The Big Fish in the McKenzie

Four generations of fishing guides make their livelihoods on the river

By Craig Reed

Aaron Helfrich, center, takes clients out for a day on the McKenzie River, where four generations of his family have made their livelihoods on the water. Photos courtesy of the Helfrich Family

The pristine waters of the McKenzie River might be a blue-green color, but they have been like a bloodline for the Helfrich family.

The river has flowed through the family for four generations— or maybe it’s better to say members of the Helfrich family have rowed drift boats through those waters for 100 years.

In 1922, at the age of 19, Prince Helfrich pushed a wooden drift boat into the river and started the family’s fishing and guiding business on the McKenzie.

In the ensuing years, Prince’s son, Dean, manned the oars of his boat and took fishing clients down the river. Eventually, Dean’s sons—Adam, Tony, and Aaron—continued the family’s guiding tradition.

Several years later, they were joined by Ryan and Cody, Tony’s sons, and Garrett, Aaron’s son. Ken and Jeff, Dean’s nephews, also guide. Their respective grown children, Kelsey and Weston, are guides.

For those more interested in a whitewater and scenery trip, Jonnie, Aaron’s wife, has run six-passenger rafts on the river from June through August for the past 20 years. Their daughter, Leah, is a raft guide.

“It’s an awesome river,” Dean says. “It was better back in the day when there were less people, but it’s still good. We fish it 90 to 100 days a year. It’s been a good life, getting out every day, fishing, guiding, and meeting people on the McKenzie.”

Dean spent more than 60 years guiding on the river, retiring at age 82 following the 2021 season.

His sons, grandchildren, and extended families have also enjoyed the outdoor livelihood the McKenzie has provided.

“The river has definitely provided a living for generations of my family,” Aaron says. “It’s also a water and electricity supply for Eugene/Springfield and provides recreation for people from all over the world. Spending time outdoors is better than being stuck in a cubicle somewhere.”

Dean, his wife, Gayle, and his son, Aaron, enjoy working and recreating on the McKenzie River.

Tony also notes the family’s long history with the river.

“There’s probably other ways to make more money, but getting out there is worth it,” he says. “The fishing and guiding business has certainly treated my family well.”

Generally, the Helfrich guides take clients fly fishing or spinner fishing on the upper McKenzie from March to September primarily for rainbow trout. Casting for cutthroat trout in the lower McKenzie is also an option.

The McKenzie offers a spring chinook fishery from mid-May to mid-July.

Once the trout and chinook seasons ease, some of the Helfrich guides travel to the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho to fish for rainbow and cutthroat trout. In the fall, they travel to the Rogue River to drift and fish for steelhead.

For all Helfrich family members following Prince, their first solo experiences on the oars was manning the supply and baggage raft on multiday overnight trips on the Salmon and Rogue rivers until lodges were built along the latter waterway.

Dean rowing a drift boat with grandsons Ryan, Carson, Zack and Garrett. The Helfrich’s guiding business on the McKenzie River has supported four generations.

Rafts were more forgiving in rough whitewater for the young rowers. Those trips also gave the teenagers a chance to learn the different rivers.

Dean says he made his first solo raft trip after his sophomore year of high school. That tradition continued with members of following generations during their teen years until they graduated to the oars in a drift boat.

A film of Prince fly fishing from a drift boat on the Deschutes River was shown at the San Francisco World’s Fair in 1939, promoting both fishing and the Helfrich name.

Dean, Tony, and Aaron guided numerous celebrities, including Jimmy Carter, after his presidency. Jimmy was joined by his wife, Rosalynn, three other couples who were friends of the Carters, and four Secret Service agents.

Dean also guided Gen. Jimmy Doolittle and American Motors Corp. CEO George Romney.

Aaron has guided actors Ice Cube, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon.

“You meet an awful lot of nice people on the river,” Dean says. “There might be a few bad ones, but mostly good ones. Any business has that.”

Aaron says the McKenzie has a blue-ribbon trout fishery.

Aaron rides along with his raft guide daughter, Leah.

“The McKenzie has some of the most pristine water in the United States,” he says. “The river and the fishery are very well taken care of by everybody.”

Trout numbers in the McKenzie River were increased in the 1950s when the state began releasing trout raised in the Leaburg Hatchery. Regulations dictated catch-and-release of wild trout, while hatchery trout could be kept for the dinner table.

Tony says it has been a privilege to make a living on the McKenzie and the other rivers.

“We got a head start with guiding because of what our father and grandfather established before us,” he says. “They were the best mentors in the business. The McKenzie has been our heritage.”

Tony’s five children all have McKenzie for middle names.

“We’ve all been in the wilderness areas that drain into the McKenzie, our home river,” he says. “We’d like to think the pristine river and its fishery will be around for our great-grandkids and beyond to enjoy.”