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March Madness On Mann Lake

March Madness On Mann Lake

Hidden away in southeastern Oregon and teeming with fast-

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.


Rusty Morris shows off a well-proportioned Mann Lake cutthroat. Photo by John Shewey

The best sight-fishing opportunities occur during calm spring mornings and again during calm mornings or evenings during the fall. I prefer a clear intermediate line for this kind of work. Typically I'll cast a No. 12 or 14 Zugbug or No. 14 olive scud. Get out early, just after sunrise, and walk slowly along the west bank looking for cruising cutts in the shallows.

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.

Flies & Equipment

Rods in the 4- to 6-weight range are ideally suited to Mann Lake. Bring a floating line and an intermediate or clear-intermediate, such as Scientific Angler's Stillwater Line. A float tube or pontoon boat comes in handy but is never required to catch fish. Be sure to bring waders and wading boots, polarized sunglasses, sunscreen and plenty of warm clothes.


If you opt for lightweight "breathable" waders, be sure to wear several layers of insulating clothing. Water temperatures in March range from the 30s to the mid-40s and the air may be colder still. Gloves and a stocking hat and facemask are good ideas as well.


Spring weather often changes suddenly, from warm and sunny to blizzard back to nice and sunny again. Be prepared. Likewise, make sure your vehicle is equipped to handle the gravel road -- check your spare (many desert travelers routinely carry two spare tires) and your jack assembly.


Myriad flies produce at Mann Lake, with favorites including patterns to match large chironomids (midges), scuds, damsels, leeches and mayfly nymphs. Your arsenal should include standard versions of these flies along the same patterns dressed with a bead head. A few starters include Bloodworm Chironomid pupa, No. 12-18; Griffith's Gnat, No. 14-20; Zugbug, No. 10-18; Prince Nymph, No. 12-18; Woolly Bugger, No. 6-8; Olive Damsel Nymph, No. 10-12; scud patterns, No. 16-18; and Peacock Carey Special, No. 6-10. -- John Shewey


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.

Mann Lake hunkers behind the Steens Mountains a long way from everything. The drive from Burns covers nearly 100 miles, a quarter of that on gravel. Follow U.S. Highway 20 to Burns, and follow Highway 78 south, eventually passing the tiny towns of Crane and New Princeton. The road climbs the relatively gentle northern extension of the Steens Mountains and then winds down the backside of the range, where a right turn awaits at Fields-Denio Road (gravel), which leads some 25 miles to Mann Lake. Along the way you will pass the Juniper Lakes, but don't mistake these for Mann. Watch for the signed right turn into the lake. The access road wraps around the lake's north shore. Boat ramps are located on each side of the lake.

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.

Kiger Creek Fly Shop, 120 NW Circle Drive, Hines, OR 97738; 541-573-1329.

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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