Renowned for hard-fighting Steelhead, the Pacific Northwest’s McKenzie River is a fishing hotspot. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) calls Steelhead the “ultimate game fish” and though they are members of the salmonid family, Steelhead are actually trout. They are distinct from “true” salmon because they are not predetermined to die after a single spawn—often returning to spawn in freshwater again.
The Leaburg Hatchery releases more than half-a-million fish into the Mckenzie River each year. Fisherman on the McKenzie can, and should, delight in the bounty. ODFW fish biologist Jeff Ziller manages the South Willamette Watershed. He explains that Steelhead are non-native fish to the McKenzie river system, having been introduced through the Summer Steelhead Program in the 1960s. The stocked fish were resistant to a particular disease prevalent in the Willamette basin and successfully returned and spread throughout the valley.
However, the thriving populations don’t necessarily signify good news for the McKenzie. Ziller actually advises that summer-Steelhead anglers keep their catch.
“Don’t feel compelled to put it back in the water. Spawning summer Steelhead compete for rearing space with Oregon’s native Redside rainbows,” Ziller says. “They have the potential to spawn together—we’ve measured some integration—which can compromise native species.”
Of course, fishermen should always abide by local regulations and limits, being cautious only to keep adipose fin, or non-wild Steelies unless otherwise noted by ODFW. But think about it, Leahburg hatchery releases an average of 550,000 nonnative Steelheads annually into the Mckenzie River, all in the spirit of recreation. So get to fishin’ friends.
On the Water
Bank fishing access is somewhat limited on the McKenzie, but anglers have been known to be widely successful from the bridge near the dam and at a spot known as the Curry Hole, just outside the town of Leaburg on a stretch of water off of Greenwood Drive. The hole is equipped with a boat ramp and tends to be pretty popular among spring anglers. But without a doubt, the best fishing on the McKenzie will happen from a drift boat. Drift fishing opens the water to the angler and provides a host of holes to drop in a line in quite a short distance. Fishing from a drift boat will provide access to all the narrows and shallows fish may be hiding in. Even if the fishing isn’t great that day, the float itself is gorgeous. Try first with a baited sand shrimp, but be prepared to vary set-up and techniques for the most success. Take the time to read the river, thinking about where other boats and anglers are so you can slip into a hole where fish may be pressured into.
Below the Dam
If boats are put in immediately below the dam (200 feet below the ladders), fishermen have about two miles to fish downstream before taking out at Greenwood Drive. The water here requires varying approaches and anglers might do best with several setups ready in the boat to fish the close-together holes
“I’ll often float with a few different rods setup, maybe one with a fake yarn egg and one with a blue and black, or purple streamer,” Bryson Fairlamb, manager at The Caddis Fly Angling Shop in Eugene, Oregon, says.
Fairlamb says that fly fisherman can have luck on the McKenzie with pink, imitation flies that look “shrimpy,” too, and it all just depends on what the fish are hungry for that day. Anglers can make the best of the water by fishing creatively, taking advantage of any ledges, funnels, and even fast water where Steelhead might be held. And, since it’s a shorter run, it is possible to put in again and work the water a second time.
Fish are around for the catching from Greenwood Drive through to the town of Leaburg, too, where there are several great holes. This stretch of water can be ideal for fly fishermen and can yield big Steelheads. Be warned that the last half mile of this float can be shallow and slow. Those making the journey should prepare for this run to be a full day trip, though it’s well worth it.
The fish will be out and about in good numbers in late May, and fishing just keeps getting better into the summer, with June and July being prime casting months for Steelies. Anglers can keep their hopes up all year though, since water temps rise slightly in the fall and fish tend to be more active around October and November. Be sure to check out ODFW’s website for regulation updates and license info.