A Morning on the Mckenzie

Our Chief of Marketing, Nick Siino gives his perspective on fishing a new river with our Executive Director. Max McCool last summer, before the most recent wild fire. While it’s Nick’s first time fishing this river, Max’s family has fished it for over 80 years. Nick reflects on the day getting to know an incredible fishery and also reflects on the tragic impact that wildfire has had on the fishery and the people that live in the area.

Nick Siino

12/13/20233 min read

We woke up early to prepare the boat, eager to get on the river so that we could finish our 4-hour drift before the sun would reach its highest point in the sky. Preparing for a drift can take almost as much time as the fishing itself, but the ritual is part of the enjoyment: rigging the rods, loading the gear, and taxiing cars back and forth.

The water was icy, perfect for trout, but cold enough for us to try to board the boat in as shallow water as possible. Basalt to Breakers' Executive Director, Max, and I were trying to end an unfortunate streak of getting skunked while fishing together. Joining us were Max’s father, an expert Oregon fly fisherman who knows every inch of the riverbed from decades of experience, and my wife, who has little interest in fly fishing herself but loves being on the water and appreciates the beauty of native trout. While Max has a couple of decades of experience on the McKenzie, I had never fished it before. In short, we all arrived at the river with unique perspectives and backgrounds.

We pushed off and headed towards the first run. Each of our rods was outfitted with a single dry fly— a parachute Adam’s or an elk hair caddis. After some brief disagreement on which would perform better, the flies were drifting down the seam between fast and slow-moving water. Luckily, the trout were aggressive and pursued each fly with no partiality. Soon enough, we had our first few fish, a mix of hatchery and native rainbow.

The river’s natural beauty is undeniable, but it has greatly changed in recent years. A 2020 wildfire devastated the area, destroying homes and riparian vegetation. What was once covered by old-growth forest is now exposed to the sun. Max’s dad explains that parts of this drift used to be almost completely shaded— allowing trout to thrive in greater numbers. Vegetation provides trout with cover from the sun, cooling the water, and dense insect life for food. In decades past, anglers often talked how incredible the fishery was; while the fishery is still incredible, Max explained that it is not what it was before the wildfire.

Learning about the effects of the fire brought a somber mood to the boat. The feeling of loss is palpable but short-lived. The trout are still there. The vegetation can restore itself, and it will happen faster with replanting efforts. While restoration efforts cannot replace all that has been lost, it is possible to restore the McKenzie fishery to the way Max and his dad remember it. Organizations like the McKenzie River Trust are already working on it, and budding nonprofits, like Basalt to Breakers, will join the effort soon.

As a first-time visitor, it would have been easy for me to overlook the burn scars and the bare river banks if I hadn’t been educated. This was by far the best day of trout fishing I ever had, after all. The water looked clear and felt cold; pine trees covered the landscape all the way to the horizon. My wife had her phone camera ready, fully expecting a fish in our net at any minute. It’s almost impossible to visualize what restoration would look like and what the end goal would be for a newcomer. Locals, however, carry these memories and are gifted with the ability to educate others on the history of their local water.

We reached the end of the drift at a wide, slow-moving portion of the river. The sun was directly overhead, causing the fish to take cover until evening. On the opposite bank, a spawning salmon fully emerged from a deep pool, surprising us with a loud splash— a perfect reminder that this fishery has a future. Once in the car, we covered the distance of our 4-hour boat ride in just 20 minutes and returned home to celebrate a successful day on the water.

Several weeks after we left, another wildfire swept through the area. Our hearts go out to everyone who was affected by this tragic incident. While our organization is focused on trout and their habitats, our primary concern is always for Oregonians and their homes. The efforts to restore the river haven’t stopped, and progress is still being made daily