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Success At Sprague

Success At Sprague

Rainbows quickly grow to trophy proportions at this reborn eastern Washington lake. (May 2009)

Walleyes and carp dominated Sprague Lake for years. But now, you'll find both warm- and cold-water game fish.
Photo by David Paul Williams.

"Whoa, Steve! Ride 'em, cowboy."

Steve Bohnemeyer was tethered to a Sprague Lake rainbow trout that frothed the surface. The angler tried to rein in that feisty trout doing its best to toss the hook. It was an even battle through the first six jumps, but seven was that rainbow's unlucky number. Bohnemeyer brought the fish to hand, admired another beautiful 16-inch trout. After he revived it, he released it so it could live to fight another day.

Unusual? Naw. Just another typical Sprague Lake trout.

Sprague Lake is a 1,840-acre lake on the south side of Interstate 90 in Eastern Washington wheat country,located just east of Ritzville. It's the one everyone wonders about as they head to and from Spokane, but have never fished.

It was planned to be a premier walleye and warm-water fishery until the angler success rate dropped so low that everyone got tired of not catching walleye. The anglers went elsewhere.

In 2003, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife realized a change in management was needed. In 2007, after going through the extensive state Environmental Protection Act review process, the lake and the surrounding waters were treated with rotenone to remove thousands of walleye, fat carp, tench and other fish. It was stocked with trout, and is now the best rainbow trout lake in this part of the state. You can catch 20-inch trout that weigh a couple pounds. They bend rods and trigger smiles -- and those are the small ones.


Sprague, at 1,900 feet elevation, is roughly six miles long, a mile wide and shallow, hitting 18 feet at the deepest. Sprague Lake Resort operates from March through mid-December (weather permitting). The west end has the Four Seasons Campground and Resort.

Each of these resorts has much-needed shade trees to ward off some of the summer sun. They also have boat launches and fishing docks available to the public for a small fee.

Scott Haugen (no relation to Washington-Oregon Game & Fish author and photographer of the same name) is owner of the Four Seasons. He said the fishing can be quite good from his dock and not just for trout. In 2008, one nighttime angler took a 14-pound channel cat. If you're boatless, Four Seasons has both row and power boats for rent, complete with all the safety gear. (Continued)

Each resort can provide current info on fishing hotspots and areas to avoid. Since the lake level varies during the year, powerboaters should be sure to stop in at the Four Seasons and ask Haugen for a map detailing where propeller-eating rocks lurk just below the surface.

Monika Metz, owner of the Sprague Lake Resort, said fishing from her docks holds up well over the summer. There are numerous underwater springs within casting distance. Each spring releases cool water, which attract fish food. The fish naturally follow. So should you.

If camping is not your style, there's the Purple Sage Motel in the old railroad town of Sprague offers convenient.

Ritzville also has several motels. Both are in farm country, which means restaurants close early, so plan accordingly.

WDFW has a single-lane concrete boat ramp and gravel parking area on the southwest side accessed from the east or west by Danekas Road. A boat is nice to have, but hardly required equipment in order to catch your share of fish on Sprague. The shoreline along the WDFW boat launch is a popular and highly effective spot for bank-anglers to fill their stringers with trout.

Sprague has a long fishing history dating back to the 1890s. That's when the U.S. Fish Commission planted multiple warmwater species like bass, crappie, catfish and carp. The lake had a good reputation for putting out good catches and even supported a commercial carp fishery. But the price fell and the bottom dropped out of the market in the 1980s.

Unrestrained by any commercial operation, the carp population exploded and dominated the fish biomass. As a result, angler days dropped off until the lake was treated in 1985.

After treatment, the lake was re-stocked with rainbow and Lahontan trout in addition to warmwater species. Angler days skyrocketed from 1,500 in 1983 to 35,000 in 1988 when the trout fishery peaked.

The newly stocked trout sparked the initial surge in angling interest, at least until the warmwater fish grew to catchable size. The fish population transitioned over the next 15 years until walleyes became the dominant species.

Walleye World
The predaceous walleyes then did what walleyes do: They gobbled up all the other game fish except for the few that could escape into the weeds where the walleyes couldn't go. Paradoxically, as the walleye population rose, angler success dropped, while angler complaints about lack of catchable fish increased.

WDFW creel surveys verified the low catch rate of less .25 fish per angling hour. Yet, 2001-05 fish samplings revealed a "dense walleye population with a large proportion of harvestable sized fish."

Despite the walleye numbers, the anglers stayed away, opting instead for Moses or Banks lakes. Local businesses dependent on angling-related tourism suffered.

WDFW knew a change in the management plan was necessary to jumpstart the recreational fishery, so it developed five potential options for enhancing the fishery. For two years, they tried the low-budget option of increasing the walleye bag limit and lowering the minimum size. There was no notable success in the catch rate or angler days.

A loose-knit organization known as Sprague Lake Users Group and George Potter, projects chairman of the Inland Empire Fly Fishing Club, joined to give their opinion on the lake. They overcame initial skepticism from WDFW, which figured the walleye clubs would oppose any rehab plan. But after a series of public meetings, the state learned that walleye clubs and bass anglers supported rehabilitation. Soon it was full speed ahead with management Option 5, the rotenone solution.

The Rotenone Solution
Rotenone, a naturally occurring substance from the roots of tropical plants, is the treatment chemical of choice because it kills aquatic

species and quickly breaks down to an inert substance.

But it was no small task to effectively treat a six-mile-long lake. The WDFW used 4,000 tons of rotenone powder and 900 gallons of liquid to treat Sprague, Hallin, Finnell and Cow lakes, as well as the creeks and backwaters connecting those bodies of water. Some of those backwaters were marsh, not otherwise accessible by foot or boat, so the WDFW used a helicopter to treat those areas in an effort to slow the infiltration of carp of other unwanted species.

The Inland Empire Fly Fishing Club donated $2,000 to help pay for the rehabilitation project. They were joined by the Spokane Fly Fishers. Dan Ferguson, past-president of the Spokane Fly Fishers, said his club tossed in $1,000 to help pay for the helicopter. In a true grassroots process that spanned the trout-fishermen warmwater divide, these two fly clubs were joined by Walleyes Unlimited and Inland Northwest Wildlife Council plus some 30 to 40 volunteers with a common goal: return Sprague Lake to its former fishing glory.

After the rotenone was applied, WDFW let the lake settle until May 2008 when an interesting restocking program began. Heavily stocked with 160,000 catchable-sized rainbows and 250,000 rainbow fry, WDFW added 80,000 Lahontan cutthroat fry, as well as bluegills, black crappie, largemouth bass and channel catfish. The WDFW also restocked some 4,000 black crappie and 60 channel catfish it removed from the lake before applying rotenone.

Put aside any notions of fishing Sprague and only catching a bunch of skinny pan-sized trout. Rainbow fry planted in spring 2008 at 3 to 4 inches measured a whopping 16 inches in October 2008. By the time you read this, those silver-bright rainbows will have added additional inches and pounds. Just be thankful your children don't grow 400 percent over one summer like these fish!

The rainbows being taken home for the table sport a distinctive reddish-pink flesh, much the color of chinook salmon.

Chris Donley, WDFW district fish biologist, said the color comes from carotenoids. The same natural fat-soluble stuff that makes carrots orange and tomatoes red are contained in any number of zooplanktons and aquatic insects the trout eat.

And eat they do. Sprague Lake is rich in fish food. It has so much more than the typical eastern Washington lake that it provides "optimal foraging," according to the WDFW.

Like the all-you-can-eat dinner table at the Seahawks training camp, each fish can fill an expanding waistline without having to leave the table. Lots of calories in with little effort mean heavy fish.

The overall management plan for the lake calls for making the lake a trout fishery for the first four to five years until the warmwater fish reach harvestable populations, then maintain it as a mixed-specieswater. It will be interesting to see if the Lahontan cutthroat fry, planted in late 2008, will grow to the same size as they do in Grimes and Omak lakes as well as Lake Lenore. If so, look for some big fish to show up in bag limits. One significant change this time around is walleyes will be excluded from the mix.

One of the benefits of applying rotenone is dramatically improved water clarity. Donley correctly predicted that the visibility would increase as the carp population decreased.

Haugen of Four Seasons said, by last spring, visibility off his dock was 6 to 7 feet. Guests at the resort reported spotting the bottom in 10 to 15 feet water toward the middle of the lake. Improved water clarity just makes the lake more enjoyable to fish.

The lake gets an interesting warm-weather algae bloom that cuts visibility, but it also contributes to the forage. The bloom continues until the water temperature drops with the cold winter weather, and it does not adversely affect the fish.

Whatever your favorite method, you can find success at Sprague. When Steve Bohnemeyer and I last visited the lake, we saw anglers sitting in lawn chairs, soaking their feet in the lake while still-fishing. All the usual still-fishing baits work -- worms, PowerBait, salmon eggs -- especially if they are suspended just over the tops of the weeds that are growing on the bottom.

Fish cruise the shoreline. Long casts are not necessary.

The lake is also popular with trollers. Make large east-west ovals off the WDFW public launch. You could also drift with the wind, then motor back uplake to repeat the process.

Haugen said anglers troll most everything -- spoons, plugs, Flatfish and Roostertails -- with equal success. A bit of night crawler on the lure adds some enticing scent. Some guys haul a silver willow-leaf flasher, lead-core line and a Wedding Ring spinner tipped with a worm. But the relatively shallow water favors lighter gear.

Fly-fishers love Sprague. The relatively shallow water allows fly-tossers to effectively fish the water column from top to bottom using a variety of fly lines. If limited to one line, go with a Type III sinktip.

Chironomids make up a huge volume of the trout diet in most still waters, and Sprague is no exception. Small and red, under a strike indicator, long leader and floating line are words to live by.

For those without the patience to watch the bobber, the other usual suspects are damsel, dragonfly and leech patterns in black or olive green. Pack a couple of adult damsel patterns for those hot summer days when the air is filled with adults buzzing around reeds and trout are looking up for a full meal deal. When a trout explodes on an adult damsel, those rises are enough to turn even the most blasé angler into a gibbering idiot.

In the past, the lake has supported a mayfly hatch. Fish always like mayflies, either as nymphs, emergers or full-grown adults, so make sure you have some of each in the fly box.

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