Tom Gilg with steelhead November 1st marks an important change in available fishing waters on the McKenzie: the river is only open from the Leaburg Dam downstream. You can fly fish for steelhead and whitefish from there down to Hayden Bridge; from Hayden to the mouth, it's open for steelhead, whitefish, and catch-and-release trout fishing.

The McKenzie is certainly not a world class steelhead fishery, and it's certain that you won't always catch steelhead on the McKenzie. But if you do go out on the river, you'll raise your odds of catching a fish considerably more than your zero changes if you stay home.

December - A Year's End

This time of year McKenzie trout don't overlook the fact that Mountain whitefish or Rocky Mountain whitefish . . . spawn in December. When trout spawn, they build a nest among small well aerated rocks on the river bottom; whitefish simply broadcast their eggs, allowing the eggs to cling to the rocks via a sticky mucous that covers the eggs. Some eggs don't adhere to the bottom, but drift free in the current, offering a ready meal for hungry trout. Also, while trout spawn primarily in riffles, whitefish spawn in gravel flats and tailouts, as well as riffles, which expands the trout egg-feeding territory.

Some Decembers in the McKenzie valley are mild, resulting in lower than usual water flows, extending the fly fishing season on through the end of the year. Normal Decembers, however, soon bring cold rain or snow, water temperatures drop and the river comes up, limiting the number of fishable days in the month. Nevertheless, you can steal days from daily life, slipping away to the Mother McKenzie to fly fish for an afternoon, even though it's just for a few fleeting hours.

The End of the Season

Seasons end
Fishing days are few in December, though fishermen always look to the 'morrow, when the river is "in shape" and hatches bring trout to feed. But December is the time to remember the season past, read books, build rods, and tie flies.

December is a time of musing, a speculation on the year as a circle of time, another year we witness the carousel of seasons, the comings and goings of birds, aquatic insects, cold, heat, rain and snow, and our own mingling with the river. I know that someday I will die, and that my bones will turn to dust, not that much unlike the volcanic dust that forms the riverbed that cradles the McKenzie. And as such, I will be a part of the river, Just as much as I am a part of the river when I fish it. I like being a part of the McKenzie, and a fly rod is a great way to be there. ~ Deke Meyer

McKenzie River For a MAP of the McKenzie River, click here.
For the FLIES for the McKenzie River click here.
To ORDER McKenzie direct from the publisher, click HERE.

Credits: From the McKenzie River, part of the River Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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