By Dusty Routh
Kamloops trout. The name inspires any trout man who hears it.
From career trout bums to weekend warriors with regular jobs who make all-night drives to fish for them, the descriptions come pouring forth in enthused tones about massive trout that make spectacular 300-yard runs, huge rainbows that snap 20-pound leaders, massive fish bigger than barrels that can tail-walk, their huge frames busting across the surface while they shake their heads so violently that no hook can withstand the merciless pounding.
Of all the trout you’ve brought to hand in your lifetime, of all the rainbows and cutthroats and browns and brooks, sea-runs and speckled fishes and everything in between, only a Kamloops rainbow trout inspires such devout respect and universal angling awe. Fishing for these legendary animals deserves a whole chapter in every trout angler’s book of lifetime fishing. Indeed, for those in the know, catching a mature Kamloops is often listed among the things one needs to do before dying.
The moniker “Kamloops trout” is often applied erroneously to other trout strains. Officially, Kamloops trout are a Gerrard-strain of rainbow trout, indigenous to the fertile waters of British Columbia’s Lake Kootenay, which is southeast of the city of Kamloops. This is a deep, glacial lake, and the genetics these fish developed over the millennia equipped them for survival and prosperity in it.
Kamloops trout are shaped like oversized chinook salmon, football-like, with fat, humped backs, small heads, and massive tails. They sport a red hue along their sides, and have dark backs and bellies. They are, in a word, one of the most gorgeous freshwater fish you’ll ever see.
The species is famous for its success as a predator, surviving year after year over a lengthy lifespan, feasting on kokanee, growing to incredibly immense proportions by trout standards. But it’s not just their propensity to grow huge that makes Kamloops so popular with anglers. It’s their endurance and dogged fighting capabilities that stamp an indelible impression on anglers who tangle with them.
The Gerrard strain of rainbow was transplanted from Kootenay Lake into Lake Pend Oreille (pronounced “pond uh-ray”) in Idaho in the 1940s. Supplemental stocking took place in the mid-1980s, too. Here these trout prospered in the azure waters of a forbiddingly deep lake, just as they did in the lake of their origin, gorging themselves fat on a fabulously rich diet of kokanee and baby lake trout and bull trout and anything else that swims that’s smaller than they are.
The result is a rainbow trout that averages 3 to 8 pounds in size, with double-digit fish refreshingly frequent, and fish in the low- to mid-20-pound ranges a real possibility almost every day on the lake. The world-record Kamloops was a 37-pound fish, surprisingly caught here and not at its native Lake Kootenay.
Now naturally reproducing, Kamloops trout spawn in the spring, usually in March and April, when they congregate in Lake Pend Oreille’s bountiful creeks and tributaries.
In 1984 a small home-based fly business called Frisky Jenny Flies started making hand-tied trolling streamer flies for the freshwater chinook salmon in Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Lake, not far from Pend Oreille. But it didn’t take long for fishermen to figure out that the Kamloops trout in Pend Oreille had an equally voracious appetite for these outstanding flies. To this day, Frisky Jenny Flies are a standard for nailing a ‘loops.
A Frisky Jenny is a 4-inch streamer tied on a 4/0 hook with a 2/0 trailer hook. Natural-colored patterns are the norm, in greens and browns and perch patterns, along with blacks-and-purples, and, on occasion, reds-and-whites. In colder weather these flies are trolled right on the surface behind planer boards, but as the water warms up in the late spring and summer the flies can be trolled off downriggers behind dodgers and flashers.
Justin Kimberling, with Fins and Feathers Guide Service in Coeur d’Alene (208-667-9304), fishes 30 to 70 feet down in the summer for these big ‘bows. He trolls Frisky Jenny flies behind a flasher, and also deploys Apex lures, made by Hot Spot Fishing and Lures Ltd., of Canada, the same folks who make the popular flasher of the same name. “Use the black and white Apexes, or black and glow, in the large 4.5- to 5.5-inch sizes,” Kimberling advises.
If downriggers aren’t your thing, lead-core line can be deadly. Anglers use long (50 feet or more) leaders of 12- to 20-pound-test line, trolling four to six colors out, often adding weight for additional depth.
Trolling speeds for Kamloops are fairly brisk, from 2.5 to 3 miles per hour. An investment in a trolling speed indicator or using your GPS to monitor speed is a wise investment. This trolling speed range is a key ingredient to inducing savage strikes from bigger fish.
Some anglers liberally shoot their flies with a spray scent called K-Fly, whose anise scent smells a bit like licorice. To a Kamloops, it may smell like kokanee.
All successful trout are highly evolved predators who have learned how to hunt in order to live. The bigger a fish gets, the more it’s capable of eating, and the more it needs to eat to stay fueled. For Pend Oreille’s big trout, that means you’re fishing for cruisers who can be in one spot one day and be gone the next.
Don Houk, with Lake Charters, Inc., (208-667-3474), spends a large portion of his time putting his clients into these fish. “Of all the fishing I do, they’re my favorite species,” he says. “But you have to remember they move every day. They’re widespread throughout the lake. There are no dead spots that don’t hold fish. It’s a matter of current, and a matter of where the bait is at any given time. Some areas will be good for only a day, and some will be good for a week or longer. The trout move every day.”
To illustrate his point, Houk points out that he guides almost exclusively at the north end of the lake in the fall, and the south end in the spring. “But I have friends who fish the lake who do just the opposite, fishing the south end in the fall and the north end in the spring. We all catch a lot of fish.”
Houk also points out that like salmon, Kamloops are not structure-oriented fish. For one thing, Pend Oreille is incredibly deep, with 500-foot depths only a stone’s throw from shore; fishing for open-water fish is all about current and baitfish rather than shelves and flats.
In the spring and fall these fish are typically found right on the surface. As the spring winds down, Kamloops go deep and become harder to catch. “Summer fishing means fishing deep,” says Houk. “It’s not as much fun or as productive as fishing for them right on the surface, but you can still catch fish.”
Since kokanee are a primary forage base, finding schools of these silver salmon often indicates that bigger fish will be nearby. Despite their proclivity to move frequently, some hotspots do stand out on the lake. These include any of the points, especially when they’re windswept, and go-to places such as the mouth of Garfield Bay, Warren Island, Whiskey Rock and Granite Point.
While the average fish may run 3 to 8 pounds, enough of these inhabitants reach into the low 20s that paying extra attention to gear selection is critical to actually catching one of those big fish.
“The biggest I’ve seen went 31 pounds,” says Houk. “My brother caught it. This year we had a 22.5-pound fish.” Houk spools his Shimano Bantam 50 baitcasting reels with 16- to 20-pound-test braided Dacron, and leaders up with 100 feet of monofilament. He uses 10- or 12-pound-test Maxima Ultra Green for his leaders.
Planer board fishing has come into its own on this lake because when the fish are near the surface the presence of a boat easily spooks them. Planer boards can achieve stealth by spreading lines as much as 150 feet to the sides of a boat’s gunwales. “We usually fish the fly between 120 and 200 feet behind the planer board,” notes Houk, “and run the boards 150 feet out to the sides of the boat.”
When a fish strikes, a line release on the planer board allows the angler and fish to go at it mano e mano, while an auxiliary line hooked to the board allows the skipper to retrieve the tripped board.
Whether fishing near the surface or off downriggers later in the year, Houk uses 9-foot trolling rods. The most critical part, he points out, is a reel capable of spooling enough line. “You need a reel that will hold at least 300 yards of line. These fish can really peel it off in a hurry.”
“Basically, I tell people who’ve hooked a big fish like this for the first time: Don’t try to stop them or horse them. Let them have their head,” advises Houk. “We’re using relatively light gear, and they’ll bust you off in a hurry if you try to stop them. We try to get them in as quick as we can so they have a good chance at surviving, but it’s impossible to hurry it up with a big fish. You’ll wind up losing it for sure.”
One of Houk’s best days on the water resulted in 56 trout brought to hand, with the biggest a barrel-chested 16-pounder. On average he catches between 10 and 20 fish per outing, with one or two of them reaching double digits. “Every fall I’ll have a handful of days where I’ll catch six to 15 fish and five of them will weigh over 10 pounds,” he notes.
The spring and early summer usually result in more but smaller fish. “Our biggest fish are up in the rivers spawning in the spring, so that knocks down the average size,” he reports. Last fall Houk had a bountiful day that saw five fish caught, each weighing between 15 an
d 19 pounds. “It was just one of those Kamloops kinds of days,” he says.
There’s ebullience and epic passion added to fishing when you know big fish are in the water and that somewhere behind the boat lurks a fish that could be the biggest trout of your lifetime. You catch yourself jumping at each fish strike, hoping that a truly big fish has been lurking, isolated among all the smaller and medium-sized trout you’ve been catching.
The intensity goes up a notch when you’re going after Kamloops trout, a fish that meets the distinction of trophy class in every way, and the expectation rises yet again when you’re fishing at Lake Pend Oreille, a lake known for its gargantuan growth achievements. Catching trout is always fun, no doubt about it, but it’s different when the fish are monumental. It is, in essence, one of the purest and truest thrills of fishing.
Lake Pend Oreille is in the northern panhandle of Idaho, and is reached from the west on Highway 2, or from the south on Highway 95.
Boat ramps and marinas are scattered around the lake, and are particularly plentiful along its northern half. The burgs of Hope and East Hope offer six boat-launching sites.
Fishing Guides - Justin Kimberling, Fins and Feathers Guide Service, 208-667-9304; Don Houk Lake Charters, Inc., 208-667-3474.
Lodging & Resorts - Best Western Edgewater Resort, Sandpoint, Idaho, 800-635-2534; Bottle Bay Resort, Sagle, Idaho, 208-263-5916; Pend Oreille Shores Resort, Hope, Idaho, 208-264-5828; Red Fir Resort, Hope, Idaho, 208-264-5287; and Selkirk Lodge (in Schweitzer Village) Sandpoint, Idaho, 800-831-8810.
RV Parks - Idaho Country Resorts, Hope, Idaho, 800-307-3050; Farragut State Park, 208-683-2425.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Rocky Mountain Game & Fish