McKenzie Head Waters
Updated: Oct 12, 2021
One evening while coming home from dinner in town, we were greeted with a note on our cabin door. It stated that at "time X" the power would be shut off 'till some time way past dawn. The reasoning was some long overdue power line work. So we began to prepare for a black out... juicing phones, looking for a candle, etc. Sure enough, when the big hand hit the twelve, it was lights out. No candles surfaced so it was bed time. The only heat source for our moss-laden river cabin was electric. Oh snap– My wife fell right to sleep while I laid next to her waiting to hear last night's caddis party-goers going for round two. I even cracked a window against her wishes to hear the river and eavesdrop on an insect orgy. The water was orchestrating a symphony, the apples were still falling on the roof and, no orgy. Then the rain started. It came down hard– not like in the Rockies where it will pass through. This rain wouldn’t let up and it drowned out the river. I woke to see my breath and remembered what it was like to grow up in a farmhouse in Northern California built in the 1860’s. It was a damp cold so I scurried to make coffee and checked the note again on when the power would be back on. I had an hour left 'till I could use the kitchen light -Damn- My wife had a great idea to go check out the headwaters above the dam. She mapped some hiking trails and also made sure to locate fishy water. We headed out in our rental car up river.... still raining. This is Oregon, it always rains...right? Winding narrow road past the dam and lots of downed timber accompanied by ferns everywhere. I’m so accustomed to Spruce and Aspen that seeing different foliage was a treat. We found our trailhead and grabbed our packs along with our rain jackets and headed off. Unfortunately, our trail was a bust but we found a closed campground to wander through that backed up to the river. It was nice to be in hiking mode and just taking it in as it came. There was a turnout just down the road a bit that was close to the river... my fish brain clicked in. We ditched the car and I strung up my 4wt LL with my Ross click & paw. We began to scout this stretch, all the while I had that open, curious feeling of fresh water. It could be a total bust. There could be some hermit camp, or even better, some satanic cult compound that we stumble into. You know... in introduction: this is my brother Daryl and my other brother Daryl. Lucky enough we were alone and not much trace of human anything at the river's edge. I walked in at the bottom of a nice flat run that split in two fast water sections below. Just above the flat water it narrowed into a nice bend and went out of sight. I walked the entire stretch up around the bend and found it to be a bouldery pocket water with a tight foliage canopy. This would be the spot to dry fly if I had some indication of insects. It had been raining quite some time and there would be some sort of hatch, one would think. I backed down to the top of the flat water and tried a size 18 elk hair caddis. The idea was to drift into the top of the flat, then skate out into the open water. Five casts later without even a look at my presentation, I retreated further down into the flat water. I found a little bank with a Maple hanging over in deep autumn red. The tree was great but I had to roll cast as not to hang fly Christmas ornaments on it. Still not one look or even a reveal of my opponent. So move on down. I don’t really like working water this way (downstream as opposed to upstream) so I changed it up and moved back down to where I first walked in. The water was gin clear and flowing at a good pace so I didn’t pause to wade to the other side despite its current. Now on the far bank I could properly assess the lower section of the flat area that now looked like a very tasty pool and very accessible. The LL will cast weighted nymphs well but it really performs as a dry fly rig and if need be you can launch beautiful presentations at quite the distance. This is the spot... lower, middle and if I double haul I can make the top section where I first started. I kept the elk hair on and added a size 20 pheasant tail wet fly about 24” down. So now I could check for subsurface interest. First cast 5 yards up to the right along the bank- nothing. A few more just up maybe 10 and now 15 yards up- nothing. Okay now same process up the middle- nothing. Before moving to the left side of the pool, I aimed for the top of the pool with two false casts and double hauling, I made it. Beautiful, straight line, pause while the flies laid out, then softly landed on the surface together before the nymph slipped under. That was so nice... even I’d eat that. But no, I couldn’t even wake the dead. So I targeted the left bank, it doesn’t shallow out like the other side, it just pours into the fast run that I waded across. So now I had to watch my drift and try not to drag it as the water speed picked up... Keep a nice mending loop available and dead drift this rig the entire way. This time my plan was to cast to the top and drift the entire left stretch so, with a couple false casts, I landed in the slot I wanted. Another banner cast and soft touch down, within seconds, the elk hair went under. Setting the hook, I felt the take and it pulled the line from my fingers. The click & paw began to speak, then sing. The fish didn’t have much more room to travel up river so I palmed my reel to slow it down. I was dreading a U turn with 20 plus yards of line out, but of course it swung around and headed straight for me. Trying to guide the feisty fish to my right and take up my line, he got ahead of me and I thought he’d gotten off. Rod tip up, I was searching for a sign. At first nothing I guessed, and then the response of him darting left and heading down river in the fast lane. I think of the habits of fish and where I catch them to be generally where they mostly live and stay. Browns, for instance, mostly don’t travel too far that I’ve observed and like their lair. The fish I had on wasn’t old and wasn’t extremely large. Probably 10-15 inches and younger. I was guessing at this based on our fight. So here’s what’s going to go down. He’s young and not the biggest in the pool so instead of hanging in the deepest part of the water and sulking 'till it’s over, he’s going to go for it, run all over and maybe just head down the run in the fast water. I was able to get better control of him and didn’t have a ton of line on the ground and all over my feet and I was prepared to follow down river. Odds are quickly changing in his favor now. Too many factors on my end that if I didn’t get right, he’d break off or get snagged or worse... so worn out that I couldn’t revive him and then I’m the asshole who encouraged the game that killed him.
He flew past me as I fought the willows and the cobble. The run was too long to let him go and then catch up in the next pool. With the current and his fight against me, my line went free. It was over and done. I swore like a sailor gathering up my line and assessing myself and gear that hopefully I didn’t lose to the willows. My flies were intact, shockingly, and thankfully all that had gone wrong was a straightened out size 20 pheasant tail hook. Hopefully no harm. And yes it was still raining.