Just Fishing the McKenzie River –
Chris Daughters, Matt Stansberry, and I had the good fortune of spending about three hours together on the McKenzie River. The morning had been our usual – work like crazy, multi-task, make decisions, accomplish tedious necessities, pause once in a while to laugh hysterically.” Then in the middle of the afternoon, we just went fishing. We parked my rig at the take-out, stopped by the Quickie Mart for a forbidden treat, and drove upriver.
Chris dumped his boat in the river, threw my waders and boots behind the oarsman’s seat, where they remained for the rest of the afternoon, and we drifted away from the pressures of the world. My cell phone was locked in the truck. I strung up a nifty new Echo 4-weight Switch Rod with an Airflo #6 40+ line, grinned at Chris, and dangled the end of my fly line where he could reach it. Chris, being a perfect gentleman, rigged me with leader, indicator, and flies. I fished in street shoes, no Polaroid glasses, and nary a tippet, nipper or hook hone in my pocket.
We drifted downriver, drifting our nymphs through little buckets and along fishy-looking seams where Chris guided us. “Make your next cast a little closer to the foam line,” Chris coached, or, “try running one three feet off the oar tip.”
The sun was shining. No wind. We were seemed the only party fishing that afternoon. The Switch Rod was an absolute pleasure to fish. We chattered like squirrels as we rode the river’s flow. We explored deep and trivial topics. Mostly trivial. Matt offered elk steak sandwiches. I removed the cheese (which someone else promptly ate) and pretended I didn’t notice the mayonnaise. Yum. Bud Light and 7-Up for me, classy Micro Brews for Matt.
We caught fish; this in spite of our low level of concentration and penchant to jabber on and on about McKenzie River alternate futures, fish biology, people, and such. Two trout, surprisingly, were holdover hatchery fish, remnants of last year’s fishery subsidy.
Twenty years ago, we would have caught at least a dozen or so wild native whitefish on a day like this. This day, though, we caught only one. We babbled about how old these fish can be (ten to fifteen years), how rarely we see little baby whitefish in the river (true, it’s rare to catch or see Whitefish under ten or twelve inches); how they grow little after they first spawn at about age 4 or 5; noted that they spawn in fall by just spewing eggs over gravel without digging redds like trout (the term is broadcast spawning); and speculated about why Whitefish populations have nose-dived in our lifetimes (wondering if they are an environmental warning sign).
We regretted the short sightedness of trout fishing fixation that allowed so much time to go by while native Mountain Whitefish have slipped into near oblivion. Then we dug ourselves for not knowing more about Pacific lamprey, same deal, and shortly went back to yammering about the river habitats most likely limiting Redsides and cutthroat. Just couldn’t help ourselves, I think.
The sole cutthroat of the afternoon was a post-spawning male of about 12”; all shiny and jumping around in classic slow-moving cutthroat water, showing off his I’m-a-guy sloped forehead. We wondered if most of the cutthroat were still up in tributaries, and whether cutthroat numbers in the main-stem McKenzie would jump when they returned from their overwinter spawning areas. Not knowing for sure, we decided we were right, and launched off into a preaching-to-the-choir sermon about how important it is to protect these tributary habitats where cutthroat overwinter spawn, and grow for a year or two before they drop into the mainstem.
One fish we released was a 12” wild Redside female, a sexually immature fish. She was probably a three-year old and was missing a maxillary bone, evidence of a previous tussle with an angler in some past season.
Late in the drift, we all watched a decisive “bobber down,” and in unison, we set the hook. Like sports announcers, we conducted a play-by-play, line peeling off the reel, wondering if we had intercepted a post-spawning summer steelhead. Nope. This was a wild female Redside, quite possibly an honest 18”. Who cares. This hen fish was strong and deliberate , clearly the fish of the day, and certainly among the finest fish any of us could hope to see all season. We admired the tiny little spots tucked along the upper edge of her great gold-ringed eye; four huge dark spots on her nearly translucent, olive adipose fin; and that Redside stripe painted across her opercle and the full length of her lateral line to her tail.
This female was most likely five or six years old. We paused to reflect. Five or six years escaping predators, seeking shelter during floods, avoiding or enduring angler’s hooks, and finding sufficient food to sustain her eggs and pass a genetic message to the next generation of wild Redsides. Wow. Her vent wasn’t distended yet, and we guessed that she was still at least a month away from spawning.
Our day was one of those frequent gifts we enjoy, probably taken too much for granted. We floated this river within a few miles of two-hundred-thousand people, give or take a few. Our heads were filled with river sounds. We were buoyed by clean, clear water. We caught honest-to-goodness wild, native trout. We told each other stories about how people fished these same pools a hundred years ago.
In February, 2010, we still found wild fish here.
A wet fly swung on a tight line near the takeout rose a big trout. A second presentation brought a big boil, brief tension in the fly line, and then nothing but the river’s pull. A parting river-gift.
Thanks, Chris and Matt. Thank you, McKenzie River. Thank you, wild trout. Thank you, all who are working to keep the McKenzie River a place where our kids and their kids can go to experience a beautiful living river and all the creatures it can nurture.
And goodnight Moon.