growing Lahontan cutthroat trout, this natural lake offers a
remarkable and rare combination of extreme remoteness, great fishing and stunning scenery.
by John Shewey
Mann Lake is wild in many respects, and anglers never know what they will experience there.
Some years ago I was settling into a lazy afternoon of sitting out the midday wind at Mann Lake when a flying green blob approached from overhead. I shaded my eyes against the sun and soon identified the object as a two-man tent, no doubt having taken flight from the other end of the lake. Mann Lake’s notorious wind had wrested control of the tent as it picked up speed off the towering and spectacular east face of the Steens Mountains and then howled down the narrow valley.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife stocks the 200-acre Mann Lake with Lahontan cutthroat trout. Native to Nevada’s Lahontan Basin and perfectly adapted to high-alkaline Great Basin waters, these beautiful fish grow rapidly in Mann’s shallow, fertile broth. Within three seasons here cutts span 18 to 22 inches, which is a major reason Mann ranks as a favorite destination of Oregon fly anglers.
Mann Lake rewards visitors with 10- and 20-fish days, especially during periods of stable weather, and remarkable scenery. The lake provides scenic views of the looming, 9,000-plus-foot Steens Mountains, a huge fault-block range rising gently from the west but dropping thousands of near-vertical feet on its east face. The steep slope dominates the skyline above Mann Lake. Between March and May – the most popular time for fishing here – broad sheets of snow gleam ivory white on the Steens, and storm clouds frequently gather over the rugged crags.
The entire region typifies the basin-range environment of Oregon’s least-populated corner. The lake itself occupies a narrow sagebrush basin seasonally occupied by native peoples for thousands of years. Today several large ranches scratch out a lonely existence in the valley, including Mann Ranch, whose cattle graze above the lake’s south end and through which flows Mann Lake’s lone feeder creek. Pronghorns often graze the slopes to the west and north of the lake, and coyotes get so noisy at times as to disrupt one’s sleep. Other wildlife common in the area includes jackrabbits, bobcats, burrowing owls, sage grouse, chukar partridge, valley quail, and myriad raptors, waterfowl and reptiles.
These fish find plenty to eat. Mann is densely populated with every imaginable still-water trout food. Chironomids provide an important year-round food source. Represented by numerous species, the chironomids come in many sizes and colors, including big “bloodworm midges,” whose hemoglobin-laden larvae typically span one-quarter to a half-inch. Midge hatches begin soon after the ice cover melts in February and reach full stride by March. By mid-month, chironomids hatch every day, typically emerging at mid-morning throughout the spring.
Chironomid fishing ranges from patiently watching a strike indicator with one or more pupa patterns suspended below to actively fishing pupa patterns on floating or intermediate lines.
If late March arrives with plenty of warm weather, water beetles, backswimmers and boatmen become increasingly evident. Mann features myriad varieties, from the 1.5-inch giant diving water beetle to miniscule whirligig beetles and boatmen. Especially abundant in shallow water, the beetles, along with olive and olive-gray scuds, draw trout into shoreline margins.
Good flies for this work include just about any small nymph pattern tied with or without a small metal bead at the head. Mann Lake veterans frequently rely on Zugbugs and Prince Nymphs for imitating water beetles. When conditions allow, cast these to sighted fish. Otherwise, wade knee-deep or a little deeper into the lake, and patiently cast and retrieve.
Late March often delivers the first spring hatches of damselflies and Callibaetis mayflies. Neither hatch amounts to very much during March, but they often tempt the fish into late-morning feeding binges during which Prince Ny
mphs, Pheasant Tail Nymphs and Chironomids serve faithfully. Damsels range from bright green to brown. During warm weather, try a like imitation on a floating or intermediate line; strip it slowly over weed beds.
Mann Lake also abounds in leeches, so Woolly Buggers and other leech patterns usually produce fish. Sometimes, in fact, when shoreline fishing slows down, float tubers dragging or stripping leech patterns continue to enjoy consistent success. Black, olive and brown are top colors.
Mann Lake is float-tube optional. Certainly a boat or tube comes in handy, but you don’t need watercraft to catch fish here. If you prefer to float, beware the lake’s propensity for ferocious winds.
A longer route to Mann Lake follows State Route 205 from Burns through the Malheur Wildlife Refuge and Frenchglen. Continue south on Highway 205, which leads through Catlow Valley and eventually crosses the foothills and meets Fields-Denio Road north of Fields. Turn left; Mann Lake lies another hour or so north.
Ample unimproved camping space waits at Mann. This is bring-your-own country, including water, firewood and shelter. If you prefer cozier lodgings, there’s a tiny motel in Fields, 541-495-2275. A quaint diner there serves excellent milkshakes and burgers, and an adjacent store has basic supplies and gasoline.
B & B’s Sporting Goods, Highway 20 & Conley Ave., Hines, OR 97738; 541-573-6200.
The Idaho Angler, 1682 South Vista, Boise, ID 83705; 208-389-9957.
Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, 237 South Hines Blvd., Hines, OR 97738; 541-573-6582.
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