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.

Upland Pursuits: 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.

Bluegill Beginnings

Picture a portly, toe-headed boy standing along the muddy shoreline of a farm pond as the sinking summer sun casts a warm amber glow across the water. He wore pastel yellow jogging shorts and a Mr. T “I pity the fool” shirt, white socks with two red bands pulled up just below the knee, and navy Chuck Taylors. Wielding a seafoam green fiberglass fishing rod sporting a prototype Zebco 33 reel, he cast a bobber and small hook baited with nightcrawlers he dug from his grandpa’s back yard. As the bobber sinks, the boy swiftly pops the rod tip, and reeling madly, lands his dozenth bluegill sunfish of the night.

That portly little boy was me over 30 years ago. Grandpa, bluegill sunfish, and that old cow pasture pond were significant influences on my life as an outdoorsman and biologist. Bluegill may not be all that exciting to anglers who have graduated to bigger and more challenging species, but to a child eager to cast a line, bluegill are among the most common starting points.

Native to the Mississippi River system and eastern U.S., bluegill were historically found in rivers and natural lakes. But a man named Homer Swingle is largely responsible for the farm pond fisheries of today. In the 1930s, Swingle began experimenting with predator/prey population cycles in ponds near Alabama’s Auburn University.

Swingle’s experiments suggested that an ordinary cattle watering puddle could be stocked with bluegill and largemouth bass and left to its own natural, self-sustaining regulation of species abundance and proper size and age classes. His findings led to landowners stocking farm ponds across the nation with bass and bluegill, invigorating sportfishing in the process.

Bluegill, among many other prized sportfish, eventually made their way across America to the Columbia River Basin where they now thrive. Bluegill, as well as other sunfish species, are common in the backwaters and boat basins of the Snake River and numerous ponds and lakes across the Pacific Northwest. While they may be invasive, they present an exceptional opportunity to introduce children to fishing, potentially hooking them for life, now being the perfect time.

When water temperature reaches approximately 57 degrees in spring, spawning activity kicks in for many warmwater fishes. This means sunfish move into the shallows, digging nests in soft substrates with their tails. Eggs are laid and fertilized and the males stand guard. With a “take on all comers” attitude, their aggressive behavior makes them easily tempted into taking small jigs and flies that threaten the eggs.

Otherwise, bluegill can be found all summer by tossing a nightcrawler or meal worm along brush piles, aquatic vegetation edges, and under docks. Hand-sized specimens fry up nicely with a delicate and flakey white filet. Recipes as simple as flour or cornmeal, salt and pepper, and a little oil are perfectly suited for any fish fry. For a little more spice in your dish, a quick Google search will turn up myriad recipes including fish tacos, fajitas, chowder and more. 

Reaching the unfortunate milestone of adulthood means the prospects of bluegill angling may not appear interesting on the surface, but bass are a common “bycatch” in bluegill territory. Another member of the sunfish family, bass behave similarly to and prey on bluegill. And, while anglers think big when talking bass baits, my personal best largemouth, a seven-pounder, slurped a tiny F4 Rapala crankbait while casting for bluegill over spring spawning beds.

Feisty and confident, bluegill handle themselves quite well, forcing a sweet bend in any light action spinning or fly rod. But the best part is the year-round season with no gear restrictions and no size or harvest limits. All that’s needed is a fishing license and a desire to get outdoors.

A dark shape materializing from the depths or bolting through the shallows to slurp a fly, or the sudden sideways glide of a bobber dangling a worm sends a bolt of anticipation through anglers young and old. To admire the modest orange breast and namesake blue gill, dark olive dorsal, and deep vertical barring on the more fashionable specimens is a privilege. They take me back to the farm pond where I stand wearing some form of 1980’s basketball star fashion and toting my nightcrawler box. Grandpa stands in his Dickies and flannel on an eroding earthen dam, a steely eye scanning the weed beds beneath a faded, green Redman ball cap, and casting a bass streamer on a hand-built fly rod.

While the Snake River is nearby, virtually endless options exist in Washington for a family fishing outing for bluegill. Visit the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife website below for more information.

Bluegill | Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife

Three Keys to Mountain Stream Trout

Published July 2021 @HarvestingNature

Stepping into a reach I had never laid eyes on, water spilled across the floodplain through newly cut side channels, occupied new backwaters, and spilled through massive apex log jams. Beautiful pools formed below the jams and behind precisely placed root wads. Riffles spilled across cobble bars parallel to the head of the pool, forming textbook dry-fly dead-drifting waters, irresistible to inhabiting trout.

Knowing the fish would be somewhat less active in the glacial June flows, I nevertheless opted for a size 12 elk hair caddis. Having embraced fishing simply, a tenkara fly rod has become my go-to for mountain trout streams. Capable of landing fish as large as salmon (speaking from personal experience), easily reaching mid-stream pocket water habitats, and presenting a flawless dead-drift, a lightweight tenkara rod and single fly box graced my presence as I traversed the cottonwood riparian and shallow riffles.

A riffle formed the beautiful emerald pool where it collided at 90-degrees with a large toppled tree root wad. Hydraulic forces cut their way through the substrate until the head of the pool widened enough to shift flow and scour downstream depths. It was the ideal location for a calculated approach and fly presentation.

Dropping the caddis into the riffle and watching it bob carelessly into the flow seam below, it was no surprise that a rainbow stealthily slithered to the surface, trouncing the fly with the confidence of snagging an easy meal. A soft pop of the wrist set the hook with the tenkara rod, which played the 12-incher through the riffle and into a shallow pocket for a safe release. The fish’s cotton candy pink lateral line, grape-sized parr marks, and overall random speckling of bluish blotches and tiny black flecks were a sight to behold. Its otherwise chrome sheen was nearly blinding in the morning sun as rays peaked over the eastern basalt rim.

Approaching “fishy” habitat is an important consideration. How the angler casts a shadow, disturbs the water, or presents the fly and line can mean the difference between landing multiple, and possibly big fish, and no fish. Consider a classic log jam and downstream pool.

Whenever possible, approach the pool with the sun in your face. Keeping a long shadow off the water serves well to avoid spooking fish. Additionally, I like to approach from the side and begin near the top of the pool. Bigger trout get the best “lie”, meaning they take preferred feeding zones, which are usually farther back in the pool where the water is calmer and predators more visible. Fish are easily spooked here and often race into the whitewater at the top of the pool seeking shelter. Game over.

Approaching from the side, one can cast high or across the pool and drift down for the best presentation. Additionally, any fish caught in the top of the pool are less likely to escape to the tail and spook other fish when released.

If you must approach from the bottom end, carefully work your fly further and further into the pool to try to catch any fish near the tail before spooking them with the line touching down or wading into them.

When approaching from the top, keep a low profile and dead drift the fly from the head of the pool into the middle and tail. This is superbly easy to do with a fixed length of line approximately one-, to one-and-a-half times the rod length. Keep the rod tip high as the fly touches down, then slowly drop the rod consistent with the flow rate to keep line drag from affecting the fly drift. A hungry trout cannot pass on a caddis presented accordingly.

Aside from log jams and pools, gentle runs with large boulders providing velocity breaks are a good choice. Side channels, root wads, and anywhere riffles push perpendicular into a stream bank or other structure, creating a deeper pocket, is bound to hold trout. Trout also seek flow seams where faster water eddies off into slower water, depositing food, and allowing trout to save energy when holding position.

Approaching the next pool from below, a gravel bar split the pool, sending a run to the river-right bank that paralleled a downed tree, and creating a scour pool on the river-left bank beneath a small, submerged tree. Drifting a fly along the right-bank produced a single missed strike, but working slowly to the head of the left-bank pool enticed several fish seeking shelter beneath the tree.

While fly-fishing may seem intimidating to the novice, there are three general keys to mountain stream trout that can be quickly mastered; quality habitat, a stealthy approach, and clean fly presentation. The best producing areas are always those resembling quintessential trout habitat, with braided channels, large wood, a good riffle-run-pool sequence, and lush riparian vegetation. An elk hair caddis or Adams are staple flies, working on nearly any mountain stream at any time, making fly choice less concerning.

Mountain streams are the heart and soul of fly-fishing. Keep it simple. Keep the rod tip high. And savor the radiance of those speckled forest gems.

 

Upland Pursuits – The Caddis Revolution

Published in the East Oregonian, July 16th 2021

If you’re a fly-fisherman, think back on your first trout on the fly. Can you remember it? Turns out I cannot, but I do recall my teenage years spent trying to crack the code on mountain brook trout in Appalachia. While my casting skill left much to be desired, habitat selection may have had more influence on my struggle to coax a fish to the fly. Thirty years later, mountain trout streams take me back to basics such that the last time I carried a western-style fly rod and reel into a headwater stream was probably 2016.

These days I seek elevation and skinny water with only a handful of flies of usually one or two patterns, and a tenkara rod. Whether the fishing is actually easy or just second nature to me now remains to be determined, but one thing has remained constant. The elk hair caddis. This classic pattern stands as a staple in the fly box of trout anglers worldwide, mine included. It’s effectiveness has made this the first, and often the only fly I use on mountain streams.

A Montana brook trout couldn’t resist the caddis as it bobbed overhead, casting a shadow in the summer sun

So, how did this fly earn its reputation? There are approximately 7,000 known caddis species, which hatch generally April through October in the northern hemisphere. The dry fly (adult) pattern is often effective through November with peak hatch months typically being June through September. The October caddis hatch is well known in some areas, including locally, for remarkable densities of colossal flies that may be mistaken for large moths. Fishing a giant October caddis can redefine “epic” as feisty fish feast to fatten up for winter on the filet mignon of insect forage.

Tied with a black, brown, or olive body, ribbed with copper or tensile or not at all, and topped with hair as black as moose or bright as a bull elk’s rump, the pattern is universally effective. The same olive elk hair caddis once duped native brookies in several Virginia mountain streams only days before it landed me the Bitterroot Slam of rainbow, brook, brown, cutthroat, and cut-bow on my drive back to Washington. That was July 2020, and that fly now hangs on my pickup’s driver-side sun visor as a constant reminder of an exceptional few days on the headwaters draining our major eastern and western mountain ranges.

Given the fly’s popularity, effectiveness, and commonplace existence as a renown fly pattern, one of the most curious facts about the fly is that it has been on the scene barely over 60 years. The simplicity of the elk hair caddis pattern led me to assume it has been around since the beginning of modern fly-fishing at the latest.

The elk hair caddis (far right) is a staple in the box of most any fly fisherman and fits perfectly with this array of large stimulator patterns for cutthroat

Seemingly one of the earliest possible fishing methods, one may assume that fly-fishing was common as early as 1653 with the first publishing of Izaak Walton’s Compleat Angler. Surprisingly. One of the first records of fishing flies includes a group of about a dozen salmon streamers tied in Ireland in 1789, possibly older than the first color illustration of flies, according to the American Museum of Fly Fishing. Even more surprising, the first elk hair caddis is credited to Al Troth, tied in 1957, far later than many other classics like the Adams, which turned up around 1922. Little did Troth know that his caddis pattern would go on to imitate virtually any species of caddis, as well as some stoneflies. A truly revolutionary fly.

Dry-fly fishing – fishing flies on the water surface – is thought to be the pinnacle of trout angling. Norman McClean’s A River Runs Through It, centered in Missoula, Montana, sensationalized fly-fishing, invigorating the fishing world to take up the sport. McClean’s wit suggested purity in fishing dry flies through biblical reference, saying “Our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly-fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He told us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly-fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.” While anyone can fish dry-flies, sans the pretention, there are arguably few other flies or fly-fishing methods that compare to charming wild trout with an elk hair caddis.

A mountain stream rainbow fallen victim to the temptation of the elk hair caddis

A creamy puff of elk rump bobs carelessly on a dead-drift, cascading into the head of a mountain stream pool. Unable to resist the temptation, a muscly rainbow with a cotton-candy pink lateral stripe rockets to the surface, engulfing the fly in an eager splash as it drifts over the emerald depths. A quick flip of the wrist sets the hook, and the fight ensures. Admiring the remarkable hues of salmonid perfection from the clear, cold cascades is what dreams are made of. Dreams that can be reality for anyone willing to chase them with an elk hair caddis, July being a fine month on streams like the Wallowa River, Umatilla, and Walla Walla.