Spring Trout on the Fly

EO published

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My Tundra bounced up onto the old wood plank bridge. The dark planks rocked and popped beneath the weight. I was pushing the width limit. My hands, white-knuckled on the wheel, managed to avoid shredding a quarter panel against the steel rails while the Selway River boiled a bit off color below.

Upon a safe dismount, I started the climb to a trailhead where I would embark on a journey into trout country. I knew nothing of the destination but suspected either cutthroat or rainbow. After all, it was Idaho.

Rounding a bend in the old Forest Service road revealed a breathtaking meadow reach. The stream meandered its way to the Selway through a lush carpet of brilliant green grass and forbs. Native Trillium was blooming cotton candy pink in the company of a snoozing whitetail deer. A tantalizing plunge-pool appeared dark and fishy below a cascade of boulders and log jams. My foot mashed the brake pedal. I never saw the destination trailhead.

Large caddis were hatching as I donned my waders. Ogling them lustily lulled me into a giddy, unfounded anticipation.

Early spring fishing can be a straight up crap-shoot. Steady water temperature and relatively stable flow through the winter can offer equally stable action (albeit slow at times), but as days lengthen and air temperature increases, snow melt-swollen streams begin to change the game a bit. Nevertheless, I selected a classic high mountain pairing, a size 12 caddis dropping a size 16 pheasant tail nymph. And the dice rolled.

Trumbo - Wild Spring Trout (4)

Selecting the finest habitat set my confidence high, but the water temperature was glacial. I found the runs moving a bit too fast to present the fly well, even with a flawless dead-drift. I turned to the pocket waters and failed, then moved to the fringes where water velocity is slower with warmer temperature.

Young trout will often seek the fringes during spring high flows where holding water meets cover and food sources. With hopes high, I placed the caddis on the outside edge of a flow seam and just downstream of a boulder. At once the caddis vanished beneath the surface, the nymph taken by a young rainbow parr.

The parr life stage is physically characterized by a size range of approximately two to five inches and large “parr marks”, which are dark, oval-shaped marks along the lateral line. Parr marks serve as camouflage and are generally lost as the fish matures. In some cases, trout older than a year may retain lighter, yet obvious parr marks.

Modern fishing emphasizes the trophy fish, but the brilliance of a young wild trout returns the angler to a universal experience. A wild trout parr is a spectacle to behold, rich and vibrant with various mottling. The white anal fin tip, the fine black speckles among an olive dorsal, and the rosy pink lateral stripe of a rainbow express perfection as only a wild fish can. With a gentle pop of the barbless hook, I sent the parr on its way. Shuffling up to another hole, I was met with an encore performance, my three-weight rod dancing under the inconspicuous weight of the tiny gem.

Trumbo - Wild Spring Trout (3)

Mountain streams can run strong and cold in spring but can turn on in June if the flow is fishable. The best choice in spring and early summer may be desert water, and desert streams are not to be overlooked. These little blue lines flourish in May and June with aggressive trout and abundant food. Flows are typically fishable and many of these streams lend themselves to a number of fly-fishing techniques including traditional tenkara.

Desert streams provide prime opportunity to get creative. If you have been curious about a crack in the middle of nowhere spewing cold water through a sagebrush canyon, go for it. Seek pockets and plunge pools. Although the local game and fish office may not post anything about it, if it’s legal to fish, you may just find a new favorite stream. The Owyhee can be dynamite. What about its tributaries?

Desert lakes are ablaze in spring as well. For Lahontan cutthroat, I generally fish shorelines with scuds or buggers. If the fish are not up and cruising the shallows, they can be found deeper along shoreline boulders. A full-sinking fly line is about the only way to reach them, counting down to 20 feet or more before beginning a varied strip retrieve. Lahontans either hammer the fly or simply engulf it and just sit there, creating awkward tension. A sixth sense tells you when to set the hook. Heavy head shakes and deep runs are left to the drag.

Desert lake rainbows are cruising shallow weed beds at the edge of deep water, providing the appropriate mix of food and depth through the June time-frame. Dry flies are working now and traditional tenkara flies and methods can be effective as well. When the water is cold but a hatch is on, a dry fly with a dropper nymph is a fine option as midges dominate desert lakes, but matching the hatch can be crucial. When all else fails, sink a small streamer. Never will a 15-inch trout work the drag on a five-weight fly rod like a desert lake rainbow.

Trumbo - Wild Spring Trout (1)

Now, more than ever, you are itching to wet a fly. As a sunny day blooms, you need no excuse to shuck responsibility and undue stress for the symphonic chorus of the flush of courting songbirds, the mesmerizing roar of a stream or serenity of floating a lake as the water surface dimples from feeding trout. It’s time. Drop everything. Go fishing. And cherish the wild trout, big or small.

Fishing the Lakes that were Not Meant to Be

Published in the Waitsburg Times, June 11, 2020

Fishing desert lakes April through June is tough to beat. Flipping around on a float tube, the warm spring sun across my back, and wild trout smacking small streamers like mini freight trains is what I have come to love about desert lakes. Well, that, and the rugged, burgundy and chocolate-colored basalt rims punctuated by milky-emerald big sagebrush, random white plumes of yarrow and brilliant canary tufts of balsamroot blooms.

Having had quite enough of COVID-19 self-isolation, I decided to take a little road trip to Quail Lake in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge near Othello. Quail Lake is open year-round to catch-and-release fly-fishing for trout. And while I love a good desert lake, my preference is mountain streams, which weren’t yet open to fishing, locally. A desert lake would have to suffice.

Having never been to Quail Lake, or the seep lake area of Potholes, for that matter, the landscape was intriguing. Former ice-age floods gouged the prominent coulees and dozens of holes in the landscape, creating the scared and pock-marked surface similar to what you might expect to encounter on the moon. From atop the bluffs, the landscape appears flat, brushy, and baked brown with the already spent stems and drooping seed heads of invasive cheat grass. A few dark rims appeared in the distance, but the depth of the topography was not revealed before approaching the small, sunken lakes. Thus, Potholes is an appropriate moniker for the reservoir and surrounding area.

The lakes were formed by the Columbia Basin Project (Project), located in east-central Washington in the counties of Adams, Douglas, Franklin, Stevens, Okanogan, Grant, Lincoln, and Walla Walla. The primary feature of the Project is Grand Coulee Dam. Construction began on Grand Coulee in 1934 with an irrigation pumping concept of drawing water from the Columbia River, sending it down to Pasco, east of the Columbia River, as a means to reinvigorate the arid landscape for agriculture and homesteading. Presently, the Project irrigates approximately 671,000 acres, or 65 percent of the 1,029,000 acres originally authorized by Congress.

Quail Lake in the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge

Construction of the pumping plant, irrigation canal system and dams were completed in 1951. North Dam and Dry Falls Dam (formerly South Dam) were built to equalize the irrigation discharge and form the grand coulee, which is now 27-mile-long Banks Lake. There is over 300 miles of main canals, about 2,000 miles of lateral canals and 3,500 miles of drains and wasteways on the Project, according to the Bureau of Reclamation.

Among the drains and wasteways, Potholes Reservoir was developed to capture irrigation water for reuse in the southern portion of the Project. It’s the seepage from Portholes Reservoir and surrounding irrigation features which inundated the seep lakes.

Parking at Herman Lake and the Quail Lake trailhead, I was instantly mesmerized by the hoards of common carp thrashing the shoreline in search of food as spring rains and irrigation flows had flooded the cattails and low grassland swales. Overlooking the lake, these large fish were literally everywhere, boiling, jumping and beaching themselves in the cattails and newly flooded grasses. Landing a carp on the fly rod is an incredible experience, and I nearly caved to the temptation. Exercising self-control, I grabbed my backpack and fly rod and trudged off through the sagebrush in search of Quail Lake.

The hike was short and easy, but the map showed roads that didn’t exists, so I wound around through the wildlife refuge taking in the interesting bits of flora and fauna, like the myriad darkling beetles roaming gopher mounds, presumably in search of dung. Eventually deciding to cut straight to the lake, I was disappointed yet unsurprised to find the shoreline heavily populated with cattails and tule, so much that there was no potential to reach fish from shore. Experience told me this would be the case, yet I stubbornly ignored my own intelligence and made the hike a second time, returning with my float tube and waders.

A darkling beetle posturing for defense

Also as expected, the lake surface dimpled with rising trout feeding heavily on hatching midges. Had I not known better, I would have assumed it was beginning to rain. The overcast sky provided perfect conditions for a midge hatch, and between light puffs of wind, the trout were taking full advantage.

Flipping out from shore, I tied up a small streamer, which is my standard choice for desert lakes. Midges dominate arid water food sources, come in a staggering diversity of sizes and colors from millimeters to centimeters long, and make utter fanatics of the trout that feed on them. By this, I mean trout of all species that key in on midges know their profile down to antennae length and scrutinize imitations to the minutia of detail. I so rarely match a midge hatch that I strip streamers almost exclusively on desert lakes.

Gliding along, taking in the scenery, the morning slid seamlessly into early afternoon. Amid the rustle of red-winged blackbirds in the cattails, and acknowledging the distant cackle of a rooster pheasant or territorial “kerrr” of a male valley quail, I noted the occasional tap on my streamer, too timid to produce a hookset. Quite uncharacteristic of the rocketing rainbows I have encountered in other desert lakes. Deciding to make a switch, I went for a dry fly; a tiny black midge to mimic something I was seeing on the surface. I tied an extra long leader with very fine tippet to extend the nearly invisible fly as far from the main fly line as possible. And, as expected, something was amiss. No takers.

My final effort involved a midge nymph, again trying to mimic what I was seeing on the water’s surface. Using a small orange float as a strike indicator and depth selector, I had no more than made my first cast when the wind erupted from an intermittent gust to a sustained 15 miles per hour. If you have ever lounged on a swimming pool float and been blown across at break-neck speed (which is apparently about 15 miles per hour), you will understand why I vacated the nearest shoreline open enough to clamber out on, and called it a trip.

Climbing the canyon wall on my way to the top, I mused over the setting and the puddle lakes visible from my vantage. An unlikely dry landscape transformed into a vast desert oasis of wetlands and waters. An unintended consequence (and benefit) of an irrigation project developed nearly a century ago.

An overview of Quail Lake and Herman Lake in the distance

Navigating for the truck, I pondered the uniqueness of the seep lake ecosystem and the flush of wildlife that now inhabit the once crisply dry area of central Washington, as well as the beauty of old-growth sagebrush and the contrasting pop of the blood-orange colored lichens covering their arm-sized trunks.

Approaching Herman Lake, it dawned on me that now was a great opportunity to try my hand at a carp on the fly. But a few teenage boys were sufficiently harassing them such that I simply wandered by, casting a sidelong glance at their peculiar techniques. I thought it comical the gear these boys were using and their uneducated attempts at catching the beastly, bronze, invasive bulls of freshwater.

Suddenly, the notion struck home that I was doing nothing more than peering into my own past, seeing a striking resemblance of myself, back when I was an ignorant, harmless boy who wanted nothing more than to fish away his weekends. Well, at least before I had any clue of the foolery we adults rope ourselves into. Bills. Chores. Steady income. And for what? I suppose a home with acreage for the garden and wildlife is an acceptable example.

Closing the tailgate, the threesome strolled by, boisterously recounting their efforts to dupe the surprisingly intelligent carp. One boy said he wished they would have been able to catch a few more, while another said he was thrilled to have caught one at all. It was his first fish ever. An unlikely first fish from an unlikely lake that was never meant to be more than an ephemeral puddle, if that. Living vicariously, reveling in his success and exhilaration, I shifted my Tundra into “drive” and departed for home.