It’s a crisp October morning on the McKenzie River, one shoreline in early sunshine and the other still stuck in the shadows, and here we are, soaking up this drift-boat fishing trip without lifting a finger.
Well, not quite true: We are doing the “Rogue River twitch,” as our guide, Doug Caven, calls it.
He’s hooked up our fly rods with nymphs, or wet flies. By gently flicking our fly rods up and down, the nymphs skirt underwater, looking like itty-bitty water bugs headed toward a surface hatch.
When a rainbow trout does hit, impulse strikes.
Line peels off the fly reel, sounding a “zeeeee” of back-spinning gears on loose drag. Hard back on your rod, and up shoots the hooked fish, splendid in its fleeting flash dance above the rapids below.
The fight goes pretty quickly — rod pulls down, gets heavy, yanks with the trout as it dives and jumps — and then it’s all up to Caven again. It’s a hatchery trout, he sees, so in the net it goes: Another one for the fish box.
Sounds good, because today’s sortie includes a sandy-beach fish-fry, and it’s legendary how river guides can morph into chefs quick as a caddis hatch.
The long-time river guides in our four-boat party — Caven, along with Jon Payne, Chris Olsen and Jim Staight — have packed their Dutch oven for biscuits with strawberries and whipped cream, containers of green salad with tomatoes, and a propane burner for cooking skinned and battered trout in a Paul Bunyon-sized frying pan.
Our job — the eight of us guests, two per drift boat — will be to eat it all. This whole day, after all, is all about us — with the price of admission, that is (typically $350 to $400 for two). It’s our chance to sample the majestic McKenzie River with barely lifting a finger.
Soon as we put in at Silver Creek Boat Landing, some 40 miles east of Eugene, the guides already have us ready to fish. We could have brought our own rods and reels, and for that matter beverages and a morning snack with all but one kind of fruit. “There’s an old wives’ tale that bananas are bad luck,” Caven jests.
But the two of us in Caven’s boat, we just bring ourselves, along with sunglasses, ball caps and light jackets for the autumn chill.
It’s a glorious morning, especially on the sunny side of the river, where a little warmth has aroused open-air fragrances and early autumn colors on tangled shorelines. Alders, maples and firs stand over scruffy grasses, mossy rocks, and the grayish-white bones of decrepit or washed-up tree parts.
Up higher, in mountains rising up steep off the narrow valley, sloping ridges of Douglas fir forests fascinate the other six guests in our river-boat convoy. Their tour of Oregon already has been a hit — coastal beaches, Willamette Valley wineries — and now comes this spellbinding McKenzie adventure for the three retired siblings and their spouses.
Indeed, today’s river run — covering about 10 miles of the middle McKenzie to just below Vida — never ceases to fascinate our guides, either.
“When you’ve been on a river like the McKenzie, it’s like embracing an old friend,” said guide Payne, who’s leading the excursion.
Caven treasures the run for its lively riffles and calmer pocket water in bedrock holes. For thrills, it traverses two of the McKenzie’s most spirited white-water sections, Brown’s Hole and Marten’s Rapids.
“It’s just a wonderful stretch,” Caven lauded. “There’s a mix of wild and hatchery fish in here. During the middle of the day, you’re more likely to hit a hatchery trout. Come evening, when a good bug hatch is on, I’ve caught some beautiful wild fish in here.”
Wild fish always must be released on the McKenzie. A clipped adipose fin, on the other hand, whether on trout or steelhead, means fair game.
Finding the fish
Fishing the McKenzie, even for trout, can be a cat-and-mouse game.
“Sometimes you can’t buy a fish on the fly, so you try something else,” Caven said. “As we affectionately call it, the ‘gold diving caddis,’ which is the hot shot.”
But no thrill compares to fishing the McKenzie with a dry fly, Caven contends. Watching a fish rise for a fly, or sometimes break water and hit the fly on its way back down, “is as much fun as you can have,” he mused.
Dry flies work best during a bug hatch — say, March browns in spring or brown caddis in autumn.
Even with fish feeding below the surface 80 percent of the time, the McKenzie is “renowned” for its dry-fly fishing, noted Payne.
Wet flies work year-round, but especially when trout are feasting on nymphs rising to the surface for sprouting wings.
“If you see a bit of ripple under the surface, and you see their dorsal fin just bumping the surface, they’re feeding on a fly that hasn’t gotten to the top of the water yet,” Caven said. “If they’re actually jumping, coming out of the water, they’re feeding on a fly that’s on the surface.”
Today, we land just enough hatchery trout — mostly on wet flies — for a fish-fry.
After cleaned and skinned, the trout are coated in cornmeal and flour, then in a giant fry pan nearly 2 feet wide over a propane stove.
Chef duties fall to Staight, who swirls the fish in butter and olive oil until golden and crisp, and to fellow guide Olsen, who bakes his biscuits in a Dutch oven heated by charcoal briquettes.
How delicious? Definitely enough to come back for more.