Fishing and Boating the McKenzie River

May 11, 2012 (Updated November 21, 2014)

When you fish with a legend you know you’re in good hands! Aaron Helfrich is a member of a legendary Oregon family who made fishing and boating a popular recreation on the state’s rivers and streams.

Aaron is the third generation in a family of Oregon fishing guides and like his firm grasp on the wooden oars, he holds tight to the path of his chosen career.

“I think people have always come to the McKenzie River to go fishing; maybe not always catching, but to get away from the city and re-charge their batteries.” He is a grandson of Prince Helfrich who was one of the earliest to design and row the McKenzie-style drift boat down the streams of the greater Pacific Northwest.


The elder Helfrich was in his prime in the 1930’s when he rowed drift boats down rivers that had never seen anything like a driftboat before.

“He really enjoyed exploring,” said Aaron. “Once he decided on a design and built the boat, Prince put it in rivers across British Columbia, Idaho and Oregon. It all started right here on the McKenzie.”

Prince and a handful of other fishing guides were the first to go with the flow in small, lightweight wooden boats on some of the biggest, most treacherous rapids in Oregon. Aaron said that his granddad made river running ”look easy” and soon the boat caught on and it allowed thousands of anglers the chance to ride over rapids, skip past boulders and leave all their troubles behind: “Prince Helfrich is one we have to thank,” added Aaron. “He got his foot in the door at the right time, he was a prolific writer and brought more people to the area. All of his sons picked it up and now it’s my generation’s turn.”

Aaron is one of a dozen Helfrich’s that are guiding on the Mckenzie River. They are a clan that can lay claim to taking anglers and sightseers alike down many of Oregon’s rivers.

But on the McKenzie River it’s never a matter of finding enough scenery to see, but finding enough time to see it all.

That includes a trip near the river’s headwaters and the short stroll off State Highway 126 to reach both Sahalie Falls and Koosah Falls.  Each is filled to the brim this time of year and both invite you to stop in and enjoy breathtaking views.

“They’re easy to access so anyone can see them,” said Meg Trendler, travel representative for Travel Lane County. “The water just comes shooting out like a giant fire hydrant – a huge wall of water any time of year. And it’s so convenient; not even five minutes from your car to the falls.”

If you’re looking for a campsite to call your own, that’s no problem for there are 14 US Forest Service Campgrounds along the McKenzie River.

One of my favorites is Delta Campground for it boasts a marvelous hiking trail through an ancient forest stand with scores of gigantic doug fir trees that reach back more than five hundred years old.

Another stop that’s sure to please is the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Leaburg Hatchery where trophy size rainbow trout are always on the bite; especially when you offer them a fistful of fish food and they stir up quite a storm.

Meanwhile, back out on the river, Aaron Helfrich is a registered guide with the Oregon Guides and Packers. His registration through the Oregon State Marine Board is a sign that he has all the necessary equipment and a lifetime of experience to handle any river conditions.

So, if you choose to ride with Aaron or the other Helfrich’s who guide, you can rest easy and enjoy the float.

In addition, if you row a driftboat or raft, you can find more information about the river’s many boat ramps and launches on the Oregon State Marine Board’s Boating Access Map.

There are 31 boat ramps along the McKenzie River and seven of them are managed by the US Forest Service. In addition, the Oregon State Marine Board has provided grants to pay for parking, restrooms and access using boat registration and titling fees.

Aaron Helfrich added that the best is yet to come for anglers willing to put in their time on the McKenzie River that continues through summer. “This is my office and you can’t beat it! If the fish are biting that’s just great abut if they’re not it’s still great to be out here.”

About The

Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.