Oregon’s Record Trout Waters

Oregon's Record Trout Waters

Record-book rainbows, bulging bull trout and fat-bellied mackinaw – these are the fish anglers dream of. Five of Oregon’s current big-trout records were set in the 1980s. One was set in 2002, and several records are vulnerable right now.

For the trophy seeker looking to enter the record books, there is one hard and fast rule: Go where the big fish live. Here is our look at three rivers and three lakes that produced big trout. We examine current conditions and the likelihood of seeing another record from that body of water. We also look at tactics and tackle.

UPPER DESCHUTES WATERSHED9 Pounds, 6 Ounces – Brook TroutIt’s hard to imagine that a stream this size could produce a 9-pound, 6-ounce brook trout, but that is just what happened in 1980 when Burt Westbrook landed his record beater.

“I think there is still probably a fish there that big,” Russ Seaton of The Hook Fly Shop said. “We’re talking long odds. And on that river, hooking and landing it are two different things. They know every tree they can wrap you on.”

When the upper river opens for fishing in late May, the water runs clear and cold from snowmelt. It’s easily waded, and a fisherman need not be a skilled caster to reach the other bank.

Downed timber, a winding watercourse and a shallow gradient make it classic fly-fishing water, but an angler armed with a spinning rod and a selection of small spinners can provoke grabs from rainbows and brook trout.

On the Upper Deschutes, rainbow trout must be released. An angler can keep up to five brook trout.

The watershed can still kick out some big brook trout, particularly on Crane Prairie Reservoir. At first glance, finding big brooks or rainbows in this reservoir might seem a daunting prospect. The trick is finding the old river channels. Cultus, Deschutes and Quinn rivers empty into the lake and their old channels still carve its bottom. As the average lake temperature warms, the fish move into the cooler river channels and use them as highways to move around. The channels average 12 to 13 feet deep and are relatively weed-free with a sandy or silty floor.

It may not be the most exciting form of fly-fishing, but fishing small chironomid patterns is one of the most effective techniques. This is because most of what a trout eats, it finds underwater. The little flies from the order Diptera form 40 percent of the stillwater trout’s annual diet.

Some of the most popular patterns include the Ice Cream Cone, Pearl Pupa, Chromie, Bronzie and Collaborator. A floating line is the best choice. Tie on a long leader and position the strike indicator to suspend the fly a foot or more above the vegetation. Cast and let the line drift, keeping the line almost taut, paying close attention to the indicator. Set the hook at the slightest unnatural movement of the indicator.

PAULINA LAKE28 Pounds, 5 Ounces – Brown TroutOn Oct. 4, 2002, Ronald Lane landed a 28-pound, 5-ounce brown trout that eclipsed the former state record set in 1993.

Paulina first produced the state brown trout record in 1965 with a 35-pound, 8-ounce behemoth and has held it ever since. There is an asterisk. The big trout was scooped up in a net with a broken line and tackle hanging from its mouth.

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Paulina is a big lake, covering about 1,300 surface acres with depths to 250 feet. Brown trout catches typically range between 12 and 20 inches, with fish in the 7- to 10-pound range not uncommon. The lake also holds rainbow trout averaging 10 to 14 inches and a few that go upwards of 10 pounds.

Big browns are most active in the first hour of daylight and again in the last hour of light. Start around structure. Cast or troll swimbaits, jerk baits, crankbaits, stick baits and twitch baits. Make them dart left and right with an erratic, side-to-side motion and let them pause for long moments like a minnow with a broken back.

Browns like to take their prey from the side. They tend to follow the bait, take a 45-degree turn away from it and then 45 back in to crush it.

Paulina Lake has long been famous for its trophy brown trout, and it’s generally believed if the record should fall again it will be a fish from Paulina Lake that replaces it.

LAKE BILLY CHINOOK23 Pounds, 2 Ounces – Bull TroutIn 1989, Don Yow made the Oregon record book with a 23-pound, 2-ounce bull trout.

“I think Billy Chinook is rebuilding a trophy bull trout fishery over the next several years,” Rick Arnold said. Arnold (www.trophytroutguide.com) is a trophy trout hound, and Lake Billy Chinook is his home water.

Regarding the prospect of an angler beating the state record in 2010, he believed the chances were, “Slim to none. In about five to seven years, we could see another one that big. The kokanee food base is coming back, and there are a lot of juvenile bull trout. We had those big bulls for years and now they are gone, but I think they’ll be back.”

“Two years ago, in the spring season, we saw a phenomenal amount of bulls over 10 pounds. I had 23 bulls over 10 pounds. In 2008, it fell to four fish over 10 pounds. And in 2009, there were few reports of anything over 10.”

Once, 10-pound bulls were common. Today, a “big” fish tips the scales at 5 pounds or more.

In the spring, bull trout chase kokanee and smallmouth bass. Early May is prime time. Rig with 12-pound-test and cast large minnow imitations in the transition zones between the shallows and deeper water. Start with an 8-inch imitation. There are times when smaller baits work.

When water temperatures go above 55 degrees F, the bull trout follow the kokes deeper and a downrigger is the best way to reach them.

To target 24-inch-plus trout, don’t be afraid to consider 8-inch streamers or minnow imitations. Mr. Big will eat fish that are up to one-third his own size.

MALHEUR RIVER9 Pounds, 8 Ounces – Cutthroat TroutTalk about unlikely. Big cutthroat trout are hard to come by in the high desert. For the state record to come from this river makes one shake

his head in wonder. But it happened in 1986, when Phillip Grove set the current state record.

The Malheur and its forks are open to fishing throughout the year. Few trees provide shade, and in shallow reaches, the trout feed mainly at low light. When the water is low, trout can be found in the deepest holes.

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Redband rainbows make up the bulk of the Malheur fishery. Hatchery rainbows to 5 pounds can be found downstream from Beulah and Warm Springs reservoirs. The Middle Fork has redbands and smallmouth bass. Above Beulah, you may find whitefish and bull trout (which must be released).

Water clarity is seldom good, but the fish are used to it. Freshwater shrimp, stoneflies, mayflies, leeches, damselfly nymphs and midges are some of the main trout foods. Minnows and crayfish feed the larger trout. In the summer, grasshoppers and crickets provide even more variety.

To target bigger fish, explore the deeper runs and pools with small streamers or crayfish imitations fished close to the bottom. In August and September, drift a grasshopper or an imitation close to the bank.

Best access and fishing in the main river is in the tailrace below Warm Springs Reservoir. To explore the North Fork that runs out of Beulah Reservoir, drive north on the Beulah Road. There is river access directly downstream from the Beulah dam and again at Chukar Park.

ODELL LAKE40 Pounds, 8 Ounces – Lake TroutLake trout and kokanee are not native to Odell Lake, but they have been there since the 1950s. The current record was established in 1984, when H.V. Hannon brought a 40-pound, 8-ounce fish to the net.

Big lake trout, like big rainbows, browns and bull trout, are predators. With a huge food base of kokanee, lake trout (also called mackinaw) target the weaker fish.

In the summer, kokanee and lake trout are deep-water fish. Through July and August, you may find fish as deep as 140 feet. The fish move up and down in the water column on a daily basis, feeding on kokanee and other fish. But during the summer, you need to go deep to find them.

Explore the depths adjacent to steep cliff walls and the sharp-breaking shoulders of islands and points of land. Use a depthfinder to find deep humps, slots and holes in an otherwise shallower water.

When lakers are feeding on schooled kokanee, you can entice them by jigging spoons. After you locate fish on the depthfinder, do a vertical jig with a 1- or 2-ounce leadhead jig or spoon. Lift the lure with long sweeps of the rod, keeping your line tight while the lure sinks.

It takes a lot of flash, movement and scent to entice a big lake trout to the bait. One favorite technique employs an M2 Flatfish trailed by night crawlers. When fish are deep, you can reach them with a downrigger for precise depth control.

Could the old record be replaced? It could happen any day. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, with net sampling, has recorded lake trout in the 50-pound range.

ROGUE RIVER28 Pounds – Rainbow TroutIn 1982, Mike McGonagle landed his record rainbow, a fish that tipped the scales at 28 pounds. It will be a long time before someone knocks that one back to second place.

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“That was a special moment for the river,” Chris Carson agreed. Carson of Carson’s Guide Service thinks there is a lot of opportunity for the trout angler these days. “They stopped stocking trout in the upper Rogue about eight years ago. But there are a lot of trout out there, and a lot of steelhead smolt that aren’t leaving the river. We’re catching a lot of 14- to 16-inch resident trout in the upper Rogue.”

The Rogue River is one of the most productive streams in the state, and it is still capable of producing big fish. A Rogue River flyfisherman, Grant Martinsen, landed a 71-pound, 8-ounce chinook in 2002, an IGFA line-class record.

You may have to work a lot of water to catch a trophy-sized resident rainbow, but you will catch a lot of trout along the way. “The fly-fisherman really bank on that a lot,” Carson said. “That salmonfly hatch brings the bigger ones up. It’s a major feed for those trout.”

A lot of people want to catch big rainbows, but they are stuck using small trout strategies. If you want to do battle with trout so big they don’t fit in your net, you need to change your tactics.

Deep-running crayfish and minnow imitations are a good bet to tempt big trout from the depths. Beadhead nymphs run in tandem can provoke large rainbows. Carson recommends No. 10 to 16 beadhead nymphs or egg patterns. On the Rogue, it is more likely that a big fish is going to be an oceangoing rainbow, a steelhead. That’s not a bad thing.

Most legal-sized fish are destined to meet an early end in a frying pan or an osprey’s talons. Trout that are measured in pounds not inches come few and far between.

Trout gain size by eating big meals and conserving energy. Maybe one out of a thousand makes it to 20 inches. Maybe one in 10,000 makes it to 25 inches and beyond, developing that substantial girth that can tip the scales into the double digits.

WHEN YOU LAND THE BIG ONEHoping to see your name in the record books? Go where the fish grow biggest. Head for Crane Prairie Reservoir for a big rainbow or brook trout. Fish Odell for lake trout. Prospect Lake Billy Chinook for bull trout. For browns, try Wickiup Reservoir or Paulina Lake. Try Siltcoos Lake for big coastal cutthroats.

Wherever you go, you will want to have a nodding acquaintance with the rules before you set out. Visit the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Web site and download the Oregon Cold Water Record Fish Entry Form. Then visit the International Game Fish Association Web site at www.igfa.org and click on “fishing.”

Bring a camera, an electronic scale and a yardstick. You will need a couple of witnesses. Don’t forget to take the names and phone numbers of those fishing nearby. The IGFA requires that a sample of the line be sent in with the application. Photos should be taken of the fish hanging and on a flat surface. Lay the yardstick alongside the fish for the photo.

For a signed copy of Freshwater Fishing Oregon & Washington, send $23.95 (includes S&H) to Gary Lewis Outdoors, P.O. Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709, or visit his Web site at www.garylewisoutdoors.com.

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>