Updated: Oct 12, 2021
It's early autumn and I had the urge to explore new water. The thought of going north was enticing, something like Wyoming or Idaho but even the idea of a total landscape change sparked and fueled the search to look further.
With my wife being the research guru, I gave over the reigns and just let go. Within a day or so my phone blew up with a place and plan. She’s awesome at this sort of thing and while finishing work up for the day, I couldn’t get the images and ideas out of my head.
She found a spot in central Oregon on the McKenzie river. The place to stay was an Airb&b on the river and the owner who also lived on the property was a float guide. Okay... this doesn’t suck. She gave me his number to set up a float trip and to get intel on what flies to tie up. Buckets of October caddis was on the menu.
Coming from altitude and a dryer climate, sea level, moss laden and rainy seemed just fine with me. I grew up in a costal climate so maybe a little homecoming was in order?
We landed in Portland and headed south on 5. West coast traffic and rush hour environments, I do not miss. Once we punched through the bubble we could exhale and the journey was on.
Eugene was our marker to head east through the river valley. Four lanes quickly became two and we were on black top in tandem with the river. The drudgery of travel vaporized and the fish brain engaged.
Autumn was revealing itself. The broadleaf and moss laden conifers grew larger the farther we traveled up river. The McKenzie is a large river and is home to the “red sides”– a wild rainbow that is truly blush red, not your silver hatchery bows. It’s also where a rainbow can decide to travel out to sea, triple its size and come back a mighty chrome steelhead. Also, let’s not forget about the spawning salmon that haunt this river. Again, my fish brain... engaged.
Finding the place reminded me of party hunting in my late teens out in Guerneville, Cazadero or Camp Meeker out in the redwoods and nowhere-ville of Northern California! Side note: I once rolled my 1966 VW bus out there doing this. It was totaled.
Meeting up with the owner, he divulged to me about his injured shoulder and how he had to back out on our float trip. This would have been the first time in a real McKenzie River dory. The original drift boat (as I was told)! I’ve only ever floated the Animas and the Juan. Damn–
But what saved him from having to spend money on dental work after hearing this news, was that he let me wade fish his private stretch of the river just off of our porch. It was too late to book a float trip with the local fly shop, Caddis Fly Shop, in Eugene. So be it... I would wade fish.
You know it’s early autumn when the apple tree behind the back porch is dropping apples on the roof of your cabin all through the night. Thud-roll-plop, over and over again. I was in bed listening to this all night and thinking what a perfect place to be if I was a bear. I know this isn’t Durango where bears walk though Sonic at night and don’t care if they are in your way. But still I had to turn on the porch light just to satisfy my curiosity or bear sense.
As I went to turn on the light, I heard it first when I approached the French doors... "tap tap tap tap". I then saw it when I caught the moonlight off the river. It was confirmed when I turned on the outside light– a massive October caddis hatch was in full swing. Swarms of yellowish, horny insects dive bombing into the orgy under the apple tree and on the French doors. The porch light just amplified the caddis gangbang like cocaine at a disco.... I guess? Never been, before my time thankfully.
Back in bed, I grinned. Not about the insect sex but about what was loaded in the fly box.
Dawn patrol revealed last nights party-goers littered everywhere and no signs of bear scat. I rigged up and found a spot to slip into the river. On the bank, I spotted a shallow section in the middle followed by the main channel on the far bank... perfect. Right off the bank, it was deep. Actually, it was a cut bank with a large salmon holding right under foot. It scared the shit out of me to see a three-foot torpedo dart out of nowhere. When the salmon are spawning, they are off limits. I respect that and felt thankful to have had the encounter.
When I finally made it to the shallow section in the middle about 25 yards out, I was able to size up the area. I had about 20 yards up river on this shallow bar... a slow gradual slope to the main channel. Downstream from the main channel, it narrowed into a fast run. I had spent some time working this upper section of flat water and moved down into the run later. Mind you, I didn’t bring a spey rod to swing for chrome. All I had was my 5 wt X standard issue Rocky Mountain rig and my 4 wt LL dry fly rig. I twisted on a wet fly October caddis and a bead head pheasant tail on the bottom. I was nymphing.
The far bank was gorgeous. Broadleafs in yellows and a few oranges right to the water. It was a nice shaded stretch. If I was a fish... that’s where I’d be and sure enough, after a couple false casts for distance, I shot and drifted through the spot. The drift was faster than I anticipated, so the line adjustment happened fast. Within moments, my indicator tapped and disappeared darting up river. I let it run for a bit before applying the brakes with my palm. It was a good fight upstream and, finally succumbing, I was able to net my first Redside. She was a healthy hen and a beautiful wild fish.
I worked this stretch for a while longer and I played with a few size 14 squirrel leaches just for a response. Taking advantage of the large flat section below me, I swung and had a few good taps before any fish totally committed. It was the same deal– beautiful Red Sides, all about the 15” range.
I guess not many people wade this section of the river. While working the flat section, about a half dozen dories came by. When I could, I would get out of the way or communicate with the guide on their direction. Everyone was cheerful and nice. There were a few comments and questions about how the hell I got out there, if I saw any steelhead and, my favorite was, “aren’t you freezing?” Which I responded with: "this is bathtub water! I’m used to Rocky Mountain rivers– pure snowmelt."
So I left my gravel shelf and ventured down to the run. I made the bottom while inspecting possible spots on the way. The middle was pretty intense and fast. But I did notice along my side of the bank was a continuous seam. So, re-rigging back to my party-goers, the October Caddis, but this time doing a “drop shot” style. Instead of the nymph bouncing off of the bottom, the shot would and it would put the nymph in the feeding zone of the seam from fast water and slow. Short casts and dead drifting right in that seam paid off. They were stacked up the entire stretch. After the take, the trick was to keep the players out of the raging current without blowing the entire bank. I had a 9 ft leader with 24” tippet, the nymph and then another 24” down to the shot, so my casts were about 14ft out. High sticking.
When I came to the top of the run I sat down for a bit. I wanted to reconnect with the surroundings. I felt like I had been on a blitzkrieg. Late afternoon was setting in and now the broadleafs were back lit. The golds and ambers were amplified by the setting sun and the shadows stretched over the water. The nip in the air returned and so did the humidity. It wasn't Florida humidity, but a reminder of how close I was to the coast. The sun was now gone along with its warmth and the damp cool down was approaching quickly. I could feel it in my hands and I caught sight of my exhaling breath. I had one last spot to hit if I wanted to or I could just walk out calling it a day. The walk back would end with a lengthy wade before the bank and I knew of a few large rocks that could dunk me if I rushed it.
I postponed my exit to try the top of the run. I would actually cast into the flat water and drift into that seam if I could, just to see if anything lurked in the convergent zone. I stripped out a good chunk of line before getting my fly into the air. This would have to be a long cast to get it set up right. Three false casts with a double haul and launch. The landing was too far outside and into the fast water. With copious amounts of line out and scrabbling to retrieve it all in before it all got sucked down the run was a disaster. I spent the next couple of minutes gathering my line back to a reasonable length before setting up the next cast. Again, a couple of false casts with a double haul and launch. Finally, I got the spot and the drift while struggling to keep sight on my indicator in the dimming light. While I was tightening up on my line, I felt the hit. I tried to determined if it was a rock or fish, but then the line took off up into the flat water. That "rip" sound when you lift your line out of the water was still resonating in my head, but now I had to move up river to follow. The new sound to replace it was me and my spikes scraping and tripping over cobble while trying to palm my reel, all without busting my ass or cracking my skull on the rocks.
The fish was confidently hooked so I could lessen that stress and focus on finding the gravel bar I was on earlier. That was the plan anyways. He was not deviating from going straight up river so it gave me time to find my spot and keep a slight tension on the line. Then he sulked and surrendered. I got further into the water as an act of truce while taking up line to bring him into the net. At this point, I could barely see into the darkness to scoop him up, and as I did, I felt my line go free... barbless hooks. I could tell he was a nice buck in what light I had. As I lowered my net into the current, getting prepared to revive him, he swam out of it and paused next to me, slowly moving with the flow of the river. We stared at each other for what seemed like more than a while. And then, off he disappeared.