Northwest Fly Fishing

Two Fisheries, Same River
By Chip O’Brien

More Oregonians probably look at the Willamette River than any other waterway, with the possible exceptions of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. Yet few would ever ponder the mystical quality of rivers, which exist in every stage of their lives from infant to senior citizen in the magic of a single moment. A jogger in downtown Portland would hardly suspect that 200 miles away, a robust trout just inhaled a Golden Stonefly a moment before on the same river.
   Portland might see the Willamette as an old woman, stately and picturesque, before losing herself in the vast Columbia. Salem likely sees her in adulthood, but already developing warm-water sloughs along her edges. Eugene and Springfield see her as younger and more mischievous as kayakers and anglers alike are drawn to her for play. Above Lookout Point and Hills Creek Reservoirs, the Middle Fork of this lifeblood river can only be described as young, hard-bodied, and able. A lot of anglers claim they know her, yet most wouldn’t have the courage to ask her out.
   No one knows exactly where the name Willamette even came from. Popular suggestions suppose it originated from the French spelling of a Native American word, which either meant a village along the river or “Valley of Sickness and Death.” The distinction might be important. One tongue-in-cheek proposal claims that, upon seeing it running into the Columbia River, Meriwether Lewis turned to Captain William Clark and asked, “Will, am it a river?”
   Yes, well, not only am it a river, but there is more than 300 miles of it flowing from Oregon’s Cascade summit west and north into the Columbia. Luckily, we are not talking about the whole thing here, but we are talking about what amounts to two different fisheries on the same river. There are the “lower” the 13 miles of the river’s Middle Fork that pour out from beneath Hills Creek Dam near Oakridge and flow into Lookout Point Reservoir. The other is the upper, the same river only much smaller, which flows down from the Cascade crest into Hills Creek Reservoir. Let’s work our way upstream.

 

The Lower
The Middle Fork emanates from Hills Creek Dam only a few miles southeast of Oakridge, and flows for about 13 miles before running into Lookout Point Reservoir. The most efficient way to fish this section is from a drift boat or pontoon boat, though it isn’t necessarily a place for beginners. That’s not to discourage anglers who choose to wade. Much of the river flows through Willamette National Forest land, so wading access along the river is excellent, especially below Oakridge. It’s just that those who can cover a lot of water have an obvious advantage over those clogging around in wading boots.
   If you’re going to wade, access to productive water is available on the far side (opposite State Route 58) below Oakridge. A few roads to cruise looking for access are the Old Willamette Highway, Westfir Road, and Old Military Road. The Middle Fork is one of those rivers you want to develop a relationship with. It will likely take several trips before you get to know the lay of the land and that’s okay. If you plan to drift the river (highly recommended), you will also need to see as much of it as possible before venturing forth. Check out the launch sites and learn to recognize the take-outs. Check out the river on Google Earth and visit the white-water sections before floating them. Consider your time spent exploring the river and not fishing as an investment. Here is a river that will pay you back many times over for having a wee bit of patience.
   There are two popular drifts. The first is from below Hills Creek Dam down past Oakridge to the SR 58 bridge. You can reach the water below the dam by driving just east of Oakridge on SR 58 and turning right (south) on Hills Creek Road, then take another right on Forest Road 23. Before you cross over the river a short way down this road, turn left on one of the several gravel roads you will notice. This area offers several options for launching, so poke around until you find the easiest one. 
   Depending on releases from beneath Hills Creek Dam, the water can run fairly fast. There are also brief sections of white water to deal with. To check how much water is being released, go to http://levels.wkcc.org/?P=Oregon.html and scroll down to “MF Willamette River,” then find the line marked for Oakridge. The best fishing is when the “Height Feet” column is showing 2.5 to 3.5 feet. You can still catch fish when the height is more than 3.5, but the higher the number, the quicker the boat ride
will be.
   Good areas to fish on this drift include where Salt Creek and Salmon Creek flow into the Middle Fork. The hole beneath the footbridge at Greenwaters Park is almost always good for a fish or two.
   Fishing in this section is purely on a catch-and-release basis, except if you hook fish with their adipose fins clipped. The vast majority of the fish here are wild rainbow and cutthroat trout, but anglers have noted that hatchery fish stocked on some of the tributary streams sometimes wash down into the Middle Fork. You may harvest up to five adipose-fin-clipped trout, but it’s rare to catch that many. The regulations also call for artificial flies or lures only, meaning no bait is allowed.
   The lower drift begins beneath the SR 58 bridge just west of Oakridge and ends at Black Canyon Campground on Lookout Point Reservoir. While there is a lot of good water to fish, one great area is where the North Fork of the Middle Fork flows in. Note that not far above the confluence is a fairly substantial white-water drop.
   For both drifts in the lower section, a dry/dropper combination works well. Tie a large, buoyant dry fly such as a Chubby Chernobyl on top, with a beadhead or jig-style nymph about 8 feet below. That may seem like a great distance between flies, but the water is fairly fast and deep. Fishing the nymphs on a longer line will help them sink to the necessary depth. This method is especially effective in the spring when big stoneflies are in the air and also during the fall when the October Caddis are about.
   Happily, the fish are in all the right places. Read the water as you would any other wild trout stream. Look for areas below riffles, seams along the edges or around boulders, and places where shallows drop off into deeper water. When there is a hatch, the trout also betray their whereabouts by rising to whatever’s on the water. The river receives precious little pressure, so the fish are generally receptive in all but high-sun, midsummer weather. Fortunately, there are spring and fall and some great hatches to take up the slack. Summer evenings are also great for finding rising fish.
   Fishing beneath Hills Creek Reservoir usually begins around April depending on flows. This section is open to angling year-round, but generally doesn’t start fishing well until the insects really get going. Spring brings Golden Stonefly hatches, some McKenzie Green Caddisflies (though not with anywhere near the intensity as the same hatches on the McKenzie River), Western March Browns, several species of other summer caddisflies, as well as the October Caddis. Most of the time, these fish are not terribly selective, but they will not abide sloppy casting or flies that drag.
   When fishing with a dry/dropper, you always have the happy possibility of getting a double, one trout on the nymph and one on the dry fly at the same time. I’m convinced there must be some kind of unbendable cosmic law governing doubles. The first part is that you are only going to land one of those fish at best. The other part is that it will always be the smaller of the two fish. Cosmic laws and outcomes aside, I’m pretty sure that any day you hook a double is a good day.

 

The Upper
It might as well be another trout stream entirely, but it isn’t. It’s the same Middle Fork Willamette River that flows beneath Hills Creek Dam, only there’s much less of it. Above the reservoir is an enchanting 30 miles or so of luscious, productive, and generally unpeopled wild-trout water ideal for wading.
   This upper river has different angling regulations from down below. Angling begins on April 26 and runs through October 31. All fishing is with artificial flies or lures, and all fishing is catch-and-release. Though you’re allowed to fish here in April, that doesn’t mean you should. Even though the river is much smaller than down below and startlingly clear, the speed of the current makes wading potentially treacherous until July or August. Nevertheless, it is an absolute fairyland above Hills Creek Reservoir with lovely campgrounds and terrific fishing. 
   Before I started fishing the upper section, I tried to find out as much as I could. What I learned was that hardly anyone knows very much about it. There seemed to be a virtual vacuum of information on the fishery, so I planned my first trip and hoped for the best. The best fishing water is the section just up from the reservoir, above Packard Creek Campground. Forest Road 21 follows the river for many miles above the reservoir and there are several bridges and campgrounds upstream providing easy access to the water. Up there, your only limitations are your level of physical fitness and how hard you want to push yourself. Some deep areas limit where you can cross the river, but luckily there are enough shallow spots not to restrict wading too much.
   These upper-river fish see very few anglers, so matching the hatch isn’t terribly important. Like down below Hills Creek Reservoir, a dry/dropper combination works wonderfully well. Unlike down below, you can hang a nymph only a few feet under your dry fly and expect to do well. The water is even clearer up above than it is down below, so approach the river with a degree of stealth. Wherever you think there should be a trout, there probably is a trout or two. There’s so much beautiful water to fish that it isn’t wise to work any one place for too long. It’s better to move on and fish the next
deep spot.
   The higher up the river you go, the more downed timber becomes a consideration. I found the area around Indigo Springs Campground to be all but unfishable for all the wood in the water. Not only do the logs seem to reach out and grab your flies, but they also make moving up and down the shore nearly impossible. That said, there are wild rainbows and cutthroat trout in every little deep spot you find, plus it’s incredibly scenic. The stream is relatively infertile and hatches tend to be sparse, so trout will gladly inhale a well-drifted nymph or dry fly. You might even be tempted to take a drink from such gorgeous water, but I wouldn’t. There is a small campground at Indigo Springs, and this water you may drink without concern.
   This area was the center of a successful bull trout recovery program. I’ve never had a bull trout grab a smaller trout I was playing on this river as I have elsewhere, but a ranger told me they stay down in Hills Creek Reservoir eating hatchery fish until it’s time to spawn in the fall. The bull trout are protected, which means you cannot target them, but accidental hookups are part of the fun.

 

What’s in a Name?
The vortex of misunderstanding surrounding the Middle Fork could not be better characterized than in how its source, Timpanogas Lake on the Cascade summit, got its name. 
   Some genius back in history decided the source of the Willamette River was probably the Great Salt Lake, and this was even before the largest body of water in Utah was officially named. One of the unofficial names for the Great Salt Lake, before it got its official one, was Timpanogos, possibly after the Timpanogot band of Utes who lived in the Utah Valley area. So the source of the Middle Fork Willamette, a river whose name nobody understands to begin with, was given the incorrect name of a lake that is not even its true source. Outstanding. It’s lucky the fishing isn’t nearly that complex.
   A river as long as the Willamette exists in every stage of its life from newborn to oldster in a single, frozen moment of time. And in that moment, a robust, wild trout in a mountain stream on the Cascade summit could hardly fathom that 200 miles away, a jogger in Portland just splashed through a puddle the moment before, and on the same river.

 

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