Middle Fork Willamette Paradise, Umpqua Payoff


In anticipation of the Willamette’s spring run of steelhead and salmon, it seemed like high time to row the twenty-plus miles from Dexter to Eugene. By last Saturday, roughly a thousand spring chinook and another thousand summer steelhead had passed Willamette Falls. Friends had informed me that those fish only took a couple of weeks to start showing in Eugene. In fact a couple of steelhead had already been caught in town. It was time to scope out the river and identify the best Spey water.

My good friend and guide Adam McNamara came down for a couple of days of exploration. We launched on the East side of the river at Dexter Dam. Nancy’s Shuttle Service (541-684-4515) ran our shuttle down to town for the reasonable fee of $20–less than a dollar per river mile! It was her first time running a turnaround on that section, but she took good care of us, and soon we were shoving off. Immediately upon embarking, we noticed that the run at the dam was prime Spey water, so we pulled to the West bank and broke it into two sections. I went to the top, Adam fished the super-sweet lower half. Amazingly we were the only anglers on the West side. I’m told that is something of a miracle, and not to expect such an opportunity when the fish are in. But it swung like a hot Spey rod through butter. There were a few especially sexy spots, and every time the speed and draw of the fly felt right, a little yank told me there was a smolt on the line. It was smolt hell, actually.


From the dam, we stayed right around the first island. Looking at Google Maps the night before, it looked like the right channel carried the most water, and it was smooth sailing. Caddis and mayflies were hatching everywhere, and Adam hooked a number of small trout as we drifted. The first two miles of the float offered gorgeous trout water and pleasant scenery. Ever the king junkie, I made mental note of some prime springer holes, as well as a handful of nice Spey runs. One cutthroat kelt ate a giant Intruder, jumping like a steelhead and giving me a mild heart attack.


By Jasper, the road was following us on the East bank. We even had the opportunity to run into the Jasper Store for some fresh chicken wings and beer. From there things got pretty stupid, but we enjoyed the float, fished very little, and made lots of dopey comments like “this spot blows” or “hey, this one’s pretty sweet.” We stayed right at every major split, having bee advised that a tree was down somewhere in the left channel. Adam sized up every tight spot for its jet-boating potential, noting one tricky spot that might cut off his access. Awww, too bad! Light rain came and went throughout the day, bugs flittered all around us, and we had the sense that the Middle Fork was a slice of paradise on earth, especially back in the day, before dams cut off the river’s legendary spring salmon from their spawning beds.

Before we knew it we rounded a big bend and saw the train bridge above Island Park. Over twenty miles in just one short day! That was, by far, the most river miles I had ever covered in such a short time. Suddenly the water felt fishier. The runs were laid out for swinging, like a steelheading theme park. The reputation of the “Town Run” clicked into place. I had always liked the water from Island Park to Valley River, but seeing the whole river put it into context.


We finished the evening swinging all my favorite water through town, pulling the boat out as darkness fell. Adam couldn’t believe we were only five minutes from my house. I looked out at the twinkling water, reflecting the Springfield street lights, and a wave of anticipation came over me. Springers were on their way, and summer steelhead! Eugene was about to become a fly angler’s playground, and now I was ready.

The next day we trucked down to Elkton and ran a short section of the Umpqua. We swung over rolling kings in an especially nice Spey run. But no grabs. We fished it again–nothing. A big king shot straight out of the water in front of me as I made a cast. We tried going deeper, then deepest. No dice. I pulled out my salmon kryptonite, rowed to the top and made a pass with the Kwikies. The rod flattened out, and a perfect hatchery spring chinook kicked my butt for the next ten minutes. There’s chrome, and then there’s super-chrome. This fish was the latter. When it hit the beach, there was a goofy missed high five, and the sound of bottle caps popping. The sun came out, I sipped my beer, and thought for the umpteenth time “I’m so glad I moved to Eugene.”–Rob Russell


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