Trailblazing Trout in Oregon
April 19, 2011
Newly stocked Oregon fisheries should mean a bonanza for anglers looking to land their limits in 2011.
Peter Skene Ogden, John C. Fremont, Jim Bridger, Kit Carson and Tom Fitzpatrick. Trailblazers they were called. They weren't a basketball team. They were the men (and a few women) who crossed the plains on horseback, who climbed the mountains to wade icy streams and set traps for beaver. Along the way, they charted rivers and lakes.
The rivers we drift, the streams we wade, the still waters we cross were discovered, not all that long ago, by a type of man uniquely made for an America in the making. To supplement a diet of deer, elk and antelope, sometimes they caught trout -- rainbows and cutthroats in the same places we fish almost 200 years later.
A few of these waters exist today, much like the trailblazers found them. Others are far different. The trails are still there, some of them paved now, with white lines and yellow lines and concrete barriers; others are still narrow paths through stands of pine and hemlock.
According to the old-timers, Diamond Lake was devoid of fish when the pioneers discovered it. Stocked by trout brought in on the backs of mules, Diamond Lake, named for the cattleman who discovered it in 1852, became a jewel in the crown of Oregon trout fishing.
Diamond Lake was poisoned, in late 2006, to rid the lake of the invasive tui chub. The lake was first drawn down and then commercial fishing nets were used to haul out about a third of the chub. Then ODFW administered rotenone to kill the remaining fish. Diamond's historically productive water bounced back. Clarity is at more than 40 feet. Zooplankton and insect life are healthy and that means the environment is optimum for rainbows to put on weight.
The first year after the lake was killed, 2007, ODFW stocked 178,000 fish and the aggressive campaign continued in 2008 and 2009. In 2010, ODFW planted 315,000 fingerlings. More fish have gone in the water here than any other lake in the state in the last decade.
Some of the best fishing is at ice-off, which happens in May in most years. Action slows down in the dog days of August, but picks up again in September.
The best bank fishing is on the north and northwest shore, but most anglers use watercraft. Bring a boat or rent one at the resort. A 10-mph speed limit is in effect. Morning and late evening are the best times to fish, but trout will bite all day long. Jar baits, flashers with small spoons, plugs and flies are the most effective.
Insect production is huge. Fly-fishermen should be prepared with chironomids, callibaetis, caddis and ant patterns. When no insect activity is evident, prospect on a slow-twitch troll with a two-nymph setup.
Whatever method you employ, the secret is finding the feeders. Chances are, they will be near the weed beds or suspended, letting the bugs come to them. Run your baits or flies at different depths until you begin to hit fish.
Some 30 miles east of Prineville, high in the Ochoco National Forest, is a pretty little reservoir named for Isaac Walton, the patron saint of fly-fishermen.
Peter Skene Ogden and his men ran traps here, when the water was dammed by beavers, not with a manmade reservoir. Shoshones and Paiutes made their homes in this valley.
Gathering the waters of Ochoco Creek, Walton Lake covers 18 acres and has an average depth of about 12 feet. A popular fishery, Walton Lake was beset for the last several years by brown bullhead catfish and largemouth bass, the result of illegal introductions. In 2009, ODFW administered a treatment of rotenone to kill the unwanted fish.
Anglers did not beat a path to Walton Lake in 2010. After the rotenone treatment, the Forest Service blocked access to the lake for complete renovation of the campground. For 2011, all the campsites have been enhanced and the trail around the lake improved.
Mike Harrington, the assistant District fish biologist in the High Desert office, is excited to see the fishermen come back. "I'm expecting the fishing to be greatly improved from the last several years, with the absence of the catfish and bass."
Some years, access to the lake can be blocked by snow. The hatchery trucks won't be able to get in until the snow is gone, but if the access is good, the lake should be turning out limits of legals in early May. By the end of May, ODFW will begin to stock "trophy" trout, in the 1- to 2-pound size range and will continue to stock legals and trophies to the end of August.
Historically, this 18-acre lake received 13,000 trout per year, including 3,000 trophy trout. Expect it to receive a lot of attention this year as agency personnel restore Walton to its former glory.
Fees are charged for camping and day use. For information on access and road conditions, contact the Ochoco National Forest at (541) 416-6500.
Antelope Flat Reservoir
In 2009, ODFW applied a treatment of rotenone to Antelope Flat Reservoir, a remote mountain irrigation reservoir southeast of Prineville. In 2010, 3,700 fish were stocked, including 200 "pounders." A similar course of action is expected this year, beginning at the end of May and ending in September.
"That lake was a complete success," Harrington said. "After the treatment, I set gillnets for five days and did not catch a single fish. That was what we were hoping to see and we stocked it immediately afterwards. Last summer, fishermen were getting trout up to 17 inches and their stomachs were extremely full. I'm expecting the fishing to be as good as it has ever been."
Will there be holdovers? It usually depends on the winter. Harrington is optimistic. "I'm expecting to have holdovers, because we had high water levels in 2010. Fishing should be good as soon as the lake thaws and there is access."
Early in the season, dragonfly nymph patterns are productive as are scuds and red and black leech patterns. Concentrate on weedbeds, edges and drop-offs. The reservoir has an average depth of 15 feet. A slow-sinking fly line provides the best control for fishing below the surface.
Bait fishermen can do well in the bays and inlets with nightcrawlers, salmon eggs or Power Bait. Use a sliding sinker to take your bait to the bottom. Leave a little slack in the line so a trout won't feel resistance at the bite.
With 170 surface acres at full pool, Antelop
e has plenty of room for anglers to spread out. Good bank angling is available from the boat launch around to the dam. The campground has 25 basic sites with tables, grills and vault toilets. The reservoir is open to year-round angling, but early season anglers should contact the Prineville Ranger District at (541) 416-6500 to check road conditions.
Goldfish were the problem at Mann Lake. Illegally introduced, this lake in the shadow of the Steens was home to hundreds of thousands of the small, orange Chinese carp. In September of last year, an application of rotenone did them in.
Shannon Hurn, an ODFW biologist from the Hines office, reported that the final treatment netted 197,000 goldfish under 4 inches long.
"We expect to stock it with 20,000 cutthroat from the Klamath Hatchery in May. They will go in the water, each about 6 to 8 inches long. We will put in another batch of trout -- fingerlings -- as well."
Anglers are restricted to artificial flies and lures. Bait is not permitted. There is a 16-inch minimum size restriction at Mann Lake. For 2011, the fish won't be that big, but there's a chance that some fish will make it to 12 inches by September.
With an average depth of 6 feet and a maximum depth of 14, the lake is wadeable. It is well-suited to angling from a float tube or a pontoon boat and trolling is popular. Fly-fishermen do well with black and green leech patterns. For anglers that prefer to cast to pods of feeding fish, a two- or three-fly rig beneath an indicator is a good way to hook up.
Spin-fishermen should employ green and black spinners or a casting bubble and a jig or two flies in tandem.
Spring and fall offer the best fishing. Expect wind at Mann Lake during the middle of the day. Sometimes it blows so hard the fishermen head back to camp. With no developed sites or amenities, the camping is primitive.
Hurn reported that the water is clear for the first time in a long time. Anglers who fished it fifteen years ago will be happy to see the lake restored to its previous condition.
"We expect to have good fishing for 2012. This is a body of water that is near and dear to a lot of people's hearts," Hurns said. "At Mann Lake, most people were able to sight-fish for cutthroat. With this treatment, the feel of Mann Lake will be back."
Oregon's backcountry lakes, some 450 waters, are stocked by helicopter every other year (odd numbered years) with funds provided by a surcharge on fishing licenses.
With a nose cone, dorsal fin, and stabilizing tail, the transport tank looks like a scaled-down space shuttle. It is suspended on a cable and can hold up to 4 pounds of fish (approximately 800 fingerlings) in each of its 30 self-contained, oxygenated cells. An operator in the helicopter works a control panel that controls trap doors, releasing the fish into the lake.
The device was designed by ODFW engineers and funded by the ODFW Restoration and Enhancement Program. With the helicopter, biologists can stock an average of 90 lakes per day. Before 1997 (the first year of helicopter stocking), it took biologists on horseback months to plant the backcountry lakes.
Biologist Ted Wise, based in the High Desert office, said there are two kinds of anglers that hit the backcountry lakes: the ones who go to camp and fish, and the ones who go to fish. "Sometimes angling success on the lakes goes up and down, depending on the harshness of the winter or even the summer kill. The anglers who frequent those high lakes and have success are extremely close-mouthed."
Wise recommends that an angler plan to fish not one, but clusters of lakes. From the Columbia to the California border, there is a lot of real estate to look at, dotted with little blue lakes and ponds, and full of possibility. To get specific recommendations, call fisheries biologists in the High Desert region (541-388-6363), the Northwest region (971-673-6000), the Springfield office (541-726-3515), the Umpqua office (541-440-3353) or the Klamath office (541-883-5732). "And check the Web site to see which high lakes have been stocked for each district (historically) and which ones are still stocked."
According to the fisheries biologists, the Cascade High Lakes air stocking program and fisheries are the most cost-effective in the state. Each district fish biologist provides navigation for the pilot while an accompanying biologist uses a control panel to release fish into the lakes at the appropriate time. Most of the high lakes are stocked on a two-year rotation.
From the research, we know that trout stocked as fingerlings in 2009 will be legal to catch and keep in 2011. And the fish stocked in 2007 and before can provide a trophy component to the fishery that may surprise even the most well-traveled fishermen. There are 20-inch trout in some of these lakes and the helicopter showing up with a load of fingerlings is as good as Christmas.
Part of the allure of high country trout fishing is the scenery. You won't enjoy it if you're slapping mosquitoes, so bring repellant. To make sure you get there and back, bring a map and compass. Fishing Central Oregon by Sun Publishing, Fishing in Oregon by Flying Pencil, and booklets available from various ranger districts are the best resources with information on what fish are available and the best methods to use.
The best times to fish are early morning and late evening. Many high country lakes are best fished from a boat. Pack in a float tube or rubber raft to get away from the bank. If you use a spinning rod, try fishing a fly and clear plastic bubble. The bubble will allow you to cast your fly as far as a heavier lure.
There are still places in our Cascade mountains that the crowd hasn't found -- backcountry waters with trout that may go the whole year without seeing an artificial fly or a pinch of Power Bait.
In the cool of the evening, you might look across the lake and see a beaver pulling a branch toward his lodge -- the way it was when the trailblazers and trappers sought their fortune in this land we call Oregon.
High in the Cascades, far from the pavement, if these lakes have anything in common, it is elevation, mosquitoes, an uncommon beauty and a long, unbeaten trail.
To order a signed copy of Freshwater Fishing Oregon & Washington, send $22.95 (includes S&H) to Gary Lewis Outdoors, PO Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709 or visit www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com.