Boats of Steele
Byline: Mike Stahlberg The Register-Guard
The McKenzie River's place in history is anchored by the fabulous redside trout fishing that once lured anglers from afar.
But a case can be made that the McKenzie is actually better-known as the birthplace of the uniquely-shaped fishing boat that bears its name.
Over several decades, many fishing guides and boat builders played roles in the evolution of the drift boat now seen on rivers throughout the West - and beyond.
One of the biggest chapters in the story of the McKenzie drift boat, however, was written by Keith Steele, a Leaburg Fish Hatchery employee who went on to become the area's busiest builder of wooden drift boats.
Steele also helped spread the boat's fame - including by going to the nation's capitol during the American Bicentennial Celebration to build a McKenzie River boat for display in the Smithsonian Institution.
Keith Steele died the day before trout season opened in 1995, but the story of his boats continues to unfold.
Using his father's tools, patterns, wood - and even some parts crafted by his father before his death - Steve Steele, Keith's eldest son, is again building wooden McKenzie boats in his shop south of Lebanon.
The latest examples of Steve Steele's craftsmanship will be in the public eye for years to come, thanks to a national sporting goods chain that decided make them a focal point of its new store in Springfield.
Cabela's commissioned Steve Steele to build three wooden drift boats - each representing a different era in the design's evolution - for a permanent display intended to pay tribute to the McKenzie River.
When the Cabela's outlet at Springfield's Gateway Mall opens May 5, customers will see Steele's trio of wooden drift boats mounted on a blue acrylic "water shelf," according Jeff Montgomery, who is in charge of the taxidermy and other displays for Cabela's stores.
"It's going to be quite special, actually," Montgomery said. "There will be a little story board on each particular boat."
One of the 14-foot display boats (which had to be scaled down from the standard 16 feet to fit in the space available) is a "square-ender," also known as a Rapid Robert. It represents the early days of McKenzie fishing, when guides would back their boats downstream at an angle, using one corner of the flat back end to cut into the waves.
The second display boat is a "double-ender," with pointed bow and stern. It was popular during the 1940s and into the early 1950s.
The third design is the one in use today, with a small transom on the stern. The transom allows an outboard motor to be attached.
The story of Steele boats begins in the early 1950s, when Keith Steele decided to supplement his hatchery wages by working as a fishing guide. His brother, Bob, was already guiding, running a "double-ender" built by Woodie Hindman, another key figure in McKenzie boating history.
"Dad took Bob's boat and copied it," Steve Steele said. "Somebody saw the one he made and wanted one, too. Over the years, he became much more active in boat building, and it just took off. He eventually quit the hatchery and went to full-time boats ... ."
By the time he died, Keith Steele had built nearly 3,000 wooden boats - most of them drift boats of the modern "double-ender with transom" design. But Steele also built several Colorado River dories, five wooden "sled" boats, and a large fleet of rowboats still in use at Clear Lake Resort at the headwaters of the McKenzie River.
"Keith Steele was, without question, the most prolific McKenzie drift boat builder of the last century," says Roger Fletcher, whose book "Drift Boats and River Dories: Their History, Design, Construction and Use" is the definitive work on the subject.
"Keith's boats are revered by their users," Fletcher said.
One of those users is Steve Schaefers, past president of the McKenzie Guides Association. …