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.

No Shortage of Good Days

“Any day catching wild trout on the fly is a good day”

I said to my buddy Derek as we traversed a bedrock cascade on one of our favorite mountain trout streams. It had been a couple years since I visited my Virginia home town, so we capitalized on my impromptu June arrival to carry on a tradition of fishing this particular stream.

Adjusting my Tenkara USA Rhodo to 9-feet, 9-inches, I set my sights on a pocket where the stream dropped over solid granite. The water was incredibly low for June, resembling the trickle of early fall. The pools were mirror-flat and crystal clear forcing us to endure a painful crawl across cobble streambed to approach without spooking fish.

Clinging to an algae-stained granite slab angling into the stream and forcing the flow to the far bank, my knees made relieving purchase on a soft jade mat of moss, cool and moist with river water. A gentle cast landed a small, blonde elk hair caddis with an olive body at the head of the cascade feeding the deep, emerald pool.

Derek Blyer fishes an Appalachian stream cascade for native brook trout

The caddis bobbed through the narrow cut between granite slabs, dappled by sunlight fighting its way through an eastern hemlock canopy. As the caddis rounded a large hunk of sandstone, an explosion led to my first fish of the morning. With the rod stuck high, I guided the 8-inch fish to shore and photographed its varied hues. The rosy speckles with the sapphire halo, the worm-like striations across its back and the fiery glow of its belly tugged at my soul.

I cut my fly-fishing teeth on Appalachian brook trout over 25 years ago and still find them challenging in tight cover and low flow. And they still hold high rank as one of the most beautiful specimens of the salmonid family, in my humble and biased opinion.

The wild Appalachian brook trout – a true spectacle to behold

In the west, some of the best days fishing wild trout have come from Idaho where big flies entice ravenous cutthroat in steep river canyons. On evening in particular, the sun kissed the mountaintop on its descent, casting a rich glow across the river and illuminating a dense mayfly hatch. Perched atop large riverside boulders, my buddy Chas and I were casting Chubby Chernobyl dry flies the size of a hummingbird to fish that were thrashing the water as though they had never eaten before.

A sweat-soaked straw hat shaded my face as I stripped and launched each cast in the evening heat. Hotter yet were the 16- to 18-inch cutthroat holding in eddies and along flow seams, erupting on the fluffy white flies like a champagne bottle blowing its cork. Evenings like this spent stalking these luxuriant bars of finning Idaho gold remain forever engraved in in our memory of good days.             

Another Idaho trip, I rigged up my tenkara rod with a Chubby and drifted it down a riffle into the head of a massive pool. The riffle filtered into a run before the flow encountered a house-sized boulder and turning 90-degrees. Dead-drifting the fly perfectly along flow seams fooled big fish where they had been educated by a generous number of anglers previously.

Chas Kyger fishing a glorious Rocky Mountain stream

You know when you get that “any moment” feeling when the drift is just right? At that moment, the brilliant, buttery glow of a cutthroat would rise from beneath and roll on the fly, hooking perfectly in the corner of the jaw. The throb of a heavy cutthroat against a tenkara rod in fast water feels nothing short of a spiritual experience.

Mountain streams tend to wash away the burdens of the day and fortify the soul. Songbirds, deer, chipmunk and squirrel, the roar of the stream and humidity of the transpiring forest canopy engulf our worries. We find ourselves lost in our natural habitat, having escaped reality, if only for a brief time. Mountain time is timeless yet tangible. Cleansing. A reset for bruised souls amid hardship like a pandemic and social unrest.

Wild trout and mountain streams are everyone’s resource in which to seek joy and solace, July being a prime month. Be it the Minam, Lostine, Wallowa, or somewhere further flung in Montana, California or Appalachia, John Gierach could not have said it better. There is no shortage of good days on wild trout water. We could all use a few more good days.

Tenkara Angling for Big-Water Smallmouth

…once I had missed a few birds, I could sneak around some backwaters with the tenkara rod to try and pluck a few bluegill from their spawning beds. And to my surprise, my quest for panfish led to something unexpectedly better.

Big water with a small fly rod and limited casting distance appears a futile effort on the surface. But targeting backwaters simplifies the game. Read more at Angler Pros.

Tenkara Angling for Snake River Smallmouth

Since discovering tenkara fly-fishing a few years ago, I don’t travel much without a tenkara rod. Tenkara rods are telescopic, collapsing down to about eighteen inches and only require a fly line, leader, and a handful of your favorite flies. Minimal gear and super simple. Absolutely unfettering after years of lugging a minimum of four fly boxes, two reels to accommodate floating and sinking fly line, fly line sink tips, split-shot and strike indicators for nymphs, a variety of leaders and tippet strengths, dry-fly float coat, and the list continues. 

This third-generation fly-fisherman seeking squishy-finned, speckled trout and salmon almost exclusively, had convinced himself to carry every possible method and fly pattern in the pack at any given time. We all know trout can be picky. But with the burden of gear selection removed from the equation, fly-fishing is once again magical, comparable to my single-digit years casting from the red clay, muddy margins of a forgotten farm pond. Back when I was a normal-sized human, able to snag my line in the tall fescue on the back-cast.

Given the simplicity of tenkara gear, its easy to toss the necessary items in the truck or pack for any occasion as you never know when you might find yourself in a situation where a fishing rod comes in handy. One such occasion was a recent trip to the Snake River to still-hunt Eurasian collared doves.

A tenkara fly rod on the Snake River is about like hunting grizzly bear with a straw and spit-wad. The gear doesn’t quite match the task. Nevertheless, I tossed the tenkara rod into the back seat with my CZ Bobwhite double-gun and hit the field. I figured once I had missed a few birds, I could sneak around some backwaters with the tenkara rod to try and pluck a few bluegill from their spawning beds.

The CZ Bobwhite G2 and tenkara rod are a formidable team for an epic day afield.

If you have never hunted collared doves, I recommend it as a challenging bird hunt to be had at any time throughout the year. Collared doves are considered an invasive species and not regulated to a season or bag limit. Watching, listening and sneaking through cover, closing the gap on their raspy coo is nearly as thrilling as crawling through starthistle and yellowjackets to get a bow shot at a dandy four-point muley buck. And the table fare is exquisite.

 Hunting collared doves is a story for another time, suffice it to say that on this particular day, I scattered eight-shot to the wind, simply making a racket with my little twenty-gauge side-by-side and educating the doves to heighten the challenge on my next attempt. Disappointed in having failed to add the appropriate choke tubes to the shotgun, I strolled over to a small riverside pool and reached for the tenkara rod.

Bluegill were stacked into the shallow margins of milfoil beds and guarding nests with hostility.  Casting ahead, I began slowly twitching a hideously-tied prince nymph through the shallows and into the beds policed by the feisty gendarmes. Readying myself to deliver a one-man clinic on the proper techniques for catching panfish hand-over-fist, I experienced crushing fail number two of my cast-and-blast adventure.

Amusingly, the bluegill that I was certain would eagerly run down and engulf the fly, fled hastily as if the nymph were noxious. A first for me in thirty-five-years of angling panfish. While switching to a smaller fly would likely have done the trick, I decided to change tactics, casting beyond the weed bed and letting the fly sink. On the second cast, the line jerked as if someone reached out and flicked it with a finger.

Popping the rod tip and sinking the hook into what I thought was a bigger bluegill turned out to be a smallmouth bass about eight-inches long. While I wielded a rod I had built for salmon, I was surprised at the small fish’s power against the heavy backbone of the thirteen-foot broom stick. Marveling over its bronze striping and deep red eyes, I eased it back into to the semi-turbid waters, excited at the opportunity.

Thinking it a fluke, a few casts later found the fly embedded in the upper jaw of another smallmouth, only this one a bit bigger. A solid twelve-incher that worked the tenkara rod impressively. Growing up on the Shenandoah River in Virginia, I had landed literally countless smallmouth of this caliber in my youth. The moment reinvigorated the excitement and admiration for the fight of the bronze-back that never fades from memory.

A momentary flashback to a sultry summer evening with a few of my best friends wading deep into remote ag-land reaches of the South Fork Shenandoah sparked a chuckle. While the Shenandoah was a blue-ribbon smallmouth river, I still rarely caught fish much bigger than I was seeing this day on a pocket water to the Snake River, 2,700 miles west.

Returning to reality and the immediate problem of daydreaming of fishing past rather than capitalizing on fishing present, I laid out another cast to the edge of the weed bed. Working the shoreline, about every fourth cast enticed another willing smallmouth. The bluegill scurrying from my shadow now completely forgotten.

The Snake River is a bit of a stretch to recommend as a fly-fishing destination, but if you find yourself in the position to give it a shot, go for the backwaters. Every boat basin and drainage mouth provides a unique environment much simpler to fish and teeming with bass and panfish, not to mention common carp, if you seek true adventure.

The wisdom of using big baits for big fish holds true for bass, but don’t over-do it. Nymphs, streamers and dry-flies, sizes eight to twelve are my preference. Ironically my personal best bass have all come on some of the smallest baits, and always while fishing for panfish.

Warm-water fishing for a cold-water evangelist is a back-of-the-mind prospect, yet each time I give it a whirl, I am pleasantly reminded of the merits of such an endeavor. It’s a great opportunity in a pinch requiring little time and the most basic gear to realize the value of keeping it simple and simply catching scrappy smallmouth in the marginal waters of the infamous Snake. 

Alaska Coho on the Fly

There is no better retreat from the dog days of summer in the Lower 48 than a stint in Alaska chasing coho salmon (“silvers”). August is prime time for the coho run in southeast Alaska, and for a DIY fly-fisherman, the term “epic” can be realized in the literal sense.

The tail of the month on Prince of Wales lends itself to streams swollen with pink and coho salmon, the fall coho run peaking in September. Fish are battling their way to the spawning grounds, eager to take on all comers with the audacity to stand in the way. Trolling open saltwater is a fine method to put fish in the box, but nothing replaces the experience of stripping streamers for big fish in small water.

Eyeballing a large wake entering a backwater pocket about 100 feet across the creek, a hard role-cast sent a punk bunny leach with dumbbell eyes slamming into the edge of the pocket. A quick, hard strip triggered the aggression of one hulking buck coho, the wake erupting from the shallows in hot pursuit.

A beast of a buck coho that smashed the pink bunny streamer and took me for a ride

I could feel my body’s stress response. Pupils dilated. Arms tensed in anticipation of the strike. An enormous white gape opened on the leading edge of an olive-backed torpedo, engulfing the fly and making a hard turn back into the run. Panic-stricken, I strip-set the hook and held on for the ride.

My eight-weight switch rod reluctantly gave line, the drag screaming as the buck made haste for the ocean and into my backing. Just as quickly, he turned back upriver in full charge, leaving me scrambling to regain line and keep the pressure on. His sleek profile sliced the water like a hot knife as he navigated boulders and riffles.

Three encore runs put a knot in my gut with every turn, each moment of slack line dragging the fluorocarbon tippet across jagged boulders. His aerial acrobatics enacted a spectacular show as he leapt, attempting to throw the fly. Even a black bear browsing the breakfast menu was amused by the show.

At long last, I banked the fish, feeling remorseful in securing the fine specimen and robbing him of passing such fit genetics. He lay among emerald ferns beneath a stone-cold granite wall, alongside a chrome hen I had the pleasure to land moments earlier. Marveling over the spectacle, his well-defined kype, deep rose coloration fading into dark olive along the dorsal with black pepper flecks, holographic operculum, and perfectly symmetrical physical features inspired awe. Laying my switch rod against him for scale, I snapped a few quick photos to forever immortalize the life of what may be the greatest coho salmon I will ever have the privilege to land on the fly.

This was but one of many incredible moments afforded me by the bounty of Alaska over the years, and certainly one of the most memorable. August is getting late for chinook salmon (“kings”), but other species like sockeye and chum can be found in a few creeks. Neither offer the table fare of the coho or chinook, yet both are worthy of every minute of pursuit in fight and splendor.

In eight days of dawn to dusk casting, I fished that single pink bunny streamer pattern, enticing everything that swam, including a small sea-run cutthroat. On subsequent trips, I fished a standard floating fly line and a six-weight switch rod, and even a tenkara rod with equivalent success.

Prince of Wales offers myriad other opportunities to view wildlife, sink pots for Dungeness crab and bottom-fish for halibut and rockfish, all of which met the grill and steam pot each evening. We stood over the searing aromas, enjoying a beverage and recalling our new and everlasting memories. Sticking to the minimalist trend, applying the basic seasonings salt, pepper, garlic, lemon, parsley and butter offers universal succulence for fin fish and shellfish alike.

Good friend Dean Holecek pulls a crab pot in Prince of wales

Given the brutalities of 2020, now is a great time to push back from the stressors of everyday life and hop a quick flight (with an open middle seat!) to southern Alaska. Grab your fly rod and a handful of streamers, don your facemask, and experience the soul rejuvenation that only the last frontier can provide, among salmon.