McKenzie River fly fishing guide specialists, fly fishing Oregon McKenzie River trout
Like trout everywhere, McKenzie River rainbows and cutthroat can be both easy and difficult. Some days they will bite any fly, while on others they will be pattern-specific. As a general rule, the trout will be more discriminating during a hatch then in a non-hatch situation.
To add additional degrees of difficulty to the possibilities, there can be multiple insect hatches occurring at the same time, and there is usually a particular life cycle stage of that insect the trout prefer. And, this preference can change at any time
For example, when the March Brown mayflies hatch on the McKenzie River in the late winter and early spring, the fish may want the mayfly nymph fished slowly along the stream bottom. As the hatch progresses and increasing numbers of mayflies are making their way to the water's surface, a wet fly emerger imitating the struggling nymph as it attempts to free itself from its nymphal skin to transform into the winged adult is the fishes' first dining choice. The trout may now totally ignore the deep nymph and the floating adults, focusing on the easily-captured emerging nymph. In the final stages of the hatch the floating, winged adult may be the preferred food.
With so many hatch and non-hatch situations confronting an angler, an exacting assortment of McKenzie River fly patterns is key to consistent success on this stream: dry flies, wet flies, and nymphs.
Wet flies are effective on the the McKenzie, and easy to fish. The angler merely casts the fly sightly downstream from straight across the current, allowing the fly to drift against the tension of the line. Cast out. Let it swing until the fly stops directly below. Lengthen the line a couple of feet, then repeat the cast.
Sometimes it will prove effective to twitch the wet fly during its drift. Lift the rod tip a foot or two, then drop it quickly a foot or two. If a rising fish can be reached, try to swing the fly slightly upstream of the rise. Twitch just as the fly approaches the position of the rise. This may trick a reluctant fish into believing the fly is alive.
As the day warms in the late winter and early spring, the March Brown and Baetis mayflies, along with assorted caddisflies may hatch. A soft hackle wet fly may prove most effective early in the hatch, but the fish may start to show a preference for the dry fly once the hatch is well under way.
The March Brown mayfly is the best-known of the early season (March and April) McKenzie River insect hatches. Early in the hatch a Pheasant Tail or Hare's Ear Soft Hackle dead-drifted or swung to a rising fish can be deadly. When you start to see feeding trout pick off floating adults, a tan Comparadun or Parachute Adams can provide good surface action.
As I mentioned earlier, multiple hatches are common. Several different species of insects may appear simultaneously. In the late winter / early spring mix is the tiny Baetis, or Blue-Winged Olive, mayfly. Because of their diminutive size and hard-to-see smoky grey color you may have to look carefully to even know these flies are on the water. Trout that are pressured day after day by many anglers may develop a preference for this small fare, taking these instead of the more obvious March Browns. Be aware of this possibility. Make sure you have some 6X or 7X tippet and a few of these little flies in sizes 18 and 20.
Once caddisflies start appearing in mid to late March, the McKenzie rainbows and cutthroat are always looking for them. The largest species --- commonly referred to as the McKenzie Green Caddis --- appears in May, lingering into early June. When these large, very active insects hatch, the fish lose their caution, it seems. Skate a Peacock Caddis or McKenzie Green Caddis near a rising fish, and watch the water explode. Though I've not eaten one, I suspect these insects taste like flying candy to the McKenzie trout.
On most of our productive streams stoneflies are abundant. A couple of the larger species have three year life cycles. This means that trout are used to eating these insects, which crawl among the stones and bottom debris, year-round.
Stoneflies are poor swimmers. They tend to tumble downriver when they lose their footing, making them large, easy prey for the fish. As for color, I will fish stonefly patterns in black, dark brown and a dark olive brown. My first choice for the McKenzie is my Gorman Golden Stone, or G. G. Stone.
As for other nymphs on the McKenzie, I find it is usually better to fish patterns that look like a lot of aquatic insects in general, but no insect specifically. Two patterns I use regularly with great success are the Prince and Hare's Ear. Just like the stonefly, fish these deep and slowly on or very near the river bottom.
As with all the patterns recommended here, hook size can be the difference between success and failure. I prefer my stonefly nymphs in size 6, my Peacock and McKenzie Green Caddises in sizes 8 and 10, the Baetis in size 20, and virtually everything else in sizes 12 through 16.
Anglers will, no doubt, discover additional patterns that catch fish on the McKenzie. I, too, look for new, effective flies all the time. This is part of the fun of fly fishing. I may find or create something new for the upcoming season. Even if I don't, my clients and I will do just fine with the proven patterns I've recommended here.
On Today’s Menu . . . Important Aquatic Insects
My goals in this chapter are to keep this very basic, but still provide information that will add to your fishing effectiveness.
There are hundreds of species of aquatic organisms. Some are insects. Some are not. Fish eat other fish, crayfish, leeches, scuds (freshwater shrimp), and terrestrial insects such as ants, beetles, crickets and grasshoppers. They eat fish eggs. Trout will even consume rotting salmon flesh. We tie flies that replicate them all. But the mainstay for most stream trout (Yes, I know there are exceptions.) in most parts of the world is aquatic insects.
There are four orders of insects of major interest to the stream fisherman: mayflies (Ephemeroptera), caddisflies (Tricoptera), stoneflies (Plecoptera), and midges (Diptera).
Everyone is somewhat familiar with the life cycle of a butterfly. At a certain point in their maturity, some caterpillars (the butterfly larvae) encase themselves in a silken a cocoon. Inside the cocoon a transformation occurs. The larva becomes a pupa. In a matter of a few weeks to several months the pupa changes form to become a winged adult butterfly that emerges from the cocoon.
Aquatic insects have a similar life cycle. Mayflies and stoneflies have an “incomplete”, three-stage life cycle: egg, nymph, adult. Caddisflies and midges have a “complete” four-stage metamorphosis: egg, larva, pupa, adult. A fly angler should have some representations of the mayfly and stonefly nymphal stage in the fly box, and some adult imitations. Because caddisflies and midges have an additional life stage, the well-prepared will have flies which represent the larva, pupa and adult of these. Insect eggs are insignificant to the fish.
Without getting too heavy into the details of insect taxonomy (classification: order, family, genus, species, etc.) I am jumping directly to the species level, and speak in generalities. There are hundreds of mayfly species. Some, because of their abundance and availability, are important to the trout. Others are of little importance. Different mayflies will be important to the fish at different times of the year. Some for months; some for a few days to a few weeks during the year.
To what extent is aquatic insect identification necessary to be an effective aid to the fly angler? I’m not sure. I know some very good fly fishermen who know little about aquatic entomology beyond being able to recognize an adult aquatic insect as a mayfly, stonefly, caddisfly and midge, and they could probably do the same for the captured larva, nymph and pupa. With a few exceptions they cannot identify the family, genus of species of what they observe. Suffice for them that, as they examine the stream’s surface, they spy a dark olive mayfly with medium gray wings, about size 14. If the fish are rising the angler reaches into his fly box and selects a close match. A simple and, most often, a successful routine.
If the same fly is on the water but fish are not rising, it would be beneficial to know some specifics the nymph of this particular insect, since the fish may be dining on the nymphs to the exclusion of the harder-to-catch adults. The size of the nymph would be helpful info. The nymph is often slightly larger than the adult. To make a wise nymph selection from the fly box the angler would like to know the color of the immature insect. This is not necessarily the same as the adult. Is the nymph slender or stout, or slender in the abdomen and very much larger in the thorax? How about its mobility, or lack thereof? Is the nymph of this mayfly an active swimmer, or are the fish accustomed to seeing these helplessly drift in the current? In what preferred, specific stream environment do the nymphs live? Fast shallow riffles? Slow deep pools? Weedy river edges? The adults may have drifted or been blown far from where they emerged. The adult mayflies are observed floating in a deep, slow pool but actually hatched in the fast, shallow riffle a hundred feet upstream. If one can identify the adult insect to begin with, the questions about fly selection, where to fish it and how to fish it could be answered. Aquatic insect identification can be quite useful. Save time, catch more fish.
Some people just want to learn. They enjoy learning. It enriches their enjoyment of fly fishing to know about the living organisms trout eat. In addition to merely catching trout on a fly, these renaissance fishing sorts will turn over stream rocks, search the vegetation, kick-up the river bottom to catch what is set adrift in the current with a homemade net made with dowel rods and cheesecloth. The insects and other organisms can be dropped into capped glass vials to be studied at length with a magnifying glass and entomology handbook.
I carry a simple collection kit with me. I have a 5” by 6” clear plastic box which contains several glass vials holding a 50 – 50 mixture of isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol and tap water. This inexpensive and minimally-toxic fluid does a fair job of preserving the specimens. Though you will observe some color fade, the critters will keep for years without deterioration if you store them in a cool, dark location. If you choose to store the insects in pure water, bacterial action would soon turn your captured items into mush. If you place them in pure alcohol, you would get a serious bleaching of the color and the mummied insects would become quite brittle. As the head, tails, legs and other body parts broke off, the amateur collector would be left with a small pile of albino insect kindling in the bottom of the vial.
A small magnifying glass, bodkin (a needle in a stick), tweezers, small, clear-lidded boxes, and a lid from a small yogurt container comprise the rest of my collection kit. Some creatures are so small and frail I would crush them in my fingers, so I lift and transfer them with the bodkin or tweezers. I may place them in a preserving vial or place them on the inverted yogurt lid. The lid is used because it has a raised rim to hold a little water to keep nymphs, larvae and pupae alive as I observe them. I can make a quick note of their size, shape, color and locomotion. The white lid makes a bright backdrop to observe the specimens. When I’m finished they can be placed in a vial or released back into the stream. The little plastic boxes are used for adult insects. I imprison them there temporarily for a close look. As with the others, they may be released or transferred for preservation.
In my vest I have two other collection items too large to fit in my master collection box: a fish stomach pump and an aquarium net. The stomach pump looks like a scaled-down version of Mom’s turkey baster. This is used to extract the stomach contents of a fish without doing it harm. The aquarium net is used to intercept floating or drifting organisms. I can bend the wire handle double and it fits compactly in the back of my fishing vest.
Back to the stomach pump. Once you have captured a fish willing to eat your fly, cradle it in your wetted hand so that the dorsal (back) portion of the fish is touching the water’s surface. You may have to squat, kneel or bend over to do this. If the fish escapes your gentle grasp its departure will be a harmless one. When you roll the fish onto its back it often stops struggling, It’s like a magic trick. With your other hand squeeze the bulb of the stomach pump. Hold the pump underwater and release the bulb. Water is drawn into the pump. Insert the stem (barrel) gently into the mouth and gullet of the fish. GENTLY. Push the pump with careful and minimal force until you feel its progress naturally stop. Insert into the fish about half (I am concerned about injecting too much water because of the possibility of distending the fish’s stomach.) the water contained in the bulb by squeezing the bulb. Then, release the bulb again, which will draw the injected water mixed with the stomach contents back into the pump. Withdraw the pump completely. Release the fish.
Inject the water-food mixture onto the yogurt lid. If the fish has eaten a lot the foodal items may be compacted together. Using my bodkin, I gently sort out the individual components of this mass. Individual creatures soon reveal themselves. Note the abundance of any one particular organism. If one or several predominate in the mix, select and fish fly patterns that resemble them in size, shape and color. Place in vials those organisms you wish to save for later identification and study.
Some anglers do not inject any water into the fish when using the stomach pump. They merely depress the bulb, squeezing out the air. The stem is inserted into the gullet and the bulb released. The contents are “dry” vacuumed from the fish’s stomach.
As a diagnostic tool, the stomach pump provides the angler with vital insight into what fish are eating. But using a stomach pump is, obviously, invasive. There is potential for harm to a fish. If you attempt this I suggest the fish be at least ten inches long. The gullet may be too narrow for the barrel of the pump. If the fish is more than 18” I do not get good results because the pump barrel may be too short to reach as deeply into the fish as is necessary to extract the food. If you are uncertain about these procedures, or find them distasteful, don’t attempt them.
Back to our collection. For each thing you have selected to preserve, cut a strip of plain white paper small enough to fit into the vial. Besides writing the identifying name of the insect, note the date, stream, and specific environment the organism was captured. Use a pencil, NOT an ink pen. When you slip the paper inside the vial your penciled record --- like the trout food there --- will be preserved and protected.
Make sure you use a pencil. Alcohol will bleed the ink off the paper and color the vial mixture. Also, a sticky label place on the outside of the vial may fade, smudge or lose its grip. I’ve learned this the hard way, too.
Basic Identification of the Life Stages of the “Big Four”
Mayfly adult --- Two or three slender tails. Relatively slender body. At rest, the wings are held upright. Mayflies look like little sailboats riding the currents. Color and size are greatly varied, so these by themselves are not usually good identifying characteristics. With hundreds of species, sizes may range from 4 – 5 mm up to two inches. There’s a broad spectrum of colors, from black and chocolate brown and olive through cream, beige, bright yellow and pink.
Mayfly nymph --- Two or three tails. A single wingpad on the thorax (the portion of the insect where the legs are located, situated between the head and the abdomen). A single claw at the end of each leg. If gills are evident they are seen on the abdomen. Many sizes and colors. Unlike brighter colors found in some adults, the nymph colors tend to be subdued, so they are camouflaged well in their surroundings.
Mayfly nymphs can be grouped into crawlers, flat-profiled clingers who maintain a tight grip in fast currents, swimmers, and burrowers living in the soft stream sediments. Being able to classify these nymphs in such a manner gives the angler a clue as to where specifically in the stream these nymphs are found, and clues about how to present the fly to the fish. Unless burrowers and clingers are hatching, making the exposed transition from nymph to adult, they are relatively unavailable to the fish as a snack item. Swimming mayfly nymphs and crawlers who lose their grip to tumble in the currents are on the menu much of the time.
Stonefly adult --- Two stout tails. At rest, two pairs of wings lay flat over the body. When in flight both pairs of wings can be visually evident in larger species. Colors range from bright yellow to mundane browns and black. Sizes can range from ½” to almost 3”. The largest representative of the clan, pteronarcys californica, is the famous “salmonfly” found hatching in many streams of Western America in late spring.
Stonefly nymph --- Two stout tails. Two wingpads on the thorax. Two claws at the end of each leg. Gills, if present, are found at the base of the legs, under the thorax. Camouflage colors, blending with their surroundings. Generally prefer rocky and debris-strewn stream bottoms. Stoneflies particularly like highly oxygenated areas where the surface flows may be riffly and choppy.
Caddisfly adult --- No tails. Long antennae, sometimes longer than the body. Moth-like appearnce, but the wings are held tent-shape over the body when the insect is at rest. Wings longer than the body. Sizes and colors cover broad ranges. Lengths of some caddisflies may exceed 1 ½ “.
Caddisfly larva --- Grub-like appearance, with the head and thorax accounting for a small proportion of the overall body length. No tails, but two small anal hooks. Common colors include cream, yellow, olive, emerald green and beige. Some caddis larvae build cases in which the larva lives. These cases may be constructed of sand, fine gravel, wood debris, fir needles, and other vegetation. Many cases are made of a combination of these building materials. Some specific caddisflies may be identified by the characteristic case they build. Cased caddisflies can be observed slowly cruising the stream bottom, dark head and all six legs protruding out the end of its case, gazing as it goes. If disturbed the head and legs will be withdrawn into the case.
Other caddisfly larvae are free-living, not building cases. Some roam the interstitial spaces among the rocks and debris on the stream bottom in search of food and shelter, while others will actually build sticky nets which capture drifting food items for the caddis to eat. Like the mayflies, with hundreds of species many niches and “lifestyles” are exploited by caddisflies.
Caddisfly pupa --- Emerging wings, legs and antennae are bunched together, tucked underneath the insects body. Usually exposed to the trout as the pupae swim from the bottom to the surface, where they quickly split the pupal skin to emerge as winged adults. Same size and color possibilities as the other life stages.
Midge adults --- No tails. Wings, shorter than the body length, are held in a “delta wing” position when the insect is not flying. Adult males may have hairy, “bottlebrush” antennae. The midge family Chironomidae is of most interest to the fly angler. Chironomids, because many of them are pint-size, tend to be ignored by stream anglers. What they lack in size they compensate for in abundance. Midges are usually one of the few food items abundantly available to stream trout through the winter months. They will often hatch at mid day even when there is snow on the ground and ice in the rod guides. Chironomids are available throughout the rest of the year but may be overlooked by anglers because larger food fare --- caddisflies, mayflies, stoneflies --- are in evidence.
Midge larva --- Very thin, elongated, essentially featureless and worm-like. Olive, brown and blood red are common colors. The midge “bloodworm” contains hemoglobin, just as the oxygen-transporting cells in our blood do, giving it the characteristic red coloring.
Midge pupa --- Similar to the caddis pupa in general appearance, with the exception of long antennae. The chironomid pupae tend to ascend to the surface very slowly compared to the caddisflies, making them easy prey for the trout. They also tend to linger at the surface in the pupal form, slowly struggling to get free of the pupal skin to emerge into the adult stage. The pupae and adults commonly collect in stream back eddies where trout will have lengthy feeding sessions on both life stages. Unobservant or inexperienced fly anglers can be frustrated by midging trout. And these fish can often be selective.
A word on selective trout. Often an angler will not have an exact match of a particular insect or other organism that stream fish are strictly focusing upon. You may have a fly of the right color, but wrong shape or size. Or, you may have one of the right size and shape, but wrong color. Selective, finicky trout generally have a priority system. Know that there may be exceptions, but picky trout are most concerned about fly size. Make this your top priority when trying to select a fly that may work. Next in importance is the shape --- thin, chunky, thin in the rear and larger in the thorax, etc. Color usually ranks Number 3 on the priority list, but at least try to select for light, medium, or dark tones if you can. Some clever anglers will tie some basic fly patterns uniformly cream. Encountering selective trout, they will take a close match in size and shape from the box and paint it with the appropriately colored waterproof marking pen.
Now, let’s match up the various life stages of the Big Four insect groups with flies from my Top Ten that will do a passable job of imitating them. Know that as your fly collection grows you will probably get a more exacting imitation for a particular insect at a particular life stage. For instance you may opt for the more realistic Biff’s V-Rib Chironomid instead of my very general Pheasant Tail Soft Hackle when midge pupae are being eaten by rising trout. Assuming that you fished both patterns equally well, Biff’s pattern may outperform Michael’s Pheasant Tail soft hackle choice. And, I understand this. But if it means you may catch six trout on the V-Rib Chironomid and would have fooled only four on the Pheasant Tail, is it worth carrying hundreds of more specific fly patterns in your fly box as you start (or re-start) your fly fishing career? My suggestion is to start with some broad-reaching effective flies and add to these as you go along.
Insects paired with flies from the Top Ten to match them -----
Adult mayfly --- Parachute Adams, sizes 12 – 18
Mayfly nymph --- Flashback Hare’s Ear, sizes 14 – 18.
Emerging mayfly nymph -- SteelieTrout Soft Hackle (with or without bead), sizes 12 – 16. Pheasant Tail Soft Hackle (with or without bead), sizes 12 – 18.
Stonefly adult --- Stimulator, sizes 6 – 14
Stonefly nymph --- G. G. Stonefly nymph, sizes 6 – 10. Flashback Hare’s Ear (for the smaller stones), sizes 10 – 14
Caddisfly adult --- Stimulator, sizes 12 – 16
Caddisfly larva --- Prince (with or without bead), sizes 12 – 16. Flashback Hare’s Ear, sizes 12 – 16.
Caddisfly Pupa --- SteelieTrout Soft Hackle (with or without bead), sizes 12 – 16. Pheasant Tail Soft Hackle (with or without bead), sizes 12 – 18.
Midge adult --- Parachute Adams, sizes 16 – 20.
Midge larva --- Pheasant Tail Soft Hackle (with or without bead), sizes 16-18. Trim down or cut off the long hackle feather at the front of the fly, and cut off the tail.
Midge pupa --- Pheasant Tail Soft Hackle (with or without bead), sizes 16-20.
You will note that the Flash-bodied Wooly Bugger and SteelieTrout Wet Fly were not matched to any of the Big Four insect groups. The Wooly Bugger is a leech imitation, and also fished as a general attractor to imitate ”something” that looks alive and edible. The SteelieTrout Wet Fly is an attractor pattern, imitating nothing in particular. Its color, design and the manner of fishing it is meant to seductively entice a fish into striking it.
Also, Stimulators come in an array of colors. An orange body is very popular. I prefer dark olive if limited to one color.