Snow pack, rain pushing up river levels

As I prepare this week’s Angler’s Log, the patter of raindrops is clearly audible on my roof and my most immediate observation of the upcoming week’s fishing conditions is that it is hard to overlook how persistent Old Man Winter has been this year. Last week’s precipitation pushed the McKenzie River to nearly 4 feet at the Vida gage, far exceeding my personal threshold of 3 feet, which exponentially grows the river from a manageable 5,000 cfs (cubic feet per second), to nearly 8,500 cfs at 4 feet – a level where the boating should be left to only the most experienced river guides and other boatmen. The trout also hunker down, the conditions are extremely difficult to fish and the angling experience becomes a somewhat fruitless exercise in casting and retrieving. Now, more precipitation is in the immediate forecast and weather modeling suggests that it could be pretty wet this spring, so fishing on the McKenzie or the Willamette River could be a bit dicey with high and cold river conditions lasting well into early summer. 

Also looming is this season’s impressive snow pack, which from the most recent NOAA weather report released on 4/14, shows that the snow-to-water equivalence ranges across our state from 150% above average to over 300% above the 30-year average. To put that into perspective, at 100% of normal snow/water there is a modest effect on spring river levels but at 200% and more, the runoff could begin to create storage capacity concerns, prompting resource officials to maintain high discharge rates from their dams. Which in turn could have river levels below the Willamette Valley’s flood control impoundments running high and cold well into the summer this year – a condition we haven’t seen in 15 years or more. That year Army Corp of Engineers hydrologists struggled to maintain the McKenzie at about 3 feet, in an attempt to maintain its recreational viability, all the way until the end of August. 

Regardless of the higher-than-normal river condition, the ODFW’s Leaburg Hatchery is in full production and the first of the 80,000 or so rainbow trout that will all eventually be planted in the McKenzie River are set for release. In the week of April 17, about 7,000 Leaburg trout will be boat stocked into the river from Leaburg Dam down to Hendricks Wayside & Park. Then, in the week of April 24, another 7,700 will also be boat stocked from Finn Rock Landing down to the EWEB landing which is located at the head of Leaburg Lake and it’s “game on.”

The more than ample precipitation also has all our lakes, ponds and reservoirs nearly full, and on the horizon is the best lake boating season we have seen in several years. Game on here too, over the next week just every body of water is on the stocking schedule. But on the lake you are going to have to keep an eye out for floating debris washed into the water from the numerous high-water events this winter. Also, the lakes reaching full pool levels have the potential to cause fallen limbs and trees along the banks to float out into the boating channels, where they become a serious hazard and although there is no current to deal with, lake waters will be extremely cold for some time and even a short swim could be life threatening. 

The amount of hazard and the ongoing potential cannot be overstated this season. It is on the mind of every whitewater professional I know. My friend Mark Swick is an emergency room nurse, swift water rescue technician, a diver and a seasoned river guide. His experience spans the state and he is locally known for his sunken boat recovery skills. I recently spoke with “Swick” and he offered this advice: 

“The higher water flows coming this year from the runoff can lead to some surprisingly dangerous conditions. The water is going to be colder than usual, higher than normal, and there’s going to be more wood in the water (like fallen trees and root wads). Moving water can catch a lot of people off guard, even seasoned professionals. The No. 1 most important thing for anyone near the water is to wear a life jacket – even strong swimmers and seasoned professionals (should wear one). Life jackets save lives. Life jackets prevent death.” 

The early part of the 2023 fishing and boating season is going to present a few challenges to your angling experience – but will leave you well-positioned for the hot summer that is predicted to come. Stay tuned. 

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