Posted on September 27, 2016
Show Me… an Oregon Adventure
As they walked the narrow path leading back to our campsite tucked away in the Willamette National Forest surrounded by old growth Doug Fir and towering Hemlock trees, they said it reminded them of a scene from Jurassic Park. Our rustic canvas teepee tents were drawn tight and the flaps were folded back to let the lite mountain breeze from the Cascade range blow through the opening and reveal a bright splash of color from the Pendleton wool blankets laid out on canvas cowboy bedrolls on Therm-a-rest cots inside. Just behind the camp a little stream of icy water provided just the right amount of white noise as it babbled away between the smooth river rocks and moss covered tree limbs. We were in the heart of Oregon between Eugene and Bend – Big Water country, known for steelhead, white water, and fly fishing. The Sansone men of St. Louis – Jim Sr, Jimmy, and Lan had come out west for a WoodenBoat adventure and wanted to test drive some rugged new apparel from their Normal line of clothing. While they are seasoned outdoorsmen, they had never experienced an Oregon river adventure and I was thrilled to be the one making the introductions.
One of the best parts of an Oregon adventure is fresh Salmon grilled on a cedar plank over a bed of coals. We brined the Chinook fillet’s in ice water with sea salt, lemon slices and herbs, brined the cedar plank in the icy brook behind camp and brought them both together on the grill.
Our proper campfire meal was followed by Pendleton Whiskey and cigars of course.
Deep sleep came easy and dawn came early to our camp in one of the largest National Forests in the country. After a big river-rat breakfast and hot coffee, we broke camp, loaded gear in the Toyota FJ40 and prepared for a day on the McKenzie River.
We were met at the boat ramp by my good friend and fellow guide George Recker who also runs a wood boat and is one of the best oarsmen and fishermen on the river… his specialty = the famous McKenzie redside rainbow trout which we would be pursuing that day. To get to these fish, we run whitewater in boats that are designed for this specific purpose on this particular river and are named for it. We run McKenzie style drift boats made of wood and their unique features allow us to move with speed and agility as we cut sharp lines with our Sawyer Oars around a variety of river obstacles to get to the fish.
We caught lots and lots of trout as we avoided rocks and boulders and cut an elegant path through Class II and III rapids on the McKenzie. The next day we pursued steelhead at sun-up on slower water draped in a heavy fog and the thrill of running white water rapids from the day before was replaced by the anticipation and possibility of hooking into this king of gamefish with flimsy rods and fancy flies.
With a reputation as “elusive” – Steelhead are hard to find, hard to catch and extremely difficult to land. We have found that ideal conditions for hooking up with a steelhead include cool water temperatures with an overcast sky and/or slight rain. By ten o’clock that morning our water temperature remained at a higher than normal 63 degrees and the bright sun had turned the fog into a beautiful clear blue sky. Degree of difficulty = EXTREMELY HIGH.
After a full morning of pursuit – throwing our best flies and making our most enticing presentations, we had nothing to show for it. No hits, no grabs, no bumps, no nothin… I gave a discouraging look at my watch as we approached one of the last best spots on the river and announced that we only had 5 minutes left of fishing time before we needed to wrap it up and get to the airport. Evidently one steelhead was listening and slammed young Jimmy’s fly sending our boat into a frenzy of activity. I dropped the anchor and stopped the boat as the steelhead charged the boat on his way upstream. The fly line went slack and everyone thought the big fish had gotten off…. everyone, that is, except Jimmy – who continued to reel as fast as he could and finally caught up to the large steelhead who sprang to life again and the fight was back on. Yikes. (9 out of 10 times, an upriver run like that will result in a lost fish – but not this time). The tug of war was classic and the fish took several epic downstream runs peeling line off the reel so fast he got deep into the backing at least three times. Finally, the fish was played out and came to the net in front of our whole river posse. It was a bigger than normal steelhead and demonstrated why these powerful fish are on almost every fly fishers “bucket list”.
It was a great ending to a river adventure that featured some of the best attributes of the great outdoors in the Pacific Northwest. And the BEST part is they “got it”….. all of it. Not just the fish and the fishing…… but the whole Oregon outdoor experience. Father and sons appreciated the little stuff as well as the big stuff and noticed things like the knobs on the FJ40, the little woodworking details on the boat, the extra touches in camp like the stacked firewood and the 1952 Coleman lantern, the wildlife on the river like the ducks and the geese, and the river otters and beavers and osprey and eagles. They noticed all the “stuff” that makes an adventure authentic and that we work so hard to show. It was as much fun for us as it was for them.
It was also special because we are all from the great state of Missouri – you know – the state “in the middle” – and while we don’t have steelhead back there – we DO have Cardinals, and Royals, and Tigers, Normal Gear, and the best barbecue in the country. As the Sansone’s headed back to the middle of the country and the “Show-me” state, they had a lot to talk about – and a lot to “show”. Another great thing they brought with them was a world class photographer named Garrett King. He took over 1,200 stunning photo’s and captured the little things and the big things to help tell about this Oregon adventure.
This trip was a highlight to my guiding season and will always be a fond memory. The things we could control went well and the things we couldn’t control seemed to fall into place like the stars were perfectly aligned. It was a great trip to be a part of.
Photo’s by the legendary Garrett King.