Neophyte On The McKenzie


Whatever my destination, I can usually be counted on to work in a fishing trip. In keeping with this tradition, I got my first shot at fishing for steelhead on the McKenzie River in Oregon during July of 1992. My wife Jody’s family lives in Eugene, and I set the plans in motion to fish the rolling, rough-and-tumble McKenzie. This wasn’t hard to swing, since my brother-in-law Tom Saraceno lives in Eugene and dearly loves to fish. Tom is a Captain with the Eugene Fire Department and works 24 hours straight, then is off 48, just the right kind of job for a dyed-in-the-wool steelhead fisherman.

 The prized fish in the McKenzie are cutthroat and rainbow trout, steelhead, and salmon. Tom told me that if he catches a total of 20 steelhead in a season, it’s a very good year. He fishes the McKenzie frequently and was literally raised on the river. Tom does his McKenzie fishing from a heavy-gauge aluminum “McKenzie River Drift Boat,” appropriately named, for nearby the McKenzie River is where they were first built many years ago. These boats are rocker shaped, pointed fore and aft, with high bow, high stern, and flat bottom to combat the white water and making for easier maneuverability with oars. You’d think that one of these 12-footers would be tossed about like a cork on the rough water, but not so when manned by an expert boatman like Tom. He can hold in the current or spin around at will, work up current or shoot across just by the proper use of the oars.

 I’m used to standing on the deck of my 18-foot bass boat, in Texas, but you don’t stand on the tiny deck of a drift boat without getting tossed out in to the boiling, surging white water. I almost learned the hard way before Tom let me know in no uncertain terms, “Hey, smartass, this ain’t no bass boat, get your butt down from there or I’ll be dragging you out of the river!” So I stood on the bottom with my knees pushed into the little knee cutouts at the edge of the tiny deck, but I still had to hang on or be tossed.

 Although we’d brought our fly rods, for steelhead and salmon, we were using conventional casting reels and rods with 20-pound monofilament and small gold hooks with gobs of salmon eggs attached. About 18 inches above the eggs we tied a two-inch piece of parachute cord loaded with split shot lead weights. The parachute cord was hollow and worked as Chinese finger cuffs to hold the split shot in place. Surprisingly, the rig rarely hung up. We cast across and slightly up current and let the rig ride down with the current, kind of “bottom bumping”. If we were lucky, a salmon or steelhead would take. The McKenzie is not the big river that so many outsiders expect it to be. It comes out of the Cascades and in most areas is only 50 to 75 yards wide and can neck down to 30, but has very fast-moving water and some big, deep holes. It can be very dangerous if you’ve never handled a drift boat, and it’s something that can’t be learned quickly like paddling a canoe.

 After a couple of hours of fruitless “bottom bumping” without a strike, Tom could tell that my patience was wearing thin. Luckily, for me, a golden stonefly hatch had just started in a big slow-moving pool just ahead and the rainbows were rising everywhere, so Tom suggested we switch to 7-wt. fly rods and toss a dry fly called the stimulator, while using a black stone nymph as a dropper fly. We still cast across and let the fly and nymph ride down as before. It took only a short while to get the rainbows’ attention. The action was fast and furious and we immediately forgot about the steelheads and salmon.

An hour and a half later, the “hatch” was over and we were both arm weary from casting and catching. We didn’t keep track of how many rainbows we caught, but I estimated it was close to 30. However, I well remember the big 8-pounder that I fought for almost 45 minutes on a 5X tippet. She wore me to a frazzle. Each time I thought she was done, she’d get my fly reel screaming again as she made another leaping, swirling, diving run. I was within a couple of turns of being out of backing several times, but managed to subdue her just before she hit the end and broke my line.

All this time Tom alternated between urging me on and pestering me, as all brothers-in-law are prone to do at times. You have to remember that Tom grew up on the McKenzie and this was the first time I’d fished it and I, being a big-mouth Texan know-it-all and used to catching nothing but largemouth bass while cranking and winding, was not supposed to hook an 8-pound rainbow my first time out.

Tom was abnormally irritated, which is another way of saying he was totally pissed at me for making the catching of that big rainbow look so ridiculously easy. I really have to watch it at times, ‘cause my Texas braggadocio has a way of jumping up and overloading my mockingbird butt, even when I’m trying hard to be the really meek guy that I am. This was one of those times that my butt was not overloaded and I was enjoying Tom’s bewilderment.

I was nervous, but tried my best not to show it. However, I did know how to fight a big fish. I took my time and I let the rod do most of the work for me. As the old lady tired and rolled over on her side, I netted her and gently removed the hook from her mouth, placed her back in the water and eased her back and fourth until she got her bearings. Then she was off with a rush, as though nothing had happened. Old Tom gained a new appreciation for Texans, when I released her. He thought we were all “meat fishermen.”

Tom’s remark after my battle with the 8-pounder was, “You’re okay, Jimbo, you fought that big rainbow like a pro.” I already knew that and I knew Tom was just “blowing wind up my skirt,” but it did make me feel good for a “pro” like him to give me that kind of compliment. My reply was a salty “Hell, Tom, wait till I get you down to Texas, and I’ll put you on some real fish!” Boy, I hope my butt doesn’t get overloaded on that one. Tom hasn’t come down yet, but I know he will, and when he does I’m going to take him to Lake Fork and let him tie into one of those monster bigmouths, I hope—on a fly rod. Then he’ll feel about bass fishing like I do steelheads.

  At the end of the day, we pulled out at a landing about seven miles down river from where we’d put in. We climbed in my car, which we’d left at the take-out ramp earlier and went back for his pickup and boat trailer. I was worried about someone stealing Tom’s drift boat that we’d left tied to a tree by the ramp, but Tom said he’d been doing it that way all his life and had never had a problem. I’m a trusting soul, but I’ll be damned if I’ll leave my bass boat unattended if it’s out of my sight.

On the way back to Eugene, I asked Tom why we hadn’t caught any steelhead. He grinned and said, “That’s steelheadin’, Jim.” I’ve heard that same expression many times since then by as many different steelhead fisherman. The next year the story was completely different, no rainbows and no salmon, but four big steelheads right at 10 pounds each. As Tom says “once a steelheader, always a steelheader.” I have to second that notion!

Jimmy D. Moore © November 11, 2000