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Fishing Destination: Meet the McKenzie River

Fishing Destination: Meet the McKenzie River

Anglers have their choice of numerous put-ins and take-outs along the McKenzie’s 90-mile length. (Photo by Gary Lewis)

From one year to the next, Oregon’s McKenzie River is a river of multiple personalities early in the summer. It can run high with runoff or it can fish at summertime levels, depending on snowpack in the Cascades. On our trip during the second week of June, with my dad in the boat and guide Steve Erickson on the sticks, the river fished like mid-July. Before we were finished that evening, the trout were leaping from the riffles to grab our flies above the water.

In the other boat, with guide Mel Crabb, were our friends Mike and Dianne Green. We had convened at The Fly Fisher’s Place on Main Street in Sisters. Ninety minutes after that we slid our boats into the McKenzie.

Favored Flies

In the summer months, the McKenzie has reliable hatches of stoneflies, caddis, mayflies and midges. Expect to see spotted, saddle-case, green and McKenzie caddis in June, July and August. Bring a selection of caddis flies in various colors and sizes from No. 12 down to No. 20. If no hatch is in progress, soft-hackle flies produce, especially when two or three are fished at once in the preferred McKenzie River style.

McKenzie River
Photo by Gary Lewis

Tie a blood-knotted, two-section leader with Maxima Chameleon, leaving long tags to tie on three wet flies. Stick with a variety of caddis-imitating soft hackles such as the Caddis Pupa, Soft Hackle Hare’s Ear, Gold Invicta Caddis Sedge and Carey Special. Instead of casting, feed the line out downstream of the boat while the oarsman keeps the flies fishing down the riffle seams. Add split shot if needed to run the flies 3 to 5 feet below the surface.

During our trip in June we swung wet flies while the sun was high over the water, but as the afternoon wore on, golden stoneflies, midges, caddis and mayflies began to beat the air. We also saw green drake mayflies buzzing like helicopters at canopy level over the river.

I tied on a Chubby Chernobyl golden stonefly imitation. As we drifted, I cast to the riffles and prospected along sun-shot seams and into the shade. In one long run, I saw a trout rise to the fly. It was a wild rainbow about 10 inches long. The next fish that sipped was bigger, perhaps 19 inches. Suddenly, it was there beneath the fly, drifting down with it. Then it committed, ate and went airborne. A moment later it threw the hook.

For the most part, our nine-mile upper-river drift was through easy rapids, but there are some legitimate Class III grinders, too. One piece of big water gave me a lapful of cold water. There are a lot of options for put-ins and take-outs along the river, so it is possible to make shorter runs and avoid the trickier whitewater.

Our half-day run gave us a look at a lot of good water. Some sections of the river have populations of wild rainbows, cutthroats and bull trout, while others are more likely to produce planted hatchery rainbows. When the sun began to go behind the trees, we drifted through patches of shade and out into leaf-dappled golden afternoon light.

McKenzie River
The McKenzie flows west out of the Cascades along Highway 126, eventually joining the Willamette River north of Eugene. Many excellent floats exist above and below Leaburg Dam. (Shutterstock)

While June can be a good time to be on the water, the action heats up in July as the water warms and there are more bugs on the surface (and more hatchery trout as well).

Typically, as the day wears on, a few more caddis begin to show on the surface. On our trip, I tied on a No. 14 Elk Hair Caddis and greased it with a little floatant, and our luck began to change. The next trout brought to hand was 14 inches—wild and spotted, with a brilliant red sash. The next fish was a hatchery trout, and they came fast after that. Dad switched to an Elk Hair Caddis. Downstream of us, Crabb and crew had cracked the code with a McKenzie Caddis pattern, which I believe is an even better choice than the Elk Hair.

About an hour before dark I began to skitter the bug at the end of each drift. Trout after trout leaped clear of the water to take the fly. In the half-day float, we each caught close to 10 rainbows apiece, most of them taken on dries. It’s the kind of fishing the McKenzie offers every June and July.

Upper McKenzie

The McKenzie River trickles out of Clear Lake in the Cascades, gathers water from snowmelt and runoff and spring-fed creeks and, 89 river miles later, joins the Willamette River near Eugene. The upper McKenzie, shaded by Douglas firs and splashing down through waterfalls and lava ridges, runs steep down to Trailbridge Reservoir. These waters can produce brook trout, cutthroats, rainbows and bull trout of small size.


From Trailbridge down to Paradise Campground, the river holds native rainbows, bull trout and cutthroats, but good fishing spots are few and far between. On this section of stream, the best plan is to walk in rather than try to float and fish.

McKenzie River
The long and mostly wild sections of the McKenzie’s floats offer ample spots for shore-lunch campfires. (Photo by Gary Lewis)

The most heavily fished miles of the McKenzie are between Paradise Campground and Hayden Bridge in Springfield. Much of this stretch is great drift boat water. Some parts of the upper and lower river are heavily stocked with rainbow trout, which average 8 to 14 inches.

The lower 50 miles of the river are accessed mainly by boat (bank access is limited by private land). There are dozens of boat ramps on the McKenzie.

The most popular floats are between Blue River and Leaburg Dam in the upper river. Several of these reaches require expert boating skills. A whitewater-rated raft is generally a better choice than a drift boat above Leaburg Dam, although expert drift boaters use this section, too.

Among these upper-river floats, Blue River to Finn Rock, which is a six-mile float and can fish out in three hours or more, is a good one. Another option is Finn Rock to Silver Creek Landing, which is a short four-mile float that can be fished in two to four hours. Or try the drift from Finn Rock to Rennie’s Landing, which is six river miles and might take three to four hours to fish. The float from Helfrich Landing to Leaburg Lake offers a mix of river running and lake fishing.

The upper McKenzie, above Leaburg Lake, receives its first plants of hatchery rainbows the last week of April and every two to three weeks after that through mid-September. Beginning in April, Leaburg Lake is heavily stocked by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, with the bulk of the stocking taking place in June and July.

Lower McKenzie

Below Leaburg Dam, the river is characterized by a lower gradient and slower currents. These sections of the river provide good floats in drift boats, rafts or whitewater-rated pontoon boats. Long runs allow for slow floats, giving anglers time to cast dry flies beneath overhanging branches before reeling in at the tailouts and bouncing down through shallow rapids. Here again, some parts of the float will yield more wild rainbows, while hatchery trout are abundant in other holes.

This part of the lower McKenzie River is planted with legal rainbows every two to three weeks in May, June and July. Some favorite runs in this section include Greenwood to Deerhorn Park, a 4 1/2-mile float, which will fish in two to four hours. The Deerhorn Park (Holden Creek Lane) to Power Canal is a five-mile float, which can be fished in two to three hours.

McKenzie River
Angler Don Lewis elevates his rod to get a drag-free drift as McKenzie guide Steve Erickson keeps the boat in line. (Photo by Gary Lewis)

For an all-day float on the lower river—and a chance to put flies in front of a higher percentage of wild fish—put in at Taylor Landing and drift down to Hendrick’s Bridge. This stretch is 13 miles long and might take six to eight hours to fish.

As for timing, the water levels tend to fluctuate in May and June, but are reliable in July and August. McKenzie River flows are monitored near the town of Vida close to Leaburg Dam. Search for river levels on the McKenzie at NOAA reports the McKenzie at flood stage when the river rises to 11 feet at this point. Consider the river fishable and floatable between .9 and 3 1/2 feet, with deal conditions occurring between 1 1/2 and 2 1/4 feet.

When fishing the lower river, the traveling angler might base at a hotel or a bed-and-breakfast in Springfield or Eugene. To access the upper reaches, good Forest Service campgrounds are available from the town of Blue River upstream, along with several small, comfortable resorts, restaurants and coffee stops.

I made my most recent trip down the McKenzie River in the first week of July last summer. Drifting along, I noticed the natural caddis flies had yellow bodies, and that the stoneflies—Yellow Sallies—were yellow-bodied, too. Even though I had a great selection of trout dries at my fingertips, I was lacking anything with a yellow body. The McKenzie River rainbows elevated to take my offerings, but more than a few turned away. That little observation made it into my journal, and you can bet I will be fishing yellow caddis and Stimulator patterns the next time I slide my pontoon boat into the McKenzie this summer.

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