Desert Trout Now: It's Hot, But the Fishing May Be, Too
July 20, 2017
It's a great time to hit these trout waters in Nevada and Utah.
By D.H. Willis
Trout fishing is in the prime time of the year in Nevada and Utah.
Fish populations are presently sporadic in some areas by historical standards. But they are very abundant in other locations. So, anglers can benefit by heading to the top spots.
The main reason for the drop in some local areas has been the drought that affected a large swath of arid landscape, particularly in Nevada.
Even so, dry conditions have moderated in many watersheds and the future looks better. It's just that it will take a few spawns and good water conditions to bring fish fully back in those trout waters that did drop off.
In Nevada the streams and lakes are mostly heading in the right direction after partially emerging from a bad drought. And in Utah a tremendous fishery in the Rockies still provides a lifetime's worth of angling opportunities.
One of the best trout fisheries in northwestern Nevada is managed for trophy fish. Knott Creek Reservoir is stocked with rainbow trout, tiger trout and bowcutts.
All of the fish originated from stocking, usually of 8- to 10-inch trout from the Mason Valley Fish Hatchery.
Brad Bauman, fisheries biologist with the Nevada Department of Wildlife at Winnemucca, said Knott Creek Reservoir is one of the best lakes in the region.
"It's mostly fly-fishermen but we do have a small handful of anglers who will use various types of lures and spinners," he noted.
After the fish attain some size they take on the fighting quality, smarts and looks of wild-born trout.
"You can fish it from shore," advised Bauman. "Most of the people bring float tubes, pontoon boats or small 12-foot aluminum type boats."
Knott Creek Reservoir is on Bureau of Land Management land. The fishing season there opens the second Saturday in June and runs through Nov. 15. Knott Creek Reservoir is 16 acres.
"It's not huge," said Bauman. "It's a nice little reservoir."
A recent sampling of the stomach contents of trout here turned up lots of midges, and some scuds and damselflies.
"There are a variety of nymphs I find in their stomachs," reported Bauman. "Also damselflies and leeches. A lot of people will use dark-colored Woolly Buggers or damsel flies. You can use scud patterns. A lot of people will use Hare's Ear or Copper John. Usually with any of those flies you will end up catching fish."
Another favorite is Catnip Reservoir on the Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge. That's a refuge managed mainly for pronghorn antelope, so is in a fairly arid area with lots of sagebrush.
Catnip Reservoir is spring fed with stable water levels. It's full of Lahontan cutthroat trout.
"It is listed as a threatened species," said Bauman of the Lahontan cutthroats. "It gets complicated, but we are still allowed to catch them in certain bodies of water. We have other bodies of water that are closed to fishing where there is Lahontan trout."
The Lahontans look similar to regular cutthroats. On Catnip Reservoir, anglers must use artificial flies or lures and only one fish may be kept.
"It is mostly serious fishing going on there," said Bauman. "And it is a productive fishery."
Float tubes work especially well on Catnip Reservoir.
The Lahonton trout run 15 to 18 inches on average. A few are caught in the 20- to 24-inch range.
In the area near Reno, biologists conducting fish surveys have found a drop in trout populations due to the drought. The dry weather was so bad that even the renowned Truckee River had dried up in a few places.
It's better now. But it will take a while for trout populations to recover. Against that backdrop anglers and guides have surprisingly seen good fishing.
Big fish have less water and are perhaps more easily caught. The main drop in the fish population has been in younger year classes.
Trout migrate up and down the river, and there is natural reproduction that helps fill the void, said Travis Hawks, regional fisheries biologist with the NDOW.
"We weren't quite sure how the fishery would come out of it," said Hawks. "All the game fish are present — browns, rainbows, a few whitefish. Numbers are down. About chopped in half. It is still a top tier fishery."
Right now, the Truckee is producing some 30-inch, 8-pound brown trout. And Hawks said 25-inch rainbows are still common.
"In this drought we lost the 2- to 3-year-old fish," he advised. "(The drought) was as bad as anyone had seen it. It was pretty bleak. It seems like a lot of fisheries are more resilient than anyone expected. I expected to see less. But there are 180 to 200 game fish per mile. Those are for the most part wild fish. We do have a stocking program on the river, but we don't see them in test nettings. They (stocked trout) are preyed on."
Bauman said some of the big browns now have the best body condition of any he has ever see in years of working the river.
"The bigger fish were stuffed in with smaller fish, and those bigger fish had a field day," he said. "It is showing up on the size and quality of the bigger fish now."
Most anglers release these big trout.
Other top waters include the high Sierra lakes that are available only a few months a year at high altitude. Usually they're fished from mid-June to mid-September.
"They all fished outstanding last year," said Hawks. "Marlette Lake is hike-in — a five-mile hike-in. We have an age-class coming up now that are super healthy fish — 10- to 20-inch fish days are common, with several fish over 20 inches."
Marlette is catch-and-release only, artificial with single hook.
"It's mostly fly-fishing up there," said Hawks. "A handful of guys spinfish but mostly it's fly-fishing.
Another top spot is Hobart Reservoir. It's a quarter-mile hike to it for tiger trout and brookies.
"There is not a lot of size to them," noted Hawks, "but some of the tigers get 15 inches. And there are so many fish in there it has limited growth. As soon as you get the fish off the hook you have another one."
Lake Tahoe on the Nevada side of the border provides trolling in deep water for lake trout. Some rainbows are taken.
Boulder Reservoir on the Oregon border offers small high desert fishing for mostly hatchery trout that grow well in the spring water. The lake was rejuvenated and has younger fish right now.
"It's fast action mornings and evenings when hatches are going on," noted Hawks. "There is not a lot of size to them right now. I am playing around with strains of rainbows because one strain grows faster, and we have potential for 20-inchers."
"We have good trout fishing," reported Natalie Boren, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources regional fisheries biologist at Vernal.
The most popular trout fishing areas are the mountain ranges — the Uinta Mountains in the north and the Boulder Mountains farther south. A few thousand lakes hold trout. Enough to fish one lake a day ... for years.
One of the top conservation projects in the state is under way to restore Colorado River cutthroats.
Come June there are trout biting in the Uintas, but some fishermen wait. June is the big mosquito month. Trout eat the mosquitoes and larvae. But mosquitoes go after fishermen.
The breadth of fishing here is tremendous.
"Each of those areas has hundreds of miles of streams with lakes," said Boren. "You can go on adventures for months up there."
It is not a long season. These are wild mountains in this region.
"We do several pack trips up there during the season," advised Boren. "At the end of August up there we got snowed on. That window from July 15 when we start doing surveys to late or mid-August is good. Sometimes you will get away with early September up there. But in September you need to pack for snow."
A lot of the wilder lakes are stocked by airplane. Thousands of them can be reached by hiking in. Many are on national forest, so a national forest map is a good place to start. Roads, trails and trailheads are mostly marked on those maps.
But there are also good fishing lakes that one can drive right up to.
Top lakes that are easily reached by vehicle include South Slope Reservoir, Paradise Park Reservoir and Chepeta Lake.
"You could do several things," said Boren. "Go into high elevation country for a few days. Then mid-elevation reservoirs."
Some of the top lakes turning up in biologists' test nettings are Sheep Creek lake, Spirit Lake, and Long Park Reservoir.
"Those are some really nice ones on the north slope," noted Boren. "They have good trout fishing."
And, later on, those lakes have good ice-fishing. Fishermen sometimes snowmobile in. They catch rainbows, cutthroats and tiger trout.
One of the hottest mid-elevation lakes is expected to be Matt Warner Reservoir.
"Rainbow fishing is phenomenal," said Boren.
Matt Warner Reservoir is managed as a family fishery, with excellent trout fishing. Having a warmer weather pattern earlier and later in the season, there is good fishing when other lakes and streams are swollen with runoff or snowed in.
Another good one — Starvation Reservoir. It's one of the biggest in Utah.
"It grows some really nice rainbow trout and brown trout," reported Boren. "They are a hoot to catch. They are as round as they are long."
The Starvation trout eat very abundant zooplankton. It's a rich lake.
"They eat those for awhile and then they switch over and eat all sorts of things — crayfish and yellow perch," Boren said. "We put them in during the fall at 10 inches, and by the next summer growing season they are 16-inches. Then when they are 2 to 3 years old they are 18-20 inches."
The growth rate of the trout is so fast that locals call them "starvation steelhead." "They look like footballs," added Boren.
Sheep Creek is one of the special management areas where Colorado cutthroats are being helped along with special regulations. It is a particularly good brood area for these fish. The regulations are designed to increase the number of large 20- to 24-inch Colorado River cutthroats.
The Utah Cutthroat Slam is popular with anglers wanting to help these fish. Anglers pay $20, which goes for conservation work for Colorado cutthroats, and then when an angler catches all four subspecies of cutthroats, they get a medallion. They also post photos online and interact with other anglers.
"It's a cool way to get fly-fishermen out," said Boren.
A big variety of flies work here. And in places that swarm with trout sometimes any fly will work.
One of the very best, however, is the black ant pattern, said Brian Engelbert, Utah cutthroat trout restoration biologist. "That is my go-to pattern up there," said Engelbert. When feeding subsurface, he goes with smaller-sized Woolly Buggers, especially in olive color.
Dry fly fishing also really takes off right about now. Englebert recommends size 16 Stimulator patterns. Black patterns work well. Elk hair caddis in sizes 16 and 14 are fished extensively.
"The Tent-Wing Caddis is pretty dangerous, too," said Englebert. "During the grasshopper season it is hard to beat the PMX pattern or a grasshopper pattern." He sometimes fishes a Pheasant Tail or Prince Nymph. "This year the Hare's Ear treated me pretty well," he added. Or, just try something from the fly box. "We have a lot of these streams where you don't have to get too specific or try to match the hatch because we have lots of uneducated fish," noted Englebert.