McKenzie's Spring-Run Salmon
September 29, 2010
Over the past few years, springer action has been relatively productive in many Pacific Northwest rivers, but Oregon's McKenzie River has been sizzling. (May 2006)
Bret Stuart, of 24/7 Guide Service, is dialed in to McKenzie springers. Here he prepares to release a wild fish. Photo by Scott Haugen.
As darkness gave way to morning light, we could finally see well enough to secure a fresh cluster of cured eggs onto our hooks. In the hole where we sat, the first few casts of a day had always seemed the most productive, so Dad and I waited with eager anticipation. We'd launched our drift boat three hours before legal fishing light, hoping to be the first ones to the hole. Our efforts paid off.
Dad was first to hook a hard-fighting salmon, as is typically the case. Back-bouncing eggs down the side of a rock ledge, the way he's been doing in this hole for nearly the past half-century, Dad put a fish in the box on his second cast. Three casts later, I had my first Chinook, a wild fish that required release.
Within an hour we'd land five fish in that hole. Three were fin-clipped keepers. The smallest weighed 13 pounds, the largest one 24, about the norm for this river. To round out our limit we'd pull anchor and drift downstream, me on the oars, Dad pumping the rod, back-bouncing as we went. By 9 a.m. we had our limit of spring Chinook -- and fulfilled the needs of the TV show we were shooting. The best part is that the action stayed like this for several days.
At the take-out, we met up with good friend and noted McKenzie River guide Bret Stuart of 24/7 Guide Service (at 541-521-4694). His two clients landed 14 fish before tagging their keepers, and the day before that, he'd hooked into 16 Chinook. For those who love springer fishing, the McKenzie River has been the place to be over the past few seasons, and this year looks to be promising as well.
Renowned for its native rainbows and hard-fighting steelhead, the McKenzie has long enjoyed a run of spring Chinook. Both my grandfathers began fishing this river in the 1930s, and today the family is still catching fish, many in the same holes where our ancestors found success.
Born of Cascade Range glaciers, snow fields and mountain tributaries, the hub of spring Chinook fishing on the McKenzie lies 24 miles east of the city of Springfield. Traveling along Interstate-5, take exit 194A on to I-105, which heads east, bisecting Springfield. Follow the road signs up scenic Highway 126 and soon you'll pass through the tiny town of Leaburg. A few miles later, at Leaburg Dam, turn right and cross the McKenzie River.
Crossing Leaburg Dam puts you on the east bank of the river, at Leaburg Fish Hatchery. Though a number of springers make it over the dam, these fish are rarely pursued that high in the system, simply because they spread out too much. Fact is, most of the fish hang below the dam, thanks to ideal holding water, perfect spawning habitat and a salmon hatchery located a few miles downstream from the dam.
Due to its rugged nature and private-property borders, the McKenzie offers limited bank-fishing access for springers. At Leaburg Dam, on the west side of the river, is a rock outcropping that will hold half a dozen anglers. Here the fishing is good along the ledges that run at your feet, as well as out in the main current when water levels are up.
The top-producing, best-known bank-fishing spot on the river, however, is at the Curry Hole This hole is situated on Greenwood Drive, a short distance past the town of Leaburg. A boat ramp and large number of anglers make it easy to find.
Walk upstream from the parking lot and you'll find yourself fishing deep, heavy, swirling water along and between rock ledges. A simple drift-fishing rigging, complete with 1 1/2 to 2 ounces of lead will suffice. At the lower end, where the water deepens, you can escape the crowds and target suspended salmon with bobber and eggs.
But if you're serious about catching salmon on the McKenzie, running it in a drift boat is the way to go. You'll be hard-pressed finding a more beautiful river to float. A drift boat opens numerous opportunities to find springers, be they in holding water, travel corridors, narrow slots or shallow runs. Crystal-clear waters surrounded by a backdrop of green mountains and abundant wildlife make this a tranquil river to spend time on. And catching fish just adds to the pleasure.
Anglers can embark on three main drifts below Leaburg Dam, all leading to potentially outstanding salmon fishing. The most popular launch lies right below the dam. This pole-slide, concrete-based ramp is situated a few yards above the fishing deadline, 200 feet below the fishways at the ladders going over the dam. (Continued)
When you're talking salmon, a high percentage of water in this run is fishable all the way down to the takeout at Greenwood Drive, some two river miles downstream. Though it's not a long run, you can spend the entire day on this stretch, applying a wide range of techniques in many types of water.
The water from Leaburg Dam to Greenwood Drive is varied, so be prepared with multiple rod setups. You'll find several deep, very distinct swirl holes, all of which can hold salmon -- and thus, are worth hitting. Ledges, chutes, funnels and a degree of fast water habitats can also be fished along the way.
"This stretch can be so good, we'll often run it twice in a day," points out Stuart. "Oftentimes we'll try to hit the known hotspots, pushing through the run pretty quickly to find the biters. If we don't pick up fish on a quick drift, we'll run the stretch again, taking our time to work over all the areas until we find cooperative fish."
Because the holes are so close to one another, having rods prepared to match each fishing style will greatly maximize your time in the water.
Within the dam run, only one bad section of water awaits, and it has a name: The Wall. It's a few hundred yards above the takeout. When the water is low, stick tight to the right bank. It looks like the chute will take you right into the vertical rock face, but it boils back, and you can pull your way out of it. Don't panic! The reverse current on the surface will kick you back out. Just keep pulling on the oars.
This spring, for the third consecutive year, salmon anglers will be able to test their luck on springers from Greenwood Driver upstream to within 200 feet of Leaburg Dam. The reopening of this upper section, which has been closed in the past, noticeably disperses boat traffic and greatly increases catch rates.
The second most popular run is from Greenwood Drive down to the town of Leaburg. Below
the concrete Greenwood Drive boat ramp, several classic salmon holes are available to boaters. Excellent steelhead water exists between these holes, so bring your steelhead drift and float rods.
A high percentage of water in this stretch is fishable, up until the last half-mile of the run -- which can be a long push through dead, shallow water to the gravel takeout at Leaburg. If looking for an all-day float, putting in at the dam and running down to Leaburg is worth considering.
In the recent low-water years, salmon anglers have found increasing success by launching at the town of Leaburg, and taking out at the big iron bridge off Holden Creek Lane. This takeout is reached by traveling up Highway 126 and turning right at Mile Post 17.5. Because the primary fishing spots are spread out on this run, fewer boaters actually make the drift, but there are some outstanding big, deep holes to fish and a few good places to back-troll diver and bait. Taking along a trout rod is a good idea, because there are some lunker redsides holding in this stretch.
Given the wide range of water, there are multiple ways to fish the McKenzie. The more prepared you are to cover all the water there is, the higher your success rate will be. "We've had days where only drift-fishing has produced, and others where only divers or back-bouncing have kicked out fish," notes Stuart. "If you limit yourself to one approach, it can be a frustrating day, especially if boats around you are catching fish on setups you don't have.
"Not only may the bite change from year to year, but from day to day," he continues. "There are holes where we've been regularly catching fish for years, using the same techniques. Then there are other spots where the fishing is good only when the water is at a certain level, clarity or temperature. Like any river, it takes time to learn the McKenzie, but the effort is well worth it."
Perhaps the most common springer approach is drift-fishing. This allows you to cover a great deal of water, from deep holes to fast water. The best setup seems to be where the mainline is attached to a three-way swivel with a six-inch dropper and a two-foot leader. For the mainline, you'll want something strong, in the 15- to 20-pound class. I prefer 17-pound P-Line CXX Extra Strong in moss green, because it's highly abrasion-resistant and durable, which is critical in this river. To the dropper is attached a sinker in the 1 1/2- to 4-ounce range, depending on the depth of the hole and river level. A 3/0 octopus-style hook is ideal, since it allows eggs and sand shrimp to be secured and fished effectively in the fast water.
Back-bouncing is not far behind drift-fishing in terms of applications on this river. Back-bouncing allows a more controlled presentation, both in speed and depth. It's a good idea to have a double-anchor setup on your boat -- one anchor off the bow, one out the stern -- to help you hold in the seams and boils from where the best presentation can be delivered.
Back-bouncing can also be done on the drift in some of the deeper, slower-moving holes as well as along fast-moving seams. Here the oarsman and anglers must work together to achieve the perfect tempo: Too slow and you won't reach the target water; too fast and you might pass by where fish are holding.
No matter where you back-bounce, it's a good idea to suspend your sinker inside a "spider" system. This stiff wire cage keeps the sinker from sticking between rocks and will greatly save gear and fishing time on this rugged-bottomed river.
Back-trolling a diver and bait as well as plugs is also very effective. A shrimp cocktail is tough to beat on the McKenzie -- in fact, I know of guys who won't wet a line in this river unless they have sand shrimp. Sand shrimp can be purchased at various tackle shops along the McKenzie Highway, with your best bet of finding them being at Steelheader's West, in Springfield (at 541-744-2248) or Walterville Feed & Tackle (541-746-5071). You can run the shrimp-egg combo below a Luhr Jensen Jumbo Jet Diver, with astounding results.
Back-trolling plugs, such as a 35-series Hot Shot or a K16 Kwikfish, can also be effective. When using Kwikfish, wrapping them with a herring or sardine fillet is a good idea. If you find a narrow chute, dropping anchor and backing down the plugs by hand can be productive. I've heard of anglers in higher, turbid water doing well by placing a Mack's Lure Hot Wing in front of their plugs for added attraction that won't throw off the action of the plug.
Finally, don't forget a float rod. There are numerous holes in which floating an egg or shrimp cocktail combo can be very effective. In holes where boats are pressuring the upper and middle sections, fish are often pushed into the lower, deeper portion of the hole. By dropping down below the traffic and running a float into the eye of the current or along the edges, you'll be fishing water that a large majority of anglers never spend time on.
In addition to bait fished beneath a float, jigs can also produce on this river. The peaches-and-cream Stuart Steelhead Bullet jig, in 1/8-ounce, has done very well for me over the years. Fish these in faster water, and along shallow, clear seams. These jigs are a good bet when fishing crossover water, where both salmon and steelhead move through.
One day in early June, I back-trolled plugs into a hole without a bite. I pulled over and drift-fished it with no results. Then I tied on the peaches-and-cream jig, and a buddy and I landed four springers in less than 30 minutes. Diversification pays off on this river, period.
Be resourceful and concentrate when fishing the McKenzie. Predict where fish will be and target those zones. The McKenzie is a small stream, and reading the water will allow you to catch more fish. At the same time, it's a clear river, meaning that boat traffic can force fish into different holding zones. If you're behind the crowd on a clear day, try fishing away from the main pathways, since fish will often nudge tighter to ledges, higher in riffles and lower in the deeper holes.
Twenty years ago I would never start fishing the McKenzie until the third week in May, but things have changed in recent years. "In the past two seasons, we've taken limits of fish the last week in April," says Stuart. "It's all just a matter of when they start making their way into the Columbia, then heading up the Willamette, over the Oregon City Falls."
The McKenzie spills into the Willamette River near Eugene. Once the salmon have passed Oregon City, it typically them takes an average of 11 days or so to make their way into the McKenzie, though this can vary depending on a variety of conditions.
Action on the McKenzie has been good into early July, with spurts of fresh fish making their way into the system into early August. Last season, Stuart was catching salmon all the way up to the mid-August closure.
Having fished the McKenzie for over 35 years, I may be a bit partial, for its beauty and the overall experience make this a Blue Ribbon fishery. As if the salmon weren't enough, excellent summer steelhead and world-class rainbow trout action mean
there's never a dull moment. Whenever I take someone down the McKenzie for their first time, I'm reminded just how special the river truly is. Not only is the environment captivating, the fishing will keep you coming back again and again.
(Editor's Note: Scott Haugen is the host of Wolf Creek Production's Classic Outdoor Stories on the Men's Channel. Visit www.scotthaugen.com to attain signed copies of his books, including Egg Cures: Proven Recipes & Techniques and Summer Steelhead Fishing Techniques.)