Home of the Redsides
Sportsman, author, and conservationist, CLARK C. VAN FLEET is a native Californian who for more than four decades has roamed the forests and fished the streams of the West Coast. He knows the best pools in the great rivers of Washington, Oregon, and California; he knows the habits of the Steelhead and the Red side; he knows what roads to take and where to stay. Some of his experiences he described in his book, Steelhead to a Fly, which was published in 1954 by Atlantic - Little, Brown.
by CLARK C. VAN FLEET
PICTURE a vast amphitheater high along the summit of the mountains walled in on three sides by jagged cliffs thrusting five hundred feet or more into the sky. The proscenium is a lava dike above a floor of incredible blueness more than a mile in circumference, fed by springs that are constant both in temperature and volume through coldest winter and driest summer. At an unvarying thirty-nine degrees, Clear Lake yields a thousand cubic feet per second where it slides over the lowest lip of the proscenium and leaps down the mountainside. The thunder of this sudden release fills the gorge below and reverberates from the highest peaks. Here is the source of the Mackenzie River at the summit of the Cascades in Oregon.
Over rocks, cascades, and falls it whoops, slithers, and tumbles a thousand feet to reach the gorge below. At Sahalie, Koosah, and Tamolitch Falls it roars with perpendicular force as tons of water descend into great pools. Then for mile upon mile its force is scarcely diminished as it pours down the narrow pathway through the rocks, past a mighty forest of pine, spruce, hemlock, and fir. These are followed in turn by great maples, alders, and cottonwoods as the valley widens and gentler foothills supersede the bold precipices of the earlier course of the stream. It gathers volume as it proceeds. Smith, South Fork, and Blue rivers add their forces along the way; Horse, Lost, Milk, Mohawk, and other minor creeks contribute a share; but these seldom change the water’s crystal clarity unless affected by the blighting hand of man.
As the river widens and deepens with smoother going, its nature changes. Long pools, channels, and runs with occasional stretches of gravel replace the boulder-strewn cascades and slides of dancing water. The current is still powerful but glides rather than sluices. There is still white water on the riffles, but these become less frequent. And at the heart of the river is the Mackenzie River Redside, the noble native rainbow that makes this its home.
To the dry-fly purist, Mackenzie is a name to conjure with. Whether he boats the river with a competent guide or seeks the wilder waters above Blue River where boats are not allowed, he can be certain of tangling with the raciest antagonist it has ever been his pleasure to battle. The brood fish of three pounds or better have declined in number as pressure of fishing has increased on the river. Hence, to prevent their further decimation, the Oregon Game Commission has wisely set an upper limit of sixteen inches on the fish that can be taken, the lower being eight. This doesn’t prevent a bout with the old-timers, but they must be released unharmed. The basic stock of breeders makes the river a fly-caster’s dream.
Of all the lodges catering to the fisherman, Thomson’s Resort at Vida is the most widely known. After his father died, Dayton became the head of the clan, and subject to his call were most of the experienced guides on the river. Though other proprietors have taken over lately, the old traditions still remain. This, therefore, is the center of boating activity along the whole stretch from the village of Blue River to the dam below Vida. From every point on the compass, fishermen from presidents to bus boys gather from season’s opening to closing date to loss their lures over the Mackenzie’s dancing waters. Successful or not (and good fishing is assured if the weather is clement), the day is filled with pleasure and beauty on a trip down this stream, the most charming in America.
Holliday Farm, a few miles above Blue River, and The Log Cabin at Mackenzie Bridge are excellent resorts, and cater to those who prefer wading the upper reaches. Both have cabins in addition to the main house and highly satisfactory cuisines. Nestled in the timber almost at the head of road transportation is Belknap Springs, a mile off the main road. Here you can combine a fishing trip with a natural steam bath and drink the waters served by the spring. From the latter part of May through June is the period of production for this higher country.
IN RECENT years this upper stretch from Boulder Creek, about a mile above the Springs, to Mackenzie Bridge has been my preference. Here the river is pounding down its bed at a pretty good rate, with much white water and many boulders from the size of a barrel to the dimensions of a small car. Back from the road a piece, this ten miles or so is not as heavily fished as the lower reaches. Since it is on the rugged side, the fish it yields are inclined to be larger and more difficult to bring to the net. Of all the area, the runs above and below Fish Rock are, to my mind, the lies where the largest fish rest and where there is the most sport.
When the month of June has run a third of its course I like to pile in my car, duffel stored, and leave Eugene by three o’clock. This brings me to trail head at the Springs about four thirty. Down the trait I swing, unassembled rod in hand, net at my back, waders, reel, and accessories in a stout duffel bag over my shoulder. The mile I have to travel is something of a scramble — fallen logs, low limbs, ups and downs along the riverside — but twenty minutes does it nicely.
Fish Rock is just below you as you reach a miniature fiat snuggled against the steep ridge at your back. Assembling your rod, bending on a leader and attaching a fly, and struggling into your waders and boots are the task of another five minutes. At last you are ready. Yet now is the time to make haste slowly.
Fish Rock is a true landmark, ten feet high and as many wide. It divides the river into almost equal parts. The opposite bank is a high cliff, the matrix of this mighty stone wrenched from its face by some convulsion of the past. A fast riffle whips against the cliff from above, deepens as it reaches the rock, and scours a pool of considerable dimensions along both sides to tail out on the break to the next pool. You leave this for a moment as your eyes scan the welter of water above, where the river churns through boulders of a lesser size, pockets here and there, channels and sluices intervening. Here you will make your first casts.
Taking the dope can from the waders pocket, you rub a small amount between the finger and thumb and apply it to the wings and hackles of your lure. This rite is most important in the choppy current, since the fly must ride high and lightly against any odds of wave or splash. Stepping gingerly to the water’s edge, you false-cast in the air; then you pick a likely spot and let go
As you work out among the boulders toward the center of the stream, the clutch of the current squeezes your waders with an icy chill. Winter or summer this upper Mackenzie varies but a shade above or below forty degrees. But the search of each slide and pocket engrosses you, and the excitement of anticipation keeps your blood coursing and you forget the chill. Suddenly a streak all silver and pink rushes your lure, and the battle of frantic dashes and leaps is on. When you have finally netted him, you remove the hook and turn the net over to release him, a nice ten-incher of about a pound, but on this evening you are seeking larger game.
The upper reach thoroughly searched, with one keeper in your creel you turn back to the shallow above the rock. Here, because of the speed of the current and a scattering of gnarled willow along the bank, you change your tactics entirely. Heretofore you have been casting upstream, stripping line rapidly as the dancing fly bobs toward you, thus retaining line control. From this shallow you cast downstream well above the water, then pull back sharply until the fly lights nearly at your feet, and feed it line as it daintily rides to the break that marks the beginning of the pool. Over this the prospects are bright for a rise. But you may make a dozen casts without a stir under your lure; the fish are shy.
Another change in method might do the trick. You switch to a Blue Upright, oil it carefully as before, then step down a few feet as you shorten line. You are about to simulate a hatch of this stream-living insect. This calls for the best skill. The fly is dropped gently about two feet above the break and coasted just to its edge, with the rod held high. A quick flick at the right moment before drag starts and you drop it instantly again above the break. After eight or ten such casts the lure floats serenely out to deeper water; that is the key cast.
An explosion bends your rod nearly double. The fish leaps high against the tension of the line and runs down the pool with a rush as you head for shore. He must not get around the rock on the downside. When the tussle subsides and you have slipped your net under him, you have gained a victory over a bright two-pounder. But with all the commotion and your necessary appearance on the bank, the balance of the fish in the pool will be down for a spell.
You have left Lost Creek riffle, the true goal of your journey, until the last.
The rapid leading to Lost Creek riffle runs steeply off the tail of Fish Rock hole and skirts a steep bank on your side of the river in a spate of heavy water. Fifty yards below, it picks up the spill of Lost Creek, masked by a screen of willows, then spreads over the shingle to an island at the tail a hundred yards beyond. The backwater is deep under the alders on the far side until it reaches a shelving beach of gravel open for twenty-five yards downstream, opposite the mouth of Lost Creek. It is this you must reach to begin your fishing.
The crossing of the first break is easy, since the water is relatively shallow and moving slowly, but the other branch around the rock is both deep and swift; hence it must be negotiated with care. Fortunately a great log is lodged above waterline on the opposite bank. You splash back upstream in the eddy below the rock, push out into the fast water cautiously until almost across, then a quick step and a plunge to wrap your arms over the log, up which you clamber. From here it is an easy walk through the alders to the narrow beach of gravel.
The tops of the mountains still glow in the setting sun, but the river is dark in the gloaming as you step into the water for the first cast. A few small fish are disporting themselves in the shallows, but you ignore them. Your goal is a series of boulders that stretch in a long windrow upstream from the mouth of Lost Creek, so deep as to be unseen in the darkness but well known as the lair of big fish. Even from waist depth in the run it is a longish cast to gain a proper float over your prospects — forty, fifty, maybe sixty feet. To add to your difficulties the backcast is restricted by a fringe of willows that backs the narrow beach. A short false-cast, a high flight of the line, and a strong shoot are the only ticket to success. Further, these big fellows are wary as the devil, and a poor cast, a line slapping the water, the plop of a fly instead of a thistledown fall, and you are undone.
Of course you begin your fishing from the edge of the slack on your side. Often, if undisturbed and hungry, your quarry will leave the protection of the boulders and patrol the edge of the rundown. You press against the current strongly and begin. A dropped fly, ten feet of drift, a careful pickup, a false-cast to shake the water from your lure, another shoot farther out, again the bobbing fly you are watching so intently. Dry-fly fishing is the most intense of dramas, and you never, never take your eye from the fly while it is drifting.
At the sixth cast well in toward the boulders the feathered lure has barely traveled two feet before a dimple marks the surface and your fly disappears. You depress the butt sharply to take the slack and set the hook. Line spins off the reel well into the backing, and far up the pool at the edge of white water your fish leaps high in his endeavor to shake the hook. Oh, boy! he’s a beauty. You scarcely take the next breath before a black shadow passes like a streak of light just out from your feet. The line has slackened, but keep your rod high and don’t reel on your life. Far down the tail he jumps again, his broad red side gleaming in the dusk. Then the dogged fight for victory begins.
The current is strong on the far bank, and each run the fish ventures draws on your store of line even though you turn him. On his pass back toward the shallows your hope of retrieving some of your backing is negated by the weight of your antagonist. To follow him down is your only course. The two channels divided by the island below present a real dilemma. The left-hand channel narrows sharply with a great pickup of speed and, most dangerous of all, reaches a tangle of snags at the lower end where you are bound to lose your fish. The channel on the right is equally formidable. A rapid of white water lashes over a boulder-strewn bottom as far as the eye can see. Although if appears fraught with danger to your tackle, it offers the only hope.
With all the strain your 2X leader will stand, you slowly guide the fish into the right channel and, wading quickly toward him, reel in all the line he will allow as he crosses the quieter water at the head of the island. The fish is tiring now, but again, as the current picks up speed when the rapid is reached, precious line is lost. Then behind one of the first series of boulders your fish stops in a pocket to rest. Rod held high, you work gingerly down the channel toward him to regain all the line you can.
Desperate as your chances appear, this momentary lull in the contest gives an opportunity to seek a likely landing along the edge of the tumult below. Your eye fixes on a quiet pocket siding the main stream some twenty-five yards away. By careful guidance and a modicum of luck you might make it. You edge toward shore, weaving carefully among the boulders and keeping a steady strain on your rod by holding it as high as possible.
Reluctantly but surely your antagonist gives way, and in the gathering dusk you behold his beauty in the net. The broad red stripe from gill pan to tail, the bright silver belly fading to gold on the sides, the mottled browns and blues of the back. Of all the Western fishes, this is the most mettlesome and comely. Your quickly produced scales read a shade over four and one-half pounds. With a sigh and a prayer that his progeny will be abundant, you turn him loose. A moment gasping on his side, an instant of stillness as he rights himself, and he is gone. It is almost dark as you cross the river once more in the black shadow of Fish Rock.