Anglers warm up in the sun while fishing at Diamond Lake Friday. - Jim Craven

'A whole new lake'

ROSEBURG — The buzz among Oregon anglers over Diamond Lake's fat trout and its tui chub-free water persuaded Jim Burford to end his self-imposed exile.

Burford packed his pickup and boat Friday, grabbed his cash-stuffed wallet and headed to Douglas County to see firsthand just how well the lake has rebounded from last year's poisoning of tens of millions of chubs.

"I haven't touched this water in 12 years," says Burford, a 57-year-old lumber salesman from Lowell, just outside of Springfield. "But I've heard enough about the size of the fish and the quality of the water finally to come back."

"Word of mouth is a big deal," he says.

Anglers like Burford have flocked to Diamond Lake all summer and fall, and the first post-chub fishing season has easily outstripped even the most optimistic of expectations.

Everything from insect life and water clarity to trout growth rates and zooplankton levels has enticed tens of thousands of extra anglers to fish Diamond Lake this year, and they've caught tens of thousands more trout and spent well over $1 million more than expected.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists studying the lake say the state's $5.6 million investment to kill off the unwanted chubs appears to be paying off in spades in the first season, which winds down Wednesday evening.

So much so that biologists, anglers, Forest Service officials and business owners alike keep using the A-word — amazing — to sum up the turnaround.

"Nobody thought everything would be this great," says Mari Brick, an ODFW biologist working on the lake's post-treatment monitoring.

"Diamond Lake is that prolific," Brick says. "It's always been an amazing lake. We just haven't seen it in a lot of years."

ODFW surveys show the fishery has generated far higher returns than the estimates in the final environmental study that led the way to last year's rotenone treatment to kill off the invasive tui chubs.

The final Environmental Impact Statement anticipated 25,000 angler-trips, a catch of 30,000 rainbow trout and sales of about $940,000 the entire season, which started the fourth Saturday in August and continues through Halloween.

But through August, an estimated 60,000 angler-trips led to a catch of about 70,000 fish, with anglers spending $2.25 million, based on the same survey formulas used in the final EIS.

Brick says the estimates were conservative "because we didn't know what would happen this year."

"We all had hopes, but nobody was willing to hope this high," Brick says.

Umpqua National Forest officials, whose campgrounds ring the lake, also saw use rates far exceeding expectations.

"The campgrounds were full weekend after weekend," Umpqua Forest spokeswoman Cheryl Caplan says. "They were even suggesting that people go other places to camp. That's the first time in years we've seen that.

"It was amazing this summer," Caplan says.

The same occurred at the Diamond Lake Resort, which limped through 15 years of poor fishing before increasing staff by 12 percent this year to 120 employees, resort manager Steve Koch says.

The resort's rental-boat fleet jumped from a sparsely used crop of 35 boats to 50 boats in high demand after anglers learned in May that rumors of the lake's turnaround were true, Koch says.

"People were still a little leery at first, but after that we were out of boats all the time," Koch says. "It was kind of amazing."

The A-word certainly hasn't been tossed around much at Diamond Lake since 1992, when illegally introduced chubs were detected. The fast-growing chubs overran the lake and quickly began out-competing stocked trout for food and space.

Eventually, the chubs crashed a trout fishery that once routinely sported more than 100,000 visitor-days a year and altered the lake's ecosystem so much that summer algae blooms left the water toxic at times to people and pets.

The moribund conditions were too great for anglers like Burford to ignore.

A Diamond Lake faithful since 1980, a dismal trip there in 1995 pushed Burford's loyalty to the edge.

"The last time I was here we caught one fish among 15 people," Burford says. "It was 10 inches long and was as skinny as a toothpick. That was it."

Plagued with an estimated 90 million chubs in the lake, the ODFW and Forest Service conducted the environmental studies and raised the money to apply the rotenone last November, rendering the lake devoid of trout and chubs.

The lake rebounded in immense fashion and on all levels.

The chub had eaten the insect population down to 6.2 pounds per acre last August. Last month, the lake bed sported 127 pounds of insects per acre. And that's not counting the insects eaten by 100,000 fingerling-sized trout that were growing 2 inches a month this summer, Brick says.

Last summer's water clarity at times was so poor that visibility measured less than one meter. In late June, the visibility measured a Crater Lake-like 12.5 meters.

"It's still kind of eerie to me," says Brick, who began working on Diamond Lake in 2001, when the lake's ecosystem hit rock bottom. "The water's so clear now. There's bugs everywhere. It's amazing. It's a whole new lake."

And with it came a whole old clientele with money to spend, like Burford, who brought his 37-year-old son, Andy, for a weekend of fishing.

The pickup and boat gas cost him about $100, with another $100 spent on the food they brought. Two nights in a Diamond Lake Resort duplex cost $420, meaning the duo dropped more than $600 just getting to and staying at the lake.

"That's what you do when you hear that fishing might be better than it used to be," Burford says.

It should be even better next year.

About 110,000 trout of varying sizes will spend the winter under the lake's ice and be ready when anglers return next spring for year 2 A.C. — After Chub.

"I'm so excited about next spring that I can hardly contain myself," says Rick Rockholt, a longtime resort manager and trout guide. "It's amazing."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail

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