McKenzie River Memories: Prince Helfrich

Sometime in the summer of 1966, quite possibly in May, I met a man fishing the Metolius River.  We were there anticipating big rainbow and browns acting recklessly during a mid-day Green Drake hatch, poking our way around great blue-green pools in the river canyon upstream from the hatchery at Wizard Falls.  The weather was perfect for Green Drakes – cloudy and warm – but the bugs weren’t popping like we had hoped.  Not many people fished that stretch of water in the 60s.  Most just walked the trail from Canyon Creek to the hatchery for the beauty of the scenery, for exercise, or to make a few casts along the way.

We met on the trail, exchanged a few pleasantries, and recognized that we were kindred spirits.  We sat under a great Ponderosa near the river and shared river stories.  We both knew many of the good fishing places up in the canyon.  He knew the Metolius through the lens of many decades; I knew the River through four whole summers.  We had both experienced good fishing and caught a few big trout during exceptional hatches.  I was 17 something and I guessed that this man was in his 60s.  At my young age, it was difficult to say, so he could well have been younger or older.  Soft spoken, smart, loved to fly fish.

We showed off our fly boxes, holding up the flies we had the greatest confidence in.  I remember one of his flies, about a size #10, tied on a long shank hook.  The fly had a gray body and palmered brown hackle.  It looked much like a fly we would now call a Stimulator.  Prince told me it fished well during the McKenzie Caddis hatch, a phenomenon I knew nothing about.   He expressed special interested in the Parachute flies I showed him.  We exchanged a few flies and I asked for his address, so I could send him some more.

Prince Helfrich, Vida, Oregon.

I tied up several dozen parachutes and shipped them off to Prince.  No Zip Codes back then.  Telephones were black, had cords, and rotary dials.  Jimi Hendrix was a kid practicing for a concert at Woodstock that was three years off.

Months later, Prince wrote to say that my Parachute flies had been the best he had ever fished.  Ever. He related a story about how he had broken a leader tippet with his fly on a rock, then watched as the fly drifted  downriver, promptly gulped by a big trout.  That was on one of the BC Rivers he fished.  I barely understood that Prince was a fly fishing guide of the highest caliber.  World class.  After all, I was an inexperienced punk teenager.

Prince’s letter was handwritten. Cursive writing of the sort one rarely sees these days, what with e-mail and the electronic gizmos we use to communicate.  Today, he might have called me on his satellite phone.  Not then.

Prince sent me a packet of tapered trout leaders.  These were hand tied, and the material was dyed a dark green color I can still see in my mind today, more than 40 years later.  Prince invited me to fish the McKenzie with him one day the following season, and I accepted.  I had no idea whatsoever what I was going to experience.

I drove down to meet him at a take-out below Martin’s Rapids.  I think the place is known as Helfrich landing now.  Prince’s wife drove shuttle for us.  We put the boat in the McKenzie somewhere upstream and fished our way down.  The day was sunny and warm.  It could well have been June.  I remember how effortlessly he maneuvered his green wood drift boat through rapids and around rocks.  I was focused intently on fishing that day.  Too intently to appreciate the gift of spending the day on the river with him.  My fly rod was a 6’, 6 wt. Phillipson, equipped with a Pflueger Medalist 1494 and an Ivory Scientific Anglers Air Cell Supreme line.

We  fished only dry flies. I should say, to be precise, that only I  fished dry flies.  Prince didn’t fish; he guided me down the river and we talked. The fishing was a little on the slow side, he told me, but there were enough trout taking bugs on the surface to keep me busy.   I don’t remember how many were hatchery fish and how many were wild.  I killed some trout and released some.  I’m pretty sure Prince suggested politely that I should release the larger fish.

Prince pulled his boat ashore on an island about midway through our day’s run.  Out from under the seat sprang a well-used fry pan, a small fire flashed to life in a rock circle in the sand, and we were shortly enjoying  a lunch that featured my morning’s catch.  We sat in broken shade of the island’s trees, the river close by.  I can’t remember what we talked about.  I do know that I wasn’t much of a listener at that age.

There is so much I wish I had understood then, so many questions I wish I had asked him – questions about McKenzie trout, the history of the river, and his life.  Especially about his life.  But I was pretty much a dumb-shit back then.  Sadly, the greatness, the possibilities of that day were lost to my ignorance and youth.

I remember seeing a great trout feeding in a pocket in deep, treacherous water.  This trout was undoubtedly a big Redside.  We both saw the fish rise several times as we approached.  Prince worked expertly to maneuver the boat within casting distance.  It was going to require a looooong cast with my silly little rod and inexperienced skill-set.  The boat came into range, for a moment, I stripped one more length of line off the reel to make the cast, and the reel fell off the rod, plunging into the river.  Prince was trying to hold the boat in position for me to execute the cast to this fish, no easy feat, and couldn’t figure out what I was doing and why I hadn’t given the fish a chance to eat my fly.  Then he saw me hand-over-hand trying to retrieve fly line faster than it was spooling off my now deep-in-the-river fly reel.  He laughed, I shrieked, and the moment passed as we drifted out of reach from that green-backed, red-stripe sided trout.

Near the day’s end, Prince invited me to go to work for him as a “boatman and river guide”. I said I would consider it.  I had no idea what a high compliment that job offer was.  An honor.  Weeks later, I wrote to Prince and declined.  I needed to stay in College, I told him.  I was in Navy ROTC, I told him.  I was going to be a scientist, or something like that, I told him.  It was over four decades ago, but I think I remember, also, being afraid that I might not have the right stuff to be a river boatman of his skill.  I think I remember being afraid that I might not measure up to the demands of the work, not even beginning to comprehend what it takes to be a full time professional fly fishing guide.

I continued to send Prince a few dozen Parachute flies every spring while I was at OSU as an undergrad.  When June of 1971 rolled around, instead of fishing the Metolius, Siletz, or McKenzie, I was called to active duty in the Navy – a young officer in Dress Whites assigned to a Destroyer out of Norfolk, Virginia.  I think we exchanged a few letters after my return to Oregon.  I wish I had saved his letters.  There is much I wish I had done differently in my life back then.  Years later, I learned that the Helfrich family name was recognized and respected across the Pacific Northwest and beyond. 

Still is.

A road not taken.

JN

11 thoughts on “McKenzie River Memories: Prince Helfrich

  1. Wonderful story, Jay. I think you have passed on the mission many times over with your involvement, your blog, and your posts on the caddisfly blog.

    I have learned a ton from you as a new fly guy, but a similar age fisher-folk.

    Bless you.

    Rick

    1. Rick: it’s like the gentleman said in Karate Kid: no matter how much one may know about fly fishing, there is someone who knows more. We are both learning together, making our way on the path to enlightenment as men and as fishers. Thank you so much for the goodwill you bring to our circle of friends. JN

  2. You can read more about Prince in “The Creel:McKenzie River” published by the Flyfishers Club of Oregon, a delightful glimpse into a great river and those who have loved it.

    Thanks for yet another great story Jay.

    1. Hey Joe, thanks for the suggestion. How could I go about getting this material? Is it published as a periodical or a book? Glad you find some of my ramblings entertaining? Sounds like we should have coffee some day. JN

      1. Yes indeed on all counts! Corvallis Public Library has a copy, and it looks like one can also purchase it from the Amato books website (amatobooks.com; search McKenzie). Filled with great old photos of early driftboats, stories of the early guides, etc.
        Coffee? Absolutely.

  3. Thank you very much for the story on my grandfather. Unfortunately, he passed away when I was 5 and I did not get a chance to really know him.

    If you are in the McKenzie area, we are having some great march brown hatches in the afternoon. It would be my pleasure to take you out for an afternoon.

    aaron@helfrich.com

    1. Aaron – really appreciate the kind offer and will definitely take you up on some river time. It will be wonderful to continue the family acquaintance, share memories and make plans for the future.
      JN

  4. Jay,

    Thank you for a heart felt exposition! I too, share fond memories of Prince and the influence he and many others of his kind had on shaping the values of my life.

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