HOME WATERS – WEST
As a note of introduction, rivers in this part of the west flow big and swift. Even small tributaries carry two or three times the amount of water that an eastern stream might if given that they are both the same width. As an example Horse Creek feeds the McKenzie River about forty miles east of Eugene. It is about as wide as the West Branch of the Perkiomen near Bally, Pennsylvania or Schoharie near Westkill, New York but the volume in summer is easily three times higher than those other two streams. Care must be taken to even wade a stream of that size as you can easily get knocked off balance. Rivers like the Willamette, McKenzie or Santiam must be treated with the utmost respect and waded with exceptional care. Many fly fishers use drift boats in these rivers. I prefer to wade but I am not suicidal. Respect the flows out here if you fish in waders. A wading staff is a must.
* * * * *
The Willamette River is a part of a very large watershed that dissects much of western Oregon from Eugene up to Portland, flowing north in a broad agricultural valley. It officially begins where the Coast Fork and the Middle Fork meet, just east of Eugene. The Coast Fork rises in the Calapooya Mountains, a spur of elevation just to the west of the Cascades that divides the Umpqua and Willamette watersheds. The river is fed more by rain than by snow melt hence the dry season lowers the level more than the Middle Fork. The Cascade Mountain Range is a spine of volcanic peaks that bisect the wetter western Oregon landscape from the drier high desert of eastern Oregon. The highest peaks are over 10,000 feet in elevation. The Middle Fork receives both considerable rain and great volumes of snow from its headwater and tributary sources. The snow melt continues over the summer keeping the water volume relatively high and steady. The Row River adds to the volume of the Coast Fork at Cottage Grove and the North Fork of the Middle Fork (are you still with me?) adds flow to the Middle Fork at Westfir. This all adds up to a big river in Eugene and a bigger river when the Mckenzie adds its flow to the Willamette a few miles north of Eugene. The flows in summer can average between 3500 to 6,000 cfs in Harrisburg, a town fifteen miles north of Eugene. Winter flows can be more than triple those numbers. The best eastern comparison I could make for this segment of the Willamette would be the upper Delaware from Hancock to Callicoon after an all-day rain.
Fishing the Willamette can be both daunting and fun. Game fish include rainbow trout, coastal cutthroat trout, steelhead and salmon. The steelhead and salmon (coho and chinook) are anadromous species the vast majority of which are of hatchery origin for a complex set of reasons, primarily the presence of dams and past riparian stewardship practices involving forestry and agriculture. Coastal cutthroat are present throughout the system in their historic range down to the Willamette Falls near Oregon City. Seasonal warming causes them to move within the system to cooler water and reproduction occurs most often in smaller tributaries. Resident rainbow trout are present in the main river and can be found as far downstream as Corvallis when conditions permit but their numbers diminish as water warms in the heat of summer. Most of my fishing occurs on the main stem of the Willamette for a variety of reasons but the biggest is proximity. I can find very good fishing for rainbows and cutthroats within a ten minute drive of the house, in relatively secluded surroundings. The river holds the largest of the cutthroats I have come across and my personal best is seventeen inches but twenty inchers are present in the big water portion of the river below where the McKenzie enters the main river. Rainbow trout populate the same segment, but in slightly less numbers. I catch more of them in the early fall. I don’t fish for steelhead, but I have had four hook-ups so far while fishing for trout. They can be a lot of fun, but I can’t bring myself to target them exclusively. My brain can’t handle the thought of a thousand casts for one take. There are supposed to be ways to up your odds, but then you might find yourself addicted and start fishing in god forsaken places in damnation weather.MCKENZIE RIVER
* * * * *
Ah, the nationally famous McKenzie River, a riddle wrapped in an enigma. When I decided to move to Eugene I thought that there could be no better landing place than to be within casting distance of a renowned trout river, one noted for acrobatic redside wild rainbows. With such great fishing you might wonder why I only visit the stream two or three times a year. It all has to do with welfare queens. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife feels the great need to stock its 35 mile middle section with 130,000 fish per year. There is a long and convoluted history of why this happens going back to the 1950’s which I will address in another post. In any case there is a no stocking wild fish management section from Hendricks Bridge to the confluence with the Willamette and it is that section where I fish. Access is a hopscotch affair but there is sufficient public parks and boat ramps to get on the river. As long as the wader stays below the high water mark in this navigable river, access is guaranteed. Many fish the river in drift boats but I am not among them. When conditions are right, 15 to 17 inch hard fighting rainbows offer great fun. These of course are mixed in with other year class fish and coastal cutthroats mostly in the 8-12 range but a few larger can be caught.
Steelhead are supposedly not native to the McKenzie but the OFFW plants about 100,000 hatchery smolts a year that results in a summer run of 2000 to 3000 fish. There are some opinions that a wild fishery has established itself in the river, fish that have migrated past the Leaburg dam release point. I have a friend from Pennsylvania who visited a certain tributary of the McKenzie who spotted steelhead in October so there may be some truth. Spring Chinook salmon are present both as wild and hatchery fish. The wild fish must be released and the fin clipped hatchery program is operated as part of mitigation for the Army Corps of Engineer’s Cougar Dam located on the South Fork of the McKenzie. This is a popular fishery for the meat seekers, as is the hatchery steelhead program.
Bull trout are present in the upper McKenzie and in the South Fork above Cougar Dam. These are a protected species and must be released unharmed immediately if caught. Much to my pleasant surprise I caught a 9 inch bull trout near the mouth of the South Fork while trout fishing in the area. It was good to see a juvenile fish trying to make a living in that portion of the river. You can turn up whitefish in this river as well, but I have not encountered great numbers of them.
I actually only fish the McKenzie a handful of times a year, what with the middle section being overwhelmed with hatchery fish and the lower sections more heavily fished because of its closeness to urban centers. My tendency is to seek out the oft neglected portions of rivers and streams for both the discovery and the solitude. Sometimes it takes a little hiking and other times some bushwhacking but the rewards are there for those willing to make the effort.
The very upper reaches of the McKenzie are on public lands and access is much better, but boating is still a viable option and many anglers and white white enthusiasts crowd the upper sections near the popular campgrounds like Paradise. The river is fed by snow melt that rushes through volcanic formations which enrich the stream with minerals increasing the river's aquatic insect density and diversity. There is a lot to like about the McKenzie and I have a lot more of the river to explore.
* * * * *
The Row (sounds like cow) River is a branch of the Coast Fork of the Willamette. It’s headwaters begin at the juncture of Laying Creek and Brice Creek where it flows westward. It is then interrupted by the Dorena Reservoir, mixed warm water and cool water fishery. Trout are present all the way down to its confluence with the Coast Fork near the town of Cottage Grove. The upper reaches are rarely fished and hold mostly coastal cutthroats in the 6-10 inch range with some fish to 12 inches. Below the reservoir spillway there are some larger rainbows that make their way through the dam that were originally of hatchery origin. Closer to the town of Cottage Grove there is a park where access is pretty good. Hatchery salmon and a few steelhead are present in this section. I have turned up a place where 16-18 inch rainbows roam but spot burning would negate this fishery so let’s just say that if you spend time on this river you can have a lot of fun and turn up a nice fish or two. My first summer in Oregon I spent a lot of time on this river as it was small enough to wade like a lot of Pennsylvania creeks.
* * * * *