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 – Pursuit and Conservation of Greater Sage Grouse

Published in the East Oregonian, November 21st, 2020

An icon of the western U.S., the wary, spike-tailed adult males of this species boast the endearing nickname “bombers” due to their large size and lumbering liftoff. An obligate Inhabitant of the high sagebrush, greater sage grouse are as quintessential to the range as pronghorn and mule deer.

A spectacle to behold, my first encounter was in southern Idaho on a late September elk hunt. Riding an abysmally rough BLM road back to camp, I spotted “geese” in the sagebrush off to my right. “Why are geese out here in the sagebrush?” I asked myself. It seemed plausible to find geese along the Pahsimeroi River, but not in the shrub-steppe.

“Those aren’t geese, genius. They’re sage grouse!” I blurted out in elation. A half-dozen robust, feather-legged fowl eyeballed me warily as I bounced past, ensuring they need not unnecessarily expend the energy of lift-off.

A male sage grouse displaying for the ladies. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Sage grouse once numbered around 16 million across western North America, pre-settlement. Presently, estimates of approximately 200,000 birds remain range wide, their significant decline attributed largely to habitat loss. Following their decline, the species was proposed for listing as “Threatened” under the Endangered Species Act until a 2015 status review identified that listing was not warranted.

The decision was made partially due to the efforts of the Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), which began in 2010, pushing to conserve precious sagebrush habitat across the sage grouse range. Sage grouse and the SGI are both captivating in their own right; the birds for their size and behaviors, and the SGI for its incredible cooperative nature among landowners, non-profits and government agencies.

Presently, there are four protected, fragmented populations in Washington. A much larger area of southern Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, and southeast Oregon throughout the Steens, Malheur and Owyhee public lands support these curious prairie grouse, permitting regulated hunting seasons.

Sage grouse are known for their dramatic “lekking” behavior. A lek is a common area where males gather in spring to perform courtship displays for females and fiercely defend their territory on the lek, which may only be a few yards in size.

The sage grouse courtship dance is something to behold. Males have spiked tail fans and snow-white breast feathers with two yellow air sacs that they inflate during the ritual. The Cornell University bird laboratory explains the courtship behavior as follows.

“Standing tall, with inflated chest held high, the male sweeps his wings across his white breast, creating a swishing noise. He tilts his head back, rapidly inflating, bouncing, and deflating the yellow, balloon-like pouches on his chest. The outward popping of these bare pouches creates a series of echoing pops. These displays are performed almost continuously, and up to 10 times per minute, for several hours in the early morning.”

Cornell University Bird Laboratory

Ensuring the persistence of this iconic species of the western sagebrush habitats, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) helped found the SGI, leveraging Farm Bill funds and volunteer landowner cooperation to conserve the largest intact tracts of sagebrush with the largest sage grouse populations. To date, the SGI has cooperated with 1,856 ranchers to conserve more than 7 million acres across 11 western states (California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington and Wyoming).

The SGI includes NRCS partnerships with myriad local, state and federal governments and non-governmental organizations like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Oregon Hunters Association, Pheasants Forever and the Ruffed Grouse Society. While the NRCS channels funding through the Farm Bill, success is only possible through partners that leverage funds, shoulder work, and tackle policies beyond the authority of the NRCS.

Sage grouse amid their spring mating rituals on the lek. Photo by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The success of the SGI equates to uplanders like me continuing to have opportunities to hunt sage grouse where their remaining populations are strong. But wildfire and invasive species like cheat grass continue to threaten sage grouse habitat. As fire danger and smokey air from the Cascades region settled over eastern Washington and Oregon this past September, I cancelled my bucket list hunt for which I had drawn an Oregon permit.  

Smoke settled thick, oozing through the window cracks on the homestead like pancake batter late on September 11th. Burning tear ducts awakened me, urging me to tape off windows and doors. Burns, Oregon was slated for the same air quality. I can only imagine how uncomfortably stuffy a camper, sealed tight, encapsulating myself and two setters might have been.

Historic sagebrush-steppe fires burned slow and cool, beneficial to the ecosystem. But cheatgrass encroachments have changed fire cycles to more frequent and hotter, roasting mature plants and damaging sagebrush regeneration. Additionally, sagebrush communities are slow-growing, requiring invasive species management and possibly replanting to reestablish decimated communities.             

Fortunately, wildlife is resilient and persistent. Habitat and hunting opportunity to be restored through the efforts of dedicated partnerships like the SGI. And the 2021 prospects are looking good.

I can see the covey nestled among the buttery autumn grasses and milky sage. A setter tail wafts gently in the auburn glow of the sun peeking over the Owyhee; the location of the covey betrayed. Circling in for the flush, the covey materializes from the sagebrush sea. Heavy wingbeats trigger a swift mount. The bead aligns with my right eye as double barrels swing through. Next year…  

Upland Pursuits – Seeking the Elusive ‘Devil Bird’ in Eastern Oregon

Published January 16th, 2021

Carefully picking myself up from the edge of a jagged, ice-covered, granite face, I grimaced at the sharp pain in my right hip. My setter, Finn, was entangled between intense interest in a lone sagebrush in which a brace of chukar had just departed, and passing sidelong glances of puzzlement at me as I stretched, groaned, cursed, and struggled to remain upright. Although furious and frustrated, I gazed in awe at the high bluffs above the Columbia River, covered in a fresh blanket of light snow. The water was glass-slick reflecting perfectly the contours of the shoreline.

Wincing again, I recovered the new Browning pump that my wife recently purchased as her upland bird gun. I decided I would “break it in”, and did a fine job by the looks of the fresh and excruciatingly deep gouges in the sleek walnut stock. The chukar pair young Finn had busted were the cause of the fall. Reacting in panic as they careened across canyon, my footing failed on the iced-over, near-vertical slope. “The fall didn’t kill me, but Ali might.” I explained to Finn as she wagged, blissfully ignorant. “I am done with chukar!” was my next utterance.

Like most of the prairie birds we upland hunters are so fond of, chukar are not native to the U.S., initially introduced from Pakistan in 1893. Wild populations presently thrive in 10 western states (California, Idaho, Nevada, Washington, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Oregon, Utah, Wyoming), and British Columbia, Canada.

Chukar can also be found on the main Hawaiian Islands. If you’ve ever been to Kauai, ponder running the rim of Waimea Canyon as the chukar bail over the edge, laughing heartily. Would you shoot? I am far too excited about hunting again tomorrow to even consider recovering a bird in such exaggerated, death-defying terrain. For the record, I never saw or heard chukar in Waimea Canyon (the habitat is all wrong).

In my early upland days, I remained in the dark about areas like the Owyhee and Steens where birds can be found along rimrock and out in the sagebrush. Rather, I traveled to the upper Columbia, scrambling up scree and clinging to the faces. The “Chukar Palace” was a place my buddy Chas introduced me to. Dog-less, he climbs the slopes, taking limits, and never returning with less than a couple birds a day. With or without a dog, I have never even gotten a shot at chukar while hunting the crags with Chas. Holding true to my word, I haven’t returned to the Chukar Palace.

The “Chukar Palace”

Chas’s dog-less success comes from knowing the habitat and reading the bird sign. And I am not convinced that a strong element of luck doesn’t factor into the equation. Sagebrush and cheatgrass are important food sources and water is critical in the early part of the season. Fresh snow holds the birds a little tighter; their tracks betraying their presence. Even without snow, Chas traverses the rolling sagebrush beyond the cliffs, inspecting the recency of scat, and slowing to a halt when its fresh. Remaining still unnerves birds that may be holding nearby. I’ve seen it work time and again. The covey’s thunderous flush like a timebomb exploding at an unknown moment. Remaining calm on the flush is key to drawing an accurate bead.

We have had some good days in the rolling sage. The place literally crawling with birds. A large sagebrush-steppe slope with a few deep crevasses rolls along the western edge of the central Washington scablands, much like the eastern Oregon landscape. I recall a day running Finn with Chas and having a ball. Coveys dappled the terrain, flushing wild and valiantly fleeing into the cliffs where they would “chuk” manically, tempting the foolish predator. At long last, a covey held tight and two came to the vest once our barrels were empty.

A hard-won chukar of the sage-brush steppe.

With the season ending January 31st, only a few weeks remain to seek the elusive “devil bird” in eastern Oregon. The grasslands west of the Blues are usually a good, relatively local area, but chukar numbers seem a bit lower than usual this year, which is interestingly consistent with central Washington. Puzzling is the conversely exceptional Hun year about an hour north near Walla Walla.

Regardless of bird numbers, you should take a hike. Your scatter gun and bird dog, if you have one, would appreciate the exercise. And cabin fever looms, compounded by another nine months before the 2021 chukar season.

Short-eared Owls of the Plains

Published March 4th, 2021 in The Waitsburg Times.

Glimpses of white flashed through the heavy sagebrush as Finn dashed across the scablands. There were Hungarian partridge and valley quail hunkered somewhere among the sage sea and She was working her best to locate them. A carpet of spent grasses and forbs provided ample food sources for upland birds, which were inexplicably absent from the flood-scared landscape.

Circling a small basalt butte, I recalled the last flash of white being off to the left about 30-yards. Starting in that direct, my handheld locator alerted me that Finn was on point, simultaneous with my catching another glimpse of white between the waist-high brush.

Rushing on for a flush, a single bird levitated silently, catching the wind and flapping lazily to perch on a lichen-encrusted fence post and peer judgingly back at us. Its round head and exaggerated wingbeats gave it away instantly. A short-eared owl, I would come to learn.

Over the years, my setters and I have flushed short-ears a number of times on the Palouse. Occasionally pairs emerge. When hunting covey birds, there is no concern over drawing a bead on one of these peculiar raptors that can be downright startling, but when chasing something like sharp-tailed grouse, expecting a brown and white bird of similar size can be momentarily confusing.

Short-eared owls are brown spotted with a buff, streaked chest and white under the wings, resembling dried grasses. Their pale face is clearly defined with large golden eyes, outlined in black as if they are wearing eye liner.  And if you really want to dive into the minutia of detail, a dark comma-shape is prominent on the white underwing.

An owl’s “ears” are the lateral feather tufts on the head. The great horned owl boasts magnificent “ears”, but they are far less conspicuous on the short-eared owl. Only when on the defensive are the short-ear’s tufts erect and visible, hence, its namesake. 

Aside from their unique, exaggerated flapping and flight that the Audubon Society describes as “buoyant” and appearing like a “giant moth”, I’ve come to read the dog in the instances they point before the owl appears. They must possess a unique odor as the dogs know it’s a bird, but it just doesn’t smell right. Their points are tentative rather than rigid and confident, and when the bird levitates, the dogs peel off with no desire to pursue it.

Our numerous encounters with short-ears on the grasslands comes from them being the most wide-spread owl species in the world, occurring on every continent. Their North American range spans the entire continent nearly to the Arctic with year-round residency and breeding approximately across the northern band of the contiguous 48 U.S. states.

While most owls prefer some form of dark cover and timber, short-eared owls inhabit the open plains, shrub-steppe, tundra and marshlands, where they roost and nest on the ground like upland gamebirds or waterfowl. When nesting, the female selects a high spot and scratches out a bowl-shaped depression similar to what you might find a pheasant using as a dusting bowl. She fills the bowl with down feathers and grasses for soft, warm brood rearing. Nesting and breeding occurs March through June and peaks in April in the northern hemisphere.

Short-eared owls hunt mainly by sound, listening for rodents scurrying and scuffling in the prairie or wetland duff. While they hunt at night like other owls, one of most unique traits of short-eared owls is their common daytime activity. Short-eared owls are very active in the crepuscular periods of the day and can be seen most any other time of day.

Although these medium-sized owls are common locally and worldwide, my encounters with them have always been on large tracts of shrub-steppe. The patchwork of draw-bottom habitats dappling our wheat local wheat farms typically supports species of alder, cottonwood and black locust, more enticing to great horned owls who would whoop the shorts off the short-eared owl if it desired the shade.

Short-ears are easy to photograph and easily approachable. Finding them is the real challenge. A hike through public lands west of Dayton or the central Washington scablands near Odessa are areas where I commonly see these pale-faced fowl. A canine companion can increase your odds of discovery, but the camera must be at the ready.

Once spooked, Short-ears typically remain close, perching quickly, but the slightest additional human movement can put prompt distance between you. Select a fast shutter speed for the moving target. Upon the flush, train your focus on the bird and try for that perfect in-flight shot, then wait for the owl to settle and capture that wide-eyed glance of incredulous judgement born only of a meal or midday snooze disrupted. 

Regret, Relief and Reflection at Season’s End

Published March 20th, 2021 in the East Oregonian.

The rich aromas of a moist, finely blended pipe tobacco drifted from the crooked briarwood clenched between my teeth. Taking a slow pull, I puzzled over the two spent 20-gauge shells lying before me, signaling a close to the 2020 upland bird season. Each season brings new and unique experiences, and lessons learned, and re-learned.

Unique experiences of 2020 included a road trip to north-central Montana for sharp-tailed grouse, and making a new hunting buddy from Almira, Washington, on the basalt-channeled scablands chasing quail and pheasant. Both experiences offered complete surprise and education.

A tip from some Helena residents led me to the Conrad area of Montana, only to find it a complete bust. Having hunted sharp-tails in far eastern Montana and finding coveys thick as starlings, I was confident in my setter’s ability to find birds. Map scouting for large grasslands and sagebrush tracts had me a bit concerned, but I identified a few areas that looked good among the patchwork of cropland.

Upon arrival, I found a single tract in 50 square miles with semblance of the native prairie I sought. Over the course of a few days, my setters never once got birdy. We saw not a single game bird along farm roads or public access. Thoroughly disappointed, we packed it in early, headed for Flathead Lake, and camped in a beautiful lakeside state park for a pick-me-up.

Finn running the Rocky Mountain Front.

On the contrary, in December I met a social media acquaintance near Grand Coulee, expecting prospective covers to resemble our local bird numbers. Darren McCall and his daughter Kinzie were gracious enough to show me some of their best covers, while I ran my best dogs. Wading into the first field of the day, dappled in Great Basin wild rye and other choice grasses, a scene reminiscent of the Dakotas erupted as waves of pheasant took to wing hundreds of yards ahead of us and the dog.

Moving on to the quintessential quail cover of the scablands, every grassy pocket held pheasant, but we put up not one quail covey. The sagebrush and bunchgrasses were cloaked in ice and the landscape a glimmering prism, punctuated by the milky green of sage and chocolate basalt outcrops. Darren claimed a single rooster, and we enjoyed an exhilarating hunt behind Yuba as she taught a clinic on pinning hens.

The common lesson relearned from both Montana and Grand Coulee was that quality habitat produces birds. The Montana habitat was abhorrent, while the scablands were characterized largely by native vegetation.

Yuba pinning a hen pheasant on the channeled scablands.

Also noteworthy, the western wildfires may have kept me from the Oregon sage grouse season, but exceptional mourning dove flights on my homestead amidst the smoke were a fair consolation. Finn and Yuba hunted at peak performance, Yuba in particular. Following a second surgery in August to correct hip dysplasia, she now has no hip sockets. I feared her stamina and stability would prove a challenge over the fall, but being freed of crippling arthritis, her exuberance, determination and skill were redefined.

Yuba’s pheasant savvy comes as a result of passion and drive that have helped hone her skills over the years. I lost count of her finds this past season, and the tenacity in which she pursued downed birds was an inspiring spectacle.

Taking another pull, the sweet aroma triggered further memories. The time has past to hang up the vest, stow the side-by-side, and box the pipe for another grueling nine months of anticipation. And, as always, it was done with a pang of regret, yet a sigh of relief.

Season’s end signals a close to the crack-of-dawn, frozen finger mornings, and cutting, combing and plucking a thousand invasive weed burrs from the notoriously tangly setter coats. It also brings halt to the sight of high-tailed points beneath the golden rays of the crepuscular hours, and the rush of wings against crackling grasses and shrub limbs.

My girls and I are getting no younger. The same can be said for my upland brethren. And to me, a picture is worth 1,000 birds. It’s going to be a long wait for September. May the memories of the stellar days afield, and time spent toting the scattergun with friends and family, simply following the dogs and admiring the splendor of the uplands, see us through to the early 2021 grouse season.

An exceptional performance by Yuba landed a couple well-earned roosters in the bag.