August 31, 2011
A triple threat of big rainbows will rock your spring trout fishing.
It was a good trout morning: idyllic, enjoyable but entirely forgettable fishing, until the interruption -- a strike so hard, fast and powerful that it was more detonation than bite.
In two seconds, a forgettable fishing trip was transformed into thrill-a-second experience by a rocketing rainbow, a massive trout that no doubt launched a life-long fish story.
The kid said his name was Mark, but the rest of his conversation was gibberish.
Mark and two fishing buddies, all about 14 years old, were at the deep end of the Lake Wilderness dock, sprawled in the warmth of a spring sun, soaking hot pink and chartreuse Powerbaits and live nightcrawlers, munching chips and waiting on bites.
Like most of the other still-fishermen on that early May day, Mark had propped his spinning rod across his open tackle box. A tight line of monofilament disappeared into the clear water near a rope stringer with three pan-size rainbows.
The strike hit like an electrical charge. No slowly tightening line, no warning from a quivering rod, no gentle dip of the tip -- just a shockingly explosive KERWHAM! The boy's rod tip slammed down and smacked into the concrete dock, the rod butt and attached reel catapulted straight up and then, like a spear-shot, launched toward deep water.
Mark crashed after it, leaped, reached, caught the nub of the rod butt, jumped to his feet, kicked his open tackle box upside down rolling it across the dock gushing lures, split shot and hooks, and set the hook on the trout of his life -- a red-streaked, 10 1/2-pound rainbow.
The battle was like a car wreck careening in unpredictable directions, and there wasn't a soul, including me, who could look away.
The huge trout headed for a lifeguard stand. Mark was running behind, waving the rod like a buggy whip, cranking on the reel, losing line to the drag, his buddies shouting, people scrambling to get out of the way, a rat-faced dog barking in pursuit. When it was over, the youngster was dripping wet, standing knee-deep in the cold water of the empty swimming area, with his rod tucked under his arm and both hands wrapped around the rim of a landing net that a helpful angler had tossed to him. The teenager stood stock still, dripping, big eyes staring at the giant trout in the bottom of the mesh.
The youngster had just gone one-on-one with Washington's triple dip of super-sized rainbow trout and won.
I have no doubt that young Mark, at that moment, was as solidly hooked on fishing as that monster trout was on Powerbait. Big trout do that to a guy.
His unerasable grin, the high-fives from fellow bait-soakers, and the excited chattering cheers from Mark's awestruck buddies are a big piece of the reason that even in these lean economic times, facing millions of dollars in budget cutbacks, Washington's fish and game department gave its trophy trout project the green light for another year.
Triploids And Trophies
"Trout fishing is big in Washington," explains Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's (WDFW) Resident Native Fish Program Manager James Uehara, "lot of lakes, lot of nice fish, lot of anglers, outstanding opportunities.
"Does our trophy trout and triploid programs sell more licenses -- I don't really know. That's hard to determine, but I do know that people enjoy catching large trout and the triploid and trophy trout are a big part of that opportunity," Uehara tells me. Despite the department's budget problems, Uehara, like the triploid mangers before him, is confident the popular program will continue.
Washington's triple dip into trophy trout enhancement is a big change from the traditional put-and-take fishery of 20 years ago that was built around heavy stockings of cookie-cutter 8- to 12-inch, pan-size trout.
In those "good old days" most lakes, and especially those in western Washington, were planted with cookie-cutter trout. The lakes were intensely fished for two weeks until the trout populations were depleted, then ignored for the other 50 weeks of the year.
That changed in the last decade, as the state moved toward a fishing program that opened many lakes to year-round fishing, and provided trout fisheries with decent opportunities to catch good fish all season, not just for two quick weeks in the spring.
The change in management when coupled with the trophy and triploid programs, dramatically turned around sport fishing, created season-long buzz and fired up fishing enthusiasm. Not surprisingly, Washington anglers love the idea of catching bigger, badder, better trout.
The change sparked a trout-fishing comeback in the Evergreen State.
This season anglers will still get their share of skillet-sizzlers. The state is planting 4.1 million catchables this spring, to supplement the matured survivors of 7 million fry stocked last year that will have grown big enough to grease a skillet this season. Those are WDFW's bread-and-butter fish.
The triple-dip trophies are dessert, the dream fish that keep trout fishermen fishing.
SAVE ROOM FOR DESSERT
The Triple Trophy dessert has three layers: triploid rainbows, jumbo rainbows and broodstock rainbows. The smallest are 1 1/2 pounds, some are 5 to 12 pounds, and the biggest will scare you.
Triploids are reproductively-sterile rainbows that grow quickly. Jumbos are trout that the state raises specifically for its trophy trout program. Broodstock are surplused rainbows that have been used as spawners in hatcheries to supply the eggs and milt to create the pan-size catchables.
Triploids are the first layer of the trophy program. This year the department is buying 42,196 triploids from Trout Lodge, a private international hatchery based in Washington. Before the April 30 season opener, the triploids will be divided and stocked into 94 public lakes. Half of those lakes are in western Washington and the half in central and eastern Washington.
Triploids are sterile, non-breeding fish that channel almost all of their food into quick growth and can reach double digit weights in a couple of years. They average 1 1/2 pounds when stocked and are notoriously aggressive feeders.
The second and largest level of the trophy program are "jumbo" rainbows, raised in WDFW hatcheries and released weighing 1 1/2 to 2 pounds. This spring, Uehara says, 81,600 jumbos have been planted, nearly twice as many as in the popular triploid plants.
"These are gorgeous fish, too," the fish manger says, "the same size and bigger than the triploids, and we have a lot more of them."
WDFW's jumbo trout program has been flying under the radar for most anglers, Uehara admits, lost in the shadows behind the spotlight of publicity that's been shining on the triploid program. "That the state is raising trout as big as triploids, and releasing twice as many is something that most anglers are not aware of," he admits.
Until they hook one.
Jumbos, Triploids and Broodstock are all rainbow trout with big shoulders, aggressive attitudes and widespread reputations for finding weak spots in monofilament lines. A trout fisherman may get away with a line nick against a 10-inch skillet-sizzler, but they'll be swearing at limp line in a big trout smackdown.
Broodstock are the real horses of the trophy trout trinity, weighing from several pounds into double digits. Mark's monster was most likely a surplused broodstock rainbow that had been released into the east King County lake near Seattle after fulfilling its hatchery production. "How many broodstock we have available to stock in lakes changes every year," the state fish manager explains, but he assures, "There's always a good number of them and they're always big!" Broodstock 'bows are released throughout the season, as fish become available.
The broodstock, trophy and triploid programs have been in place for 10 years, Uehara explains, and in most areas have breathed new excitement into lake sport fishing.
In the trophy trout program, the huge broodstock, according to Uehara, are super-sweet icing on a trophy trout fishery already packed with jumbo and triploid rainbows.
WHERE THEY ARE
Finding a lake that offers triploids, jumbos or brood stock is not as hard as it seems at first blush, although it can be a bit intimidating when anglers realize that Washington has 4,500 lakes, ponds and reservoirs, including more than 600 with WDFW-managed access sites and probably twice that many with access through parks, federal agencies and local governments.
Fish biologists and managers in the six WDFW management regions across the state hand-pick the lakes they think will benefit most from triploid and jumbo. Most of the lakes are near population centers and all of them must have good public access. "If the public can't readily fish the lakes, we don't stock them," Uehara assured me.
The list of regionally recommended lakes is sent to the state fish and game commissioners who tweak it a bit, sometimes insert personal preferences and approve it. Predictably, most lakes are stocked with roughly the same number of fish each year. If the lake was loaded last year, it will probably be a top producer again this spring and summer.
Anglers get another break before the fishing season opener when a list of the lakes with triploids and jumbos and the stocking schedules is published on the department's Web site (wdfw.wa.gov/fish/plants/index.htm).
There's a little variance each year, but according to the fish manager, if a lake had triploids or jumbos or broodstock last year, it is likely to offer them this year. "We want to spread opportunity around," Uehara explains, "but by and large we put the triploids in lakes around higher population densities."
Most lakes on the west side of the state are heavily planted with catchables and most of the fry plants are made in fertile central and eastern Washington lakes that enjoy long growing seasons and generate a lot of fish food. Almost all of the fry-planted lakes also get a good dose of catchable-size trout just before the opener, and many also receive slabs of triploids or jumbos.
Some of the lakes that typically get a major shot of triploids in western Washington include Wilderness, Beaver, Green (in downtown Seattle), Rattlesnake, Stevens, Erie, Heart, Roseiger, Campell, Toad, Padden, Klineline, Battleground, Swift Power Canal, Meridian, Morton, Mineral, Horseshoe, American and Cassidy.
In eastern Washington, expect big trout action at Badger, Clear, West Medical, Williams, Deer, Loon, Diamond, Davis, Cook's, Fishtrap and Spectacle.
Along the east slope of the Cascade mountains and in the Columbia River Basin, heavily stocked favorites will include Clear, Dog and Leech lakes, Spectacle, Rufus Woods, Big Twin, Nunnally, Wapato, Blue, Park, Lost, Fio Rito, Speafish and Rowland lakes.
The most unique triploid fishery in the state is at Rufus Woods Reservoir, a massive impoundment on the Columbia River near Grand Coulee. The big reservoir has produced a string of salmon-sized state record rainbows, including the monster 29.6 pound current state record rainbow caught in 2002 by Norm Butler. Rufus Woods is open to fishing year around and some of the hottest fishing typically takes place during the coldest weather from November into February when the big trout are prowling near surface.
Rufus Woods is twice-blessed with triploids, once by a release program developed by the adjoining Colville Indian Tribe and again by commercial net pens in the lake that infrequently spring leaks and allow fast-growing triploids to escape into the main lake. Rufus Woods, though, is an anomaly in the trophy trout programs. Few of the sterile fish ever reach salmon-size in the lowland lakes where food is at a premium and fishing pressure can be consistent, if not high. Some survive for more than one season, although the state has been unable to come up with a survival percentage. It's safe to say that most triploids and jumbos are caught the first year, but those hook-wary survivors that add another year or two of growth are truly monstrous.
Techniques for catching lowland lake rainbow trout are fairly constant, according to WDFW research.
Planted trout tend to stay in the top 3 to 5 feet of water for the first weeks after stocking, which unfortunately also makes them easy prey for cormorants, terns and other predators, which can take a significant bite out of a lake's planted trout population.
"Where avian predation is prevalent, your best chance for success may come in the first couple of weeks after trout are stocked. Angler activity tends to disrupt the feeding birds and can save the fish for a longer period of good fishing," according to Jon Anderson, WDFW's former resident trout manager.
In most lakes the trout won't head for the depths until water temperatures climb significantly in late May.
For April and most of May, the most productive techniques involve trolling just under the surface with small lures like Dick Nites, Needlefish, Triple Teazers, Rooster Tail-style spinners and F-5 Flatfish.
Wet flies, especially dark patterns like black or purple leeches, Woolly Worms, Woolly Buggers, Carey Specials, Pheasant Tail, and spinner-and-bait trolling combinations like Wedding Ring spinners with maggots or garden worms also work exceptionally well early in the season. Some anglers still swear by cowbell-and-worm flasher combinations, but these usually produce better in late May and early June when trout are running 12 to 25 feet deep.
Opening weekend fishermen on shore score best by using bobbers and floats to suspend and drift live or paste baits in the subsurface feeding zone over deep water, or by rigging sliding sinkers with marshmallows to float traditional trout baits up off the bottom in shallow areas.
Top baits during those first opening weekends always include single red or orange salmon eggs, Powerbait (in regional flavors), flavored paste baits and worms.
After a few weeks, the trout cue in on natural food items and move to where the food supply is, which tends to be near bottom and off creek mouths. That's the time to be fishing on or just off the bottom, using floating paste-type baits or other buoyant baits. Also, natural baits such as worms, fish eggs, or flies and lures that imitate natural trout food work well.
Large triploids tend to be big-time predators that are just as willing to smash a trolled plug, such as a Rapala, as inhale a gob of eggs. A proven system at Rufus Woods is to dangle a ping pong ball-size cluster of salmon eggs a few feet below a bobber and free drift the tantalizing offering when the record-smashers are running shallow. The technique works in any lake with large rainbows. A two-pound 'bow has no problem inhaling a ball-size bait.
No matter what lure or bait is used, the best advice you can get when targeting Washington's Triple Trophy dessert is to hang on to your rod.
Not everybody gets as lucky as young Mark when a wall-hanger rainbow smacks down and rockets away. But a lot of anglers are scoring on one of Washington's triple trophies and for some this year will produce the fish of a lifetime.