Nevada's Trout Triple Crown
October 04, 2010
Three hotspots in the Silver State's northeastern corner boast trout in the teens. But you'll need a little local knowledge to really cash in on action at Wildhorse Reservoir, South Fork Reservoir and Ruby Marshes. (June 2007)
Photo by Doug Nielson.
Years later, I learned that Nevada's northeastern corner is actually home to some of the Southwest's best trout fishing. In fact, this sparsely populated corner of the world has three waters that might very well be considered a trout-fishing Triple Crown.
Had my dad only known about Wildhorse Reservoir, South Fork Reservoir and the Ruby Marshes, then we might never have made it to our usual vacation destination.
Well, South Fork hadn't yet been built. But if it had, we might have been at least a couple of days late.
Each of these high-desert waters has a well-earned reputation among anglers as a place to reel in some big trout. If you're looking for pan-sized fish, make sure to bring a big pan.
Bass fishermen will find plenty of action to keep them happy, too.
My first introduction to Wildhorse came when I was working as a game warden for the Nevada Department of Wildlife.
I was assigned to patrol the Nevada-Idaho state line and keep an eye out for some of the good folks from the Gem State who sometimes had a little trouble remembering where Idaho ends and Nevada begins.
Ordinarily, this wouldn't be an issue. But during the states' respective deer seasons, it seems to be a real problem.
While in the neighborhood, I took the opportunity to inspect the licenses of several fishermen. All of them had stringers of plump rainbows. Many of their fish were easily 16 inches or more, with good girth.
Dennis Dunn, a former resident of Colorado, has lived on the shores of Wildhorse Reservoir for the past nine years.
"Wildhorse is probably the top trout fishing destination in the Western United States. It beats 'em all," he said.
That's a pretty bold statement, especially from someone who lived in Colorado. But that's why Dunn retired here and runs his Wildhorse Ranch & Resort.
I asked him what sets Wildhorse apart from other trout fisheries.
Dunn cited the fast growth rates of the fish that are in the reservoir and the size of those available to anglers.
"A 10-inch fish will grow an inch in a month," he said, speaking of planter rainbows.
Fast growth is a trait common to many of Nevada's trout waters. Some impoundments boast a growth rate for planter rainbows that tops 2 inches per month!
Chris Crookshanks, a fisheries biologist for NDOW, once explained that these almost unbelievable growth rates are directly tied to the amazing amount of aquatic insects to be found in many of Nevada's most productive still-water trout fisheries.
At Wildhorse, fish reaching 3 to 5 pounds are not uncommon. According to NDOW records, the lake has given up a 12-pound, 9-ounce brown trout; a 4-pound, 2-ounce cutthroat; an 8-pound rainbow; and a 10-pound, 4-ounce bowcutt.
Dunn said that for the third year in a row, water is expected to go over the spillway. That means the reservoir will be full and should top 3,000 surface acres.
Boaters tend to do well with Flatfish in colors ranging from dark green to black, or with lures that mimic perch. These can be worked from a boat or from the shoreline, said Dunn.
Fly-fishing is generally best in the spring and late fall. Dunn recommends Woolly Worms in all the darker colors.
The water is still quite cold in June. Fly-anglers should concentrate on the shallows and keep an eye out for mayflies.
"Chironomids and midges should work well," said Joe Doucette, an NDOW spokesman who was fishing northeastern Nevada long before anglers from outside the area began to realize its potential.
He also recommends fishing with leech patterns and Woolly Buggers in blood, black, brown and olive variations. Tie them with sparkle down the sides because the water can be a little murky.
"Use a medium sink-tip line to get the fly down in the water," he said.
On the west side of Wildhorse, there is a place where an underwater hot spring feeds into the reservoir. Doucette said anglers should fish the area where the hot water meets the cold. Another spot to try is on the southeast side of the reservoir where Hot Creek feeds into the lake.
These spots might also give up a bucketmouth or two. Shore-anglers generally find success with worms, eggs, corn, PowerBait and lures.
Wildhorse was first created in 1937 when the Owyhee River was impounded to store water for irrigation.
Adventuresome anglers could often find success on the river below the dam, Dunn said. "The fishing is good all summer long, and some of the biggest fish come from this area. I'm talking fish in the 5-, 6-, 7- or 8-pound range."
Because Wildhorse Reservoir is located on lands administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and leased to the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, anglers can expect to pay a fee for overnight camping, though the reservoir is open to the public.
Another camping option is the Wild Horse State Recreation Area, which offers full amenities all year.
Incidentally, Dunn said, three additional reservoirs on the reservation can give Wildhorse anglers a convenient change of pace -- for a small fee.
SOUTH FORK RESERVOIR
About 75 miles south of Wildhorse, just minutes from downtown Elko, lies the second member of our trout-fishing Triple Crown.
This prolific trout fishery is located along the western slope of the beautifully rugged Ruby Mountains, known simply as "The Rubies" to locals.
South Fork Reservoir was created when the dam of the same name was completed on the South Fork of the Humboldt River in 1988.
It covers 1,650 surface acres when full
and despite its youth, has already won the attention of the pickiest of anglers as well as those just looking to have a good time.
To date, the largest trout taken at South Fork include a 29.2-inch, 11-pound, 3-ounce brown; a 27.5-inch, 9-pound, 2-ounce rainbow; and a rainbow-cutthroat hybrid that measured in at 25.5 inches and weighed 6 pounds, 14 ounces.
All three were taken by local fishermen. What do you use to catch fish that size?
"We use a lot of PowerBait up here," said Jerry Stager, a retired guide who spent years putting anglers on Nevada's big trout.
"Just about any color will work, but my favorite is the rainbow."
Stager doesn't just stick his finger in the jar for a blob of bait. He has created his own technique for preparing PowerBait for presentation to the fish. "And it doesn't matter where we go."
Stager fishes PowerBait on a slip-rig using a 1/2-ounce steel bullet sinker, a snap and a No. 8 Octopus hook. He starts with a 15-inch leader and adjusts its length as needed so his bait is always floating above the grass or weedbeds on the lake bottom.
He rolls a small marble of PowerBait vigorously between his hands to warm it, then places the bait on his hook and fashions it so it resembles a "baby ice cream cone," with the narrowing portion covering the eye of the hook and reaching about a half-inch up the fishing line.
In the water, the large portion floats upward and this, Stager believes, resembles a leech hovering in water.
"This stuff has to be out of weeds to work. If you cast this out and drag it back 1 or 2 feet through the weeds, and get weeds on the PowerBait, you won't catch a fish with it."
Once you cast it, you've got to leave it there.
If it's open water with mostly rocks and sand, then you can move it -- but not very much. Stager said the fish will hit the bait in a fashion he termed "verocity" -- a term he coined denoting a mixture of velocity and ferociousness.
The key is making the bait sit as still as possible. If you fish from a boat, Stager emphasized the need to anchor from both bow and stern for this to work.
"If you just have one anchor out, and you're just kind of floating in the wind and the breeze it won't work," he said.
"That boat will drag that bait through the grass and the weeds. You won't do any good."
For flyfishermen, Doucette recommends blood-colored leech patterns or Zebra Midges in size 10 or 12. Use a medium sink-tip line to get the leeches down to the fish.
Mornings are best for float tubes, but afternoon winds are common.
Doucette said that anglers may want to try fishing the old river channel about 100 to 150 yards off the area known as "Jet Skis Beach."
Trout sit in the current and wait for tasty morsels to float by. The channel has some old willows and brush, so be prepared to lose some tackle.
Boaters usually do well by trolling Rapalas and other spinners along the dam. Some anglers even use downriggers to get their baits to a specific depth.
Stager likes lures with a dark back, a green side and a yellow belly or a Husky Jerk. Blue Fox spinners can also be productive.
"The day the ice comes off is the day you want to be here," he said.
"When the ice melts, be in a boat on that lake and just be trolling. It'll open your eyes."
To the east of South Fork and over The Rubies is the third member of the trout-fishing Triple Crown.
Fed by more than 200 individual springs, the Ruby Marshes spread across the southern end of Ruby Valley and comprise a significant portion of the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge. The area sits at an elevation of 6,000 feet, some 80 miles southeast of Elko.
The refuge is managed primarily for waterfowl, but fishing is the most popular recreational activity.
Anglers on the marshes can also expect rainbow, brown, cutthroat, tiger and brook trout in addition to largemouths.
In 1992, Kurt Covely of Elko reeled in a monster brown that weighed 25 pounds and measured nearly 35 inches long.
Fish like that one aren't the norm, but the marshes do provide anglers with opportunities to catch some big trout.
The marshes also produced a 13-pound, 13-ounce tiger trout (brown-brook hybrid) -- the new state record -- as well as a rainbow that weighed the same.
In the spring, no boats of any kind can be on the water until June 15. But anglers can still fish the area known as the Collection Ditch. This portion of the marshes is designated as an artificial-fly- or lure-only fishery, but is closed to wading.
Woolly Buggers and patterns mimicking dragonfly and damselfly nymphs are generally good choices.
"A black-bear-haired streamer in number 6 or 8 is popular with the locals," Doucette said.
"It has a chenille body with black-bear hair for a wing."
These flies should also work well when the boat restriction is eased on June 15.
Though spring fishing is always good at the marshes, Doucette said the very best time to fish them is in fall when others are focusing on hunting season.
"September is great," he said. "October is incredible."
For trout, Stager said, you want to use what he calls a "money clip" because that's what it looks like. He couldn't recall the name of the lure, but described it as gold with red spots.
After some digging around, I believe Stager was referring to the Jake's Spin-A-Lure. My father-in-law always called it "a Las Vegas Special," because it resembled a pair of dice with a treble hook on the end. Anglers looking for trout should watch for disturbances in the middle of open ponds and pockets in the marshes. Those will be made by trout because unlike bass, trout will stay out in the middle.
"When you see the disturbance, wing that thing (the "money clip") out there," he said.
"And in almost 100 percent of the cases, when you're bringing that in, he'll hit it. And it'll be a big trout. We almost never catch the little ones. So either the money clip or the PowerBait would be my way of fishing the marsh."
The key to fishing the Ruby Marshes is learning where the springs are. "Those trout will lie in those spring beds," said Stager.
"If there's not a lot of moss in a spot, and it's kind of circular, and there's only sand there, that's kind of a sign that there's a spring there."
And where there's a spring, there are probably some trout.
You still won't find towering pines or quaking aspen along many of Nevada's fisheries, but you can find a trout-fishing Triple Crown.