By Mark Freeman
ASHLAND — Rick Ogier dragged his one-man pontoon boat more than 100 yards over the moonscape that is supposed to be Fish Lake before he finally hit water, then oared over to a nearby spring to discover that the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow is more rainbows.
Rainbow trout by the hundreds swirled through the water, feasting on a fall insect hatch and ripe for the pickings. A trout would jump, Ogier would cast to it and his bait would never hit bottom.
“The trout were stacked in there so heavily,” says Ogier, of Ashland. “I catch-and-release fish, and I have a two-pole license, but I couldn’t get to the other pole because I was catching just fish after fish.
“I guess there’s something to be said for low water,” he says.
Fall’s tail end of a yearlong drought may be tough on fish, but it’s a short-term boon for anglers like Ogier who don’t have to do the math to realize that lower volume is better when it comes to lakes they’re mining for trout.
Take Fish Lake at 100 percent full, and the 45,000 trout stocked there this year can fan over 483 acres at a rate of 93 trout per acre.
But put that same number of trout in a lake that’s 7 percent full, as Fish Lake was last week, and it turns fishing into catching.
It’s the equivalent of trying to catch one of a dozen horses in an open pasture versus a small corral.
Add that fall hunting is in full swing and trout fishers tend to be a fair-weather ilk, and anglers like Ogier and fishing buddy Paul Hoadley of Merlin can have some of Fish Lake’s best fishing quite literally to themselves.
“It’s a pretty incredible experience to go out on a lake with no people around, listen to the water and catch lots of fish,” says Dan VanDyke, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Rogue District fish biologist by trade and a trout-trolling aficionado.
Granted, drought conditions that are either persistent or periodic are not best for fish or fishing in the long term.
In rivers like the Rogue, low, warm summer water can hurt migrating chinook salmon historically plagued by natural warmwater diseases such as columnaris, which wiped out two-thirds of the Rogue’s all-wild fall chinook run in 1992.
In reservoirs like Fish, Hyatt, Howard Prairie and Emigrant, low water leaves marinas plopped on mudflats and boat ramps a stone’s throw away from the water and useless.
It also can lead to warming summer waters and depleting oxygen levels that can prove fatal to fish. That’s the case in Eastern Oregon’s Thief Valley Reservoir, where ODFW biologists in drought years greatly expand or lift daily limits so anglers can fish like a thief and take home as many trout as they want.
Conditions can cause 11th-hour changes to stocking schedules that can have long-term impacts.
Consider places like Hyatt Lake, which has bottomed out at 4 percent of full, the lowest on record since federal Bureau of Reclamation records were first kept there in 1967 and almost 2 feet lower than its previous low in 2014. It started off at just 40 percent full because of retrofit work done on Hyatt Dam, and was drawn down for irrigators into mid-September.
It was getting so low that a die-off of rainbow trout and bass similar to those at Thief Valley was becoming possible.
“I was getting pretty nervous about Hyatt,” VanDyke says. “Now that Hyatt’s stopped dropping, I think we’ll be OK.”
But OK still isn’t OK. VanDyke had to scrub the fall stocking of fingerling rainbows and instead put the 20,000 fingerlings into Howard Prairie, which is relatively chock-full of water at one-third full. That transfer means Hyatt will be low on fish numbers next year unless excess legal-sized trout can be funneled its way.
At Fish Lake, fall anglers got the best of both worlds.
The late fall stocking of 450 “trophy” trout all over 1 pound was moved up to Sept. 14 to ensure the stocking truck could reach the water. Two weeks ago, 14,000 5-inch tiger trout and 5,000 excess Rogue River spring chinook that were about 7 inches long were added.
Fishing techniques for them are roughly the same as summer, except it’s all from the bank or from small boats dragged in like Ogier and Hoadley did across the exposed lakebed.
PowerBait off the bottom or worms under bobbers set at varying depths works best, followed by tui chub-like Rapala lures or cast Panther Martin lures. For fly-fishers, sinking lines with leeches or woolly buggers is standard in the fall, since the vast majority of insect activity in fall is under water.
Fish Lake recently has swelled to 17 percent of full, and that actually helps in accessibility.
It covered the muddy banks immediately adjacent to the water, and pushed water up to basalt structures that now reach the water near the Fish Lake Resort.
For bank anglers, look for deeper, greener water where trout are accumulated to a point where hooking at least a half-dozen fish per hour isn’t out of the question.
When VanDyke — an avid troller — trout-fishes a drought, he also makes sure to take advantage of the missing water to do some lakebed re-con. And, no, that’s not cheating.
“I’ve taken photos of the different spots at Howard Prairie, just to remind me what’s on the bottom when the water comes up,” VanDyke says.
Last week when Ogier and Hoadley had the lake to themselves, they anchored their pontoon boats together, catching rainbows regularly.
Their counts each sounded more like a good nine-hole golf score than a morning fishing for rainbows. But that’s what trout in a drought will do to a day.
“We’re not keeping track,” Hoadley says. “We’ll just say we caught a lot of fish.”