When I lived in Eugene, the McKenzie River is the "norm" for fly fishing. Now that I am in Portland, I realize two things......the norm for fly fishing in Portland is the Lower Deschutes, and also most people who come into Kaufmann Streamborn do not know how good the McKenzie River is for trout. One of the other variables is that many anglers who have fished the McKenzie River have a skewed outlook on the river. Most people think the river has only small fish, or only has hatchery trout stocked in it.
The reality is that the McKenzie River shines hard in the springtime. If an angler only fished the Lower McKenzie in the spring and fall; they may have the impression that the McKenzie River is a trophy trout fishery. So how come so many anglers feel that the McKenzie River is a "dink" fishery, or it is a fishery choked with planted hatchery rainbows? Well most anglers visit the McKenzie River at the wrong times.
They tend to visit the McKenzie in July and August and the best fishing opportunities of the year for the lower McKenzie tend to be from late February through the first quarter of June, and then from mid September through the very beginning of November. During July and August, you have the possibility of heat spells, there is not much hatching compared to the spring and fall, except for right at dark, and many of the areas of the river are planted heavily with hatchery trout. The wild fish only sections on the lower river are in the "summer doldrums mode"; meaning that the fish are hunkered down and they are not looking up, while water levels are low and the water temperatures are slightly up.
Fishing the McKenzie can be all or none too. If you have the right setup going; you can catch so many fish in a day, to the point where it could be when you take 10 casts and catch fish on every other cast or even better at times. If you do not have the right bugs on, then you may only catch a dink all day. Being a former fly shop owner (The McKenzie Angler), and living down in Eugene for 16 years, I can honestly say that it is a simple river to fish, but you have to know where to fish, and you have to know what to do in the spots that hold the fish. Also contrary to the reputation, the McKenzie is not productive as a dry fly fishery. You have moments where dries work amazingly, but generally the McKenzie is an awesome wet fly and nymph fishery. When the green caddis come off, or the March Browns are sailing down the current seams, the fish will come up and start gorging, but you will still catch more swinging wets to those same rising fish.
Techniques For McKenzie Trout:
Nymph Fishing: The McKenzie shines hard in the early spring and late winter on certain beadhead nymphs. The possie bugger nymph is hands down the best fly for subsurface dead drift fly fishing on the McKenzie. A number 8-10 is perfect for nymphing, and 12s and 14s are great too. If you asked several of the most accomplished McKenzie anglers what the best fly on the river is, and the answer would be the possie bugger. You can fish two flies on the McKenzie; so why not put another nymph in line with the possie bugger.
There are many options you can go with for a second fly to combine with the possie bugger, and the mega prince is a close contender. Also using a golden stone nymph will be very productive at times; so why not put a golden stone off of the strike indicator and then have a possie bugger 12"-14" off of the stone. Notice how large the flies are that I am mentioning. You can try out a size 18 pheasant tail, but why do that, when you can catch them more effectively on a size 10 possie bugger. In the colder months, the trout want the biggest bang for their buck, and so expending a lot of energy to intercept a size 18 nymph is not as worth their effort compared to the rewards that they will get off of a large bug like a size 10 possie bugger. The McKenzie is not considered to be an insect rich fishery like a tailwater; so there will not be so many smaller bugs to feed upon, and their diet consists of larger bugs (typical of a freestone stream).
The Wet fly Swing: This is by far the most productive way to fish on the McKenzie River when the fish are looking up. It is also a way to rope into the largest fish the river has to offer. This technique is just like the classic wet fly swing that steelheaders do to catch their quarry; where you cast 45 degrees downstream, and you let your flies swing across the current until they hang straight below you. Sometime during that tightline swing, the trout will follow the flies across and they will intercept them. The line gets ripped tight, and the fish is on! That simple. Problems with this technique occur when angler set hooks when the grab is happening. This technique involves no hook set, and an angler not setting the hook will outfish anglers who are trigger happy and want to swipe on every little tick. Also many anglers do not understand the concept that the fish are eating the flies up in the surface film. Many times when I am guiding out there, I am harping on the anglers to cast 45 degrees downstream because they keep on casting straight perpendicular to the bank. They will say they are trying to get the flies down, but the technique works on the flies swinging across, and not by getting the flies down.
When choosing flies for the wet fly swing, it is a bit more complex than choosing beadheads for the McKenzie. During the March Brown hatch, you can fish hare's ear softhackles, dark cahill wets, march brown wets, and a few more. During the pmd hatches, you can fish yellow softhackles, or light cahill wets. When the green caddis hatch is on, you can fish a large green caddis wet pattern, and you will get some serious grabs. Fishing with two wets can be deadly, and it can also speed up cracking the code of what the fish are looking for. When I am guiding, I will set up four different wet flies between two rods. Each fish caught lets you know what fly is being taken the most, and you can then adjust the flies on the rods to increase your catching. Also don't forget the old school attractor wets! A Royal Coachman wet can be hands down the number one fish catching pattern on a given day, and you pretty much have to tie many of these traditional attractors (since many of them are not commercially available). I have had days where you would not catch more than a few fish all day if you were not using a Royal Coachman wet, but with it on, you are having an "all time day" on the water.
Dry Fly Fishing: I mentioned earlier that the McKenzie is not a productive dry fly fishery, but that is a slightly harsh statement. The McKenzie is a wonderful dry fly fishery, but if you only fish dries; you are going to be missing out on a huge percentage of the action the river has to offer. For instance, if you want to experience the March Brown hatch, and you only plan on fishing with dry flies; you will have an outlook that the hatch is overrated. If you swing wets and nymph throughout the day and you patiently wait for the hatch to develop, you will do much better. Don't fish dry flies blindly during the March Brown hatch, and only put a dry on when the fish are feeding fast and furiously, and you can target specific rising fish.
The same goes for when you see a pale morning dun mayfly hatch. You can see bugs all over the water, but if you do not see fish actively feeding on the surface, then stick with a swung wet fly. The larger green caddis that come off in the late spring can be fished blindly, but you still will not outperform someone who is swinging green caddis wet flies in the surface film.
Basically in regards to McKenzie River dry fly fishing; you should fish dries when the fish feeding hot and heavily on the surface. Fish dries when you see fish feeding in a rhythm that allows you as an angler to target specific trout; so you are not blindly casting around and catching a fish would be like finding a needle in a haystack. You'll know when you should switch to a dry fly if you go into it with the attitude of patience, and waiting until the hatch develops to a level where the trout will not be able to resist your offering.
Dry Fly With A Dropper Nymph: This is a super common technique when water levels come down to low flows and the fish are starting to look up more (mid may on). Typically when the larger green caddis are hatching in full force. Fishing with a larger buoyant dry fly with a dropper nymph like a size 10-14 possie bugger will take fish all day long, and you will notice that you will typically get about 4-1 ratio of fish caught subsurface to on the surface. Fishing a dry dropper is great way to scan over water, and see if anything is interested during times when it is hard to decipher what is going on (non hatch times).
The setup can be done two ways, but the way that I prefer to set it up is to tie your beadhead nymph on the end of your 9' tapered leader. Then about 3 feet up, cut the leader and blood knot it back together. Then take about 6" of 2x tippet and tie a loop onto one end (surgeon's or prefection loop). Loop (tag through the loop attachment) on the small piece of 2x tippet onto the leader and slide it down to the blood knot. The blood knot serves as a blocker from allowing the small 2x piece from sliding down. Tie your large dry fly onto the 2x piece, and it should be about 3-5" off of the leader. Your dry fly will be dangling (right angled off the leader) and the distance is about 3 feet in between the flies.
Featured Hatches - Lower McKenzie River Late February through Early June
Blue Winged Olives: They are hatching through the winter and they will fade out in their frequency and numbers around the end of March. Fish can be interested in these small mayflies, but they need to be hatching in large numbers. Swinging wets if most productive for this bug when it is hatching, and sometimes you will get a significant feeding session from the trout.
March Brown Mayfly Hatch: This is the first "T-Bone steak" hatch of the year for the trout after the winter. They are large light brown to tannish colored mayflies, and they will come off during the warmest portion of the day. Fish will be very keyed into this fly, and when they hatch hard, the river will light up with feeding rings all over. A great surface feeding session can be expected almost every day when this hatch is underway, but some days are long lived and other days offer a short 15-20 minute window of hatching and surface feeding. Awesome nymphing and wetfly fishing is abound during this hatch, and most of your high quality fish will come from below the surface or in the surface film.
Mother Day Caddis (Grannom Caddis): This is the thickest blanket hatch the river has to offer. There is a picture below shows how thick the hatch gets, and many times there are too many bugs out, and you will get the vibe that the fish are either too full, or they are simply not interested in your fly amongst the millions. Luckily this hatch coincides with the March Browns; so they will get the fish rising even if there are too many caddis on the water. There are always a few days when this caddis hatch makes for some banner memorable fishing days, and you can only get out there and fish to determine if the day that you choose will be one of them; so try this hatch out.
McKenzie Green Caddis Hatch: This is by far the most exciting fly to be fishing with on the McKenzie River. It is also the fly that seems to line up with the post spawn feeding frenzy that occurs each year. You have a large caddis fly that bounced and swims on the surface if the water. It fumbles and slithers on the surface when hatching and trying to dry off before a trout may intercept it. It then comes back to egg lay, and bounced and pounces on the surface to attempt its egg laying event. This fly can be fished dry or with a wet fly swing approach, and both methods get crushing takes. This fly can make for some memorable dry fly fishing events, and it also is a fly that every fish in the river gets very keyed into. You will rarely see one bounce on the water unnoticed.
Green Drake Hatch: This hatch comes off as the green caddis hatch is occurring, and it does not come off in volume on the Lower McKenzie. The upper McKenzie has a wonderful green drake hatch that peaks out in Mid-June, but the green drake hatch on the lower river is spotty, but the fish do not ignore these large dead drifting mayflies. You can swing wets for them, or you can dead drift dry flies for them. Generally if you acted like you never saw a green drake and you only fished with green caddis patterns; you would do just fine on the McKenzie. The fish are simply not that picky, but you do see large green drakes hatching here and there on the lower McKenzie River.
Pale Morning Dun Mayfly Hatch: These spring, summer, and fall mayflies are a staple of the trout's diet. They start to hatch just about as the March Brown hatch is waning down. They come off more or less every single day, and the weather typically dictates the volume of the hatch. When they come off in large numbers, the fish will eagerly feed on the surface for them. You can fish dries for these pale morning duns, but swinging a yellow softhackle will outfish any dry fly pattern. I have only seen maybe one or two occasions where a dry fly fisher would outfish a person swinging a yellow softhackle for the PMD hatch.
McKenzie River Fly Fishing Tips: Some tips for the visiting McKenzie flyfisher can be to fish drop offs where you can tell the river bottom transitions from a shallow shelf of maybe 12" deep to 3-5' off depth. If you see a drop off like that in a given flat/riffle, then you should be focusing your efforts on the shelf's drop off. McKenzie rainbows tend to sit on the heavy water seam with the slower water seam. When nymph fishing, most anglers tend to fish too deep off of their strike indicators; so try from 3-5 feet off when out there. Fishing with two wet flies produces more than fishing with one wet fly, and if your wet flies show a wake, you need to lengthen up your tippet or fish slower water. Fish in the McKenzie live and feed in water flowing from up to down stream. They do not hang out in eddies or lazy susan eddies like other rivers. They will not be in the small skinny water of rivers like in Montana or the Deschutes River. These are big water fish, and many anglers are shocked when a fish erupts onto the fly in whitecap bouncy choppy water.
Guided Trip Special:
We offer guided trips on the McKenzie River and we have some top notch guides that have tons of experience out there, and know more or less every boulder, log, drop off, and bend on the river. From now through March 5th at 5pm (closing time for Saturday 10-5), we are offering a special on guided trips for the McKenzie River. We are offering a "Prime Time of the Day" trip that runs for 6 hours of fly fishing on the McKenzie River from a driftboat. This trip is $350 for the best 6 hours of the day, and the trips typically run about 10am-4pm. You are on the water a few hours before the hatch starts up, and then you will fish through the hatch and then by the time the actions wanes, the boat ramp is around the corner. Prime Time on the water for top notch action!
You can fish from the boat on the McKenzie River; so all of you anglers who have trouble wading, this is the place for you. The McKenzie fishes more or less better than anywhere in Oregon on a day to day basis for the late winter/early spring fishing; so instead of waiting for the Deschutes to open; get out now and feel the tight line with a fish on the other end on the Lower McKenzie River. Why wait until the third Saturday in April to fly fish for trout, when you have wonderful trout fishing opportunities around an hour and a half away from Portland? Get out there now, and rope into some magnificent native wild trout.
If you are interested in booking a trip/s with us, then give us a call at (503)-639-6400 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.