There is nothing in the world of fly fishing like drifting the Upper McKenzie River’s highest sections.
The traditional beautiful water clichés don’t apply to the Upper McKenzie River. Gin, crystal, jewel — these images imply sterility, when these waters are the exact opposite. The water does seem to glow and is incredibly clear, but beneath the surface the water roils with moss, insects, fish and current. It’s more like looking into the top of an aquarium.
This upper river allows you to enjoy the mechanics of fly fishing — the cast, the drag free drift — at its finest. You’ve got a short, stiff leader that turns over just like it’s supposed to, attached to an impossibly huge, foam body bug, the size of a ping pong ball.
You’re reading water, making rapid fire casts pockets against the banks, side-arming casts under tree limbs, and trying to keep a drag free drift as you slide down the river at eight miles per hour.
The fish that live here are cagey, acrobatic animals. You hook one just as your boat is about to plunge into a rapid. No time to play the fish, you take it down with you, over the falls and hope the confusion plays to your favor. It often does — I’ve never lost a fish I’ve played while tumbling through a rapid. They swim down to the next pool, and then bear down in the current, using the full force of the water rushing down from the Cascades against you, your fly line vibrating lin the current ike a guitar string, far below the surface.
And then the fish is in your hand. Not some oversized silvery minnow the color of an old quarter with bent fins and mushy mouth. This meaty football of a fish, this torpedo, has a huge dorsal fin, like a shark standing straight up. It’s spotted like a leopard and rippling with muscle.
These are the trout you’ve been looking for, wild native fish raised in fast water, co-evolved with salmon and bull trout. These fish eat big meals: Golden Stones, Green Drakes, Gray Drakes, October Caddis and short-wing stoneflies.
You can have the placid, crowded famous rivers of the Rocky Mountain west, with non-native fish and size 22 mayflies. Give me a drift boat in the Cascades, making split second decisions on where to cast, a stonefly the size of a Bic lighter clinging to the side of my face.
The rhythm of fishing a river this steep, running a Class Five rapid like Fish Ladder, is like riding a bull. Your legs are braced against the bow of the boat, rocking back and forth with the waves and the oarsman, trying to pull off casts and duck under sweeping branches. It’s a physical activity.
Bottom line: The Upper McKenzie is a pristine watershed with more excitedment, wild-ness, and action than you’ll find on a “Blue Ribbon” stream in Montana or Wyoming. You want to talk size? How about wild fish over 20″ on a regular basis? And what’s that sulking at the bottom of that pool? Is that 25lb fish a spawning Chinook salmon, bringing a mega-load of ocean nutrients into this system? Or is it a bull trout, apex predator, waiting to burst out of the pool to snatch that 12-inch trout off your line.
Big fish, big bugs, huge old growth trees, and wild rapids. It doesn’t get any better.
PS, Whitefish need love too: