Typically, the spring season offers the best fishing of the year for wild cutthroats and rainbows on the lower McKenzie. This year, however, has been particularly wet, with rainfall far exceeding historical averages and many days with unseasonably cool temperatures. Over the last couple of months, the river has fluctuated in and out of shape, with some notable high water events. This is not to say that this spring has been without great trout fishing opportunities; whenever the McKenzie or Middle Fork Willamette have dropped into reasonable shape they have fished well, there have simply been a lot fewer fishable days this Spring than we usually get.
Many anglers don’t realize that the lower river can fish well over an extremely wide range of water levels; the McKenzie can produce well during the early season when the water is quite low, but good fishing can also be had when it is at 10,000 cubic feet per second or more. I talk to a lot of anglers who neglect to go fishing unless they think the river is at an ideal level. This year, waiting until things look perfect might mean not fishing until July. Trout need to feed whether the water is high or low, and good fishing can be had when the water is surprisingly high. It is true that high water severely limits wading access, but fishing from a drift boat allows you to get to where the fish are. There are, of course, extremes of high water that make the fishing very difficult, and rarely is the fishing very good when the flows are increasing dramatically, but I have had surprisingly good fishing over these last weeks at quite high water. The McKenzie is very resistant to turbidity; even when it is way up, it typically maintains a green color with several feet of visibility. The pictures in this report were taken on a day when the lower McKenzie was running between 9000 and 13500 cubic feet per second at Hayden Bridge.
On many days this spring, with water levels hovering well above average, finding some good angling opportunities has involved redefining what is “fishable.” The challenge is to identify where the fish are feeding given higher than average flows. When the water is up substantially, the spots that work well at lower flows will become too fast to hold fish. Identifying fishing spots that will produce given unfamiliar flows involves looking for areas with the same characteristics as your usual holes, however they will likely be in different physical locations. You will be looking for water with the right depth and speed: generally between 4 and 8 feet deep with a walking pace (anywhere from a slow amble to a somewhat more brisk speed). The water remains cold, and as a result, most of the fish have yet to transition into much faster lies. The best spots will often be a slow seam or a lane adjacent to a more major current, a transition from faster/shallower water into deeper/slower water, or a slow seam that extends through a pool.
With the water still fairly cold, the bulk of the big fish are coming on an indicator nymph rig with relatively big, rubber-legged flies on the terminal end. A stonefly and mega-prince combo has been hard to beat. The way I rig it is not substantially different than I would for lower water; maybe a touch longer and a little heavier, but remember, the best areas to fish are very similar to your lower water spots, just in different locations, so a similar rig will work.
A few days this last week I started to see some better surface activity, with fish responding to a mixed hatch of lingering march browns, blue winged olives, and some PMDs which are starting to show. The wet and dry fly fishing will improve dramatically as the water warms up a little bit. The big green caddis hatch will start to materialize sometime soon. When these bugs hatch in decent numbers, it makes for some great wet fly and dry fly fishing.
Fortunately, conditions seem to generally be on the mend. It looks like the long term trend is for the weather to become more seasonable and for the flows to fluctuate at a relatively high, but very fishable, level. May is usually a great month on the McKenzie and Middle Fork Willamette. With a wet March and April behind us, hopefully May has some better weather in store.