written by Eric Flowers | photos by Tyler Roemer
There are few places in the world where it’s possible to catch a Chinook salmon while standing on an ocean beach, pull a brook trout from a high mountain stream and land a nickel-bright summer steelhead while wading in sandals on an early July evening. In Oregon, though, that is just scratching the surface of fly-fishing possibilities.
Recently we decided to embark on an impromptu adventure to catch and release what our home state had to offer. What we found was a reflection of the state’s incredible environmental diversity. From the fern-blanketed emerald green of the upper McKenzie River to the ochre canyon walls of the Owyhee River in far Eastern Oregon and back across the northern reach of the Great Basin to a seldom-seen sliver of the upper Klamath River, we found fish whose strength and beauty seemed to be forged by the landscapes from which they sprang. We chased hookjawed browns under a relentless desert sun, cast to silver-sided rainbows in the churning headwaters of a mountain river and stalked alpine brook trout cruising a gin-clear channel in the evening shadow of the Three Sisters Wilderness.
What follows is a chronological snapshot of our odyssey.
As a trout fishing destination, the McKenzie is often overshadowed by its high desert cousin, the fabled Deschutes River that draws tens of thousands of anglers annually to its basalt canyons and outsized riffles. By way of contrast, the total number of angler days on the upper McKenzie is measured in the hundreds, according to Chris Daughters, who operates Caddis Fly, a fly-fishing shop and guiding outfit in nearby Eugene.
Daughters, 41, bought the shop more than fifteen years ago but has been guiding on the McKenzie since he was a teenager.
An intrepid angler, Daughters fishes all over the world. The McKenzie, however, holds a special place in his imagination. While there are dozens of miles of fishable water in the ninetymile river, it’s the upper McKenzie—a roughly twenty-mile section that charges through a lush forest of Douglas fir, pine and hemlock—that he considers to be the river’s crown jewel.
A popular section with rafters and kayakers, the river churns through boulder gardens of lava as it hastens toward the confluence with the Willamette River outside Eugene.
Only a handful of guides bring clients on this section of the river, so even a busy day is relatively calm by most standards. Based on its flows and the insect activity in late spring, this section was still a week or two away from optimal fishing. Daughters was nevertheless eager to show us the river. We agreed to avoid the lower section where hatchery fish abound and tens of thousands more had been planted recently by state wildlife managers. This is a practice that galls wild fish advocates, like Daughters, who fear that genetically inferior fish will degrade the river’s wild stock.
Lacking natural wanderlust to explore and the strength to survive in the challenging upper river conditions, hatchery fish were not a concern on this section. If it’s an inhospitable place for weak fish, it’s an equally daunting place for novice anglers. Turbulent water makes for challenging casting. A drag-free drift requires a deft touch. Daughters reserves this area for anglers who have the experience to negotiate the river’s challenging conditions. Those who have the skill to fish in these conditions are rewarded. The upper river’s rainbows are aggressive and opportunistic, a product of the harsh environment.
For Daughters, the trip was primarily exploratory, a barometer of the early season. That didn’t do much to temper his expectations however, and it wasn’t long before we coaxed our first strike from a bank-side seam. After a spirited fight, Daughters netted a gleaming and freckled McKenzie rainbow as our photographer scrambled out of the boat to snap a few shots before Daughters released the fish. There would be more photo opportunities throughout the morning and into the afternoon. Daughters picked his way through one section of whitewater after another while counseling me where to place my casts and how to control my drifts.
Before the day was over, we had boated a dozen or so fish. Good fishing by most standards, but only a glimpse of what the upper McKenzie can produce in the summer and fall months when the flows, fish and insect life come together in a fly-fishing symphony. As our boat slipped over icy blue-green pools with only the sound of the rushing water and the oars straining against the oar locks, I was reminded that fishing isn’t just about catching fish, it’s about experiencing the wild places that populate our landscape and fuel our imaginations. For us, the adventure was just beginning.
We parted ways with a handshake at Blue River ramp where our day had started eight hours earlier. Daughters turned his truck west and headed back to Eugene. We turned our attention east to another river and another fish, the famed Owyhee brown trout.
For fly-anglers, a visit to the Owyhee is not just a trip, it’s a pilgrimage. A halfhour’s drive southeast of Vale, the lower Owyhee River emerges from the Owyhee Dam, an 85-year-old concrete monolith that straddles a narrow section of canyon at the tip of the massive Owyhee Reservoir. The river slips silently into a lake-sized pool before draining into a channel that is no more than fifty feet wide as it tumbles into the canyon. It’s the beginning of a roughly fourteenmile stretch of river that has more large brown trout per mile than any other river in the state and rivals some of the greatest rivers in the West.
In a sport that is rife with embellishment and exaggeration, this is truly a place where sixteen- to twenty-inch brown trout really are the norm. Golden- bellied browns pushing two feet are exceptional but not impossible here. Spend any time on the river, and you’re likely to see one, just not necessarily on the end of your line. You don’t grow to be five pounds in any river by eating feathers and hooks.
The plan was to meet up with a couple of Owyhee veterans, including Jim Ramsey, an 81-year-old Renaissance man and fourth-generation rancher and farmer from Jefferson County. Ramsey picked up fly-fishing in its relative infancy and remembers fishing rivers like the Crooked and the Deschutes before they were dammed a generation ago. He started coming over to the Owyhee roughly a decade ago after hearing stories of prolific fishing. It didn’t disappoint.
Ramsey wasted no time in putting me in the spot where he had just been fishing above a deep eddy, under the canyon wall. He suggested I move upstream where he had seen more fish working. After making a few casts mid-river to no avail, I spotted a greasy line just below a small overhanging bush. I put a first cast wide left and then reloaded, determined to thread it into the small window. Instead, my loop unfurled a foot past and six inches high, sending the elk hair caddis fly straight into the bush, where it bounced off a branch and dropped like a feather onto the water. There it sat only for a moment before a splashy rise and the feel of a wild fish bolting downstream.
Over the next twenty-four hours, we would land more of these fantastic fish, many of them from the same pool. We wrapped up our stay on Thursday afternoon, probing a seam at the lower end of the fly water, where Ramsey’s fishing companion had landed a twenty-plus-inch fish just a few weeks earlier—a feat that was not to be repeated on this day. After farewells and photos, it was time to turn our attention eastward and southward to the Klamath, 350 miles in the opposite corner of the state.
Despite being just a half-hour drive from downtown Klamath Falls, the Keno stretch of the Klamath River remains an enigma. It’s a quality-challenged section of river—temperatures climb too high in the summer to be hospitable to fish or fishing—sandwiched between two dams. It is virtually impossible to access from the road and harrowing to navigate by boat even if you can figure out how to launch one.
The best way to experience the river is to book a trip with the man who knows it best—Darren Roe, of Klamath Falls-based Roe Outfitters. A fly-fishing and hunting guide, Roe is one part river cowboy, one part entertainer and one part entrepreneur. A lifelong outdoorsman, Roe cut his teeth guiding fishing and hunting trips along the coast while working in a corporate office for a major bank. Eventually, he traded the nine-to-five lifestyle for life as a full-time guide and relocated to Klamath Falls, where he met his wife and eventual business partner, Jennifer. Together they run the small outfitting company that offers everything from backcountry picnics to wild quail hunts and whitewater rafting.
The Keno section, however, has elevated Roe to legendary status among trout-fishing devotees. After two days of solid fishing for large browns on the Owyhee, we had high hopes for the Klamath. Like the Owyhee and the McKenzie before it, the Keno section did not disappoint.
After introductions and a tackle upgrade, we departed from the Roe Outfitter parking lot on Highway 97 in Roe’s weathered Dodge pickup truck, the pavement still wet from the previous night’s rain.
A few minutes later, we peeled off the highway down an unmarked dirt road near the namesake town of Keno. After picking our way along a muddy, pot hole-pocked access road, we arrived at the base of the John C. Boyle dam, where we unloaded gear and cinched tight our life vests. We were the only anglers on the river, but not the only ones fishing. Cormorants, pelicans, seagulls and a smattering of other opportunistic birds circled the base of the dam, waiting for a meal. Below us the water roiled, and Roe offered a few last-minute instructions on how to keep from falling in, including not leaning back in the chair. It might break. At that moment, I was thankful that I was with a guide who has done this hundreds of times and not one of my fishing buddies, with whom I’ve kicked around the idea of doing this float sight unseen.
Roe pulled the anchor and nosed the boat into the current, instructing me to get my rod ready to cast on his signal. The first rapid was a labyrinth of bench-sized rocks and swirling currents, which he deftly negotiated. Soon we were on the opposite side of the river, and Roe told me to toss my line upriver behind a starboard side rock. I casted one, two, three times. He said that if we didn’t pick up a fish soon, we would change flies. Two casts later, the comically large red strike indicator plunged, and I set the hook. The day had officially begun. We hooked and landed five rainbows all between sixteen and eighteen inches before the boat launch was out of sight.
“Welcome to my river,” quipped Roe through a widening grin. It had been seven years since Roe first convinced himself that it was possible to navigate this eight-mile stretch of river that was previously considered non-navigable. It didn’t take him long after that to obtain the permits to begin guiding. News of twenty-, thirty- and even forty-fish days spread fast, and soon the slots were booking a year in advance. The Keno is an astounding resource, but it’s not a trip for everyone. There is little, if any, dry-fly fishing in the churning, coffee-colored currents. If you enjoy nymph fishing, it’s an experience that is unparalleled in the Lower 48.
Roe knows this is a precious resource, and he’s protective of it. He cautions weekend warriors about the potential perils of running this stretch without an intimate knowledge of the river. A few years ago, he fished one angler out of the river who had swamped his pontoon boat and had an ugly gash on his forehead. So far, no one has died on the Keno section, but that may be because so few have been foolish enough to attempt it.
The eight-mile stretch winds through a shallow canyon that is punctuated with ponderosa pines along tuff rock ledges and spires. It looks more like the Sierras than the Cascades. We broke for lunch at one of Roe’s favorite picnic spots that required a short scramble up the canyon to a rock perch overlooking a giant pool.
After a sandwich and a soda, it was back to work. More rowing and more casting. And more fish. Lots more fish. As we approached the takeout, Roe asked me to switch over to a fly he spotted in my box—a dining-room-table creation that I had put together on my vise a few months back. The fly caught his eye because of the bright orange collar hackle that he says could imitate a resident crayfish, one of the staples of the Klamath rainbow’s diet. I tied on the fly and switched tactics from dead drifting to casting and stripping the fly. Cast after cast had yet to produce a strike when finally a fish grabbed the fly. It was cause for double celebration— my fly and Roe’s gut instinct. Another day of fishing on the books, it was time to head north to Central Oregon.
While it was rivers that captured our imagination on this whirlwind expedition, we couldn’t resist one last side-trip. For that excursion, we turned to the iconic Hosmer Lake, with its mirror-like surface and hulking brook trout that cruise the glassy channels of this high alpine water. Extremely popular with flat-water paddlers, Hosmer offers postcard vistas of nearby Mt. Bachelor, Broken Top and the Three Sisters Wilderness.
For anglers, however, the draw is what’s beneath the surface. Pods of thick-shouldered brook trout that are more easily measured in pounds than inches find their way through narrow lava channels hemmed in by water lilies and bulrushes.
If you know where to look, spotting fish on Hosmer is easy. Just keep your gaze down, particularly in the channel that connects the upper and lower portions of the lake, and you’re likely to spot the white-tipped fins of the brookies. You’ll also find Atlantic salmon that were planted half a century ago and have thrived. Seeing and catching, however, are two different things. Coaxing a strike can be difficult and frustrating when you watch your fly inch by the nose of a trophy fish that nonchalantly turns away with disinterest or outright disgust. The persistent angler, however, is almost always rewarded.
We didn’t hit paydirt until the waning daylight had almost entirely disappeared and hundreds of casts were retrieved without so much as a bump on the end of the line. In our case, it wasn’t the proverbial last cast, but a fly trolled lazily as we rowed our wooden dory toward the boat ramp that finally produced a fish—an olive and crimson brook trout with big spots on its flanks. The fish had mistaken a purple marabou fly for a bait fish. Paul Trendler, my angling companion, had finally landed his trout after several fruitless outings. Only time will tell who really hooked whom. His wife, Sarah Frost-McKee, an experienced angler, had some disinterested looks but no brookies.
Looking back over this trip, we would put on more than a thousand miles in a matter of days. Along the way, we would meet guides who dedicated their lives to chasing fish in some of Oregon’s most remote corners and anglers who would travel hundreds of miles for a chance to connect with the fish of their dreams.
Thanks to favorable weather conditions and expert advice, we caught more than our fair share and lost plenty more in the process. We practiced catch-and-release, ensuring that there will be fish tomorrow and hopefully for years to come. In the end, we came away with a renewed appreciation of the places and the people who make up the fabric of Oregon’s vibrant fly-fishing scene. The coolers were empty and the camera full. Yet we had only scratched the surface of fly-fishing in Oregon.