Five Oregon Lakes for Road Trip Trout

By Gary Lewis

Gary Lewis Books and DVDs

Heading out to the highway with a fly rod in the rack? Try one of these lakes for great springtime trout action.

When we planned our annual family camping trip last year, the easy part was deciding where to go. My new book, The Oregon Lake Maps and Fishing Guide was out and thumbing through the pages reminded me of several places that I wanted to get back to. 

Top of the list? Wallowa Lake. The deep blue water of this northeast Oregon lake was turning out record-breaking kokanee and big rainbows at an unheard of pace.

We rented a boat at the marina, Number 42 with the name Lucky painted on the side. We appreciated our boat when we saw the monikers given to two of the others: Flippy and Oopsi. 

Eight-year-old Isaac Flaherty claimed the middle seat, James settled in the front, while I primed old Smoky, the 6hp outboard. As we motored away, it came out that Isaac had never caught a trout before. He had some bluegill and other finny creatures to his credit, but no trout.

Isaac's bait hit the water, settled to the bottom and was inhaled by a rainbow. Stung, it raced one way and then the other, then broke the surface like a rainbow should. That was when we realized we'd forgotten the net. 

With Isaac's first fish in the boat, I settled on a streamer with a red marabou tail, a body of red sparkle chenille and a short CDC collar.

Big trout elevated to inspect it while the sun was still on the water, but when the great orb slid behind the ridge, the action heated up. I'd lay the line into the current, let it drift around and let the fly sink on a tight line. A couple of twitches and the line would straighten out. 

The third trout that stuck ripped line off the reel till I thought he'd be into the backing. Five minutes later, I still hadn't seen him, but I guessed he was no rainbow. A lake trout perhaps, or better yet, a bull trout. With one hand on the rod, I pulled out my regulations. Lake trout were legal. Bull trout were not, but they, with the landlocked sockeye, are the native fish of this great lake.

The leader showed above the surface, and moments later the trout elevated. Light speckles against an olive body, its fins rimmed in white – a bull trout. The fish allowed me to guide it in on the 4X leader. 

Measured against the rod, it went 23 inches. It slipped out of my hand, gave a hard kick and disappeared into the clear blue water. My world record kokanee chase didn't end with a world record, or even with a kokanee, but I'd taken and released a world-class bull trout. And I'd glimpsed several rainbows that would have tipped the scales to three or four pounds or more.

There is nothing like a road trip for rainbows to whet an angler's appetite in the early season. Plan it for the spring to break the grip of cabin fever or savor the plan and make it an early summer excursion with lots of windshield time and new waters to explore. 

Here are five of Oregon's best stillwater bets to prospect for road trip trout.

Wallowa Lake

At 1,500 surface acres, Wallowa Lake is the largest natural lake in northeast Oregon. It is home to lake trout, kokanee, bull trout and rainbows.

Rainbows are the main catch and most anglers pursue them near the mouth of the Wallowa River at the southern end of the lake where the river channel takes a hard right turn toward the bank. 

Fly-fishermen do well in the spring in ten feet of water at the mouth of the Wallowa River. Here, stream tactics, such as drifting dries to rising fish or using beadhead nymphs and indicators can work. Anglers can wade in and cast from the sandy beach or set up in a float tube.

Most of the trout are hatchery stock that average 10 to 12 inches, but holdovers can reach 18 inches or more. 

Wallowa Lake makes a good base camp for a hiking or horseback trip into the high lakes for brook trout and rainbows. In the spring, take the kids to one of several nearby ponds stocked with catchable rainbows: Marr Pond in Enterprise, Victor Pond, west of Wallowa and Wallowa Wildlife Pond.

Upper Klamath Lake/Agency Lake

For fly rod action with the chance of catching rainbows that weigh in the teens, southeast Oregon's Upper Klamath Lake is hard to beat. The key is mobility. An angler needs to stay on the move until the fish are located. Do that with a shallow-running boat and a motor, rather than a float tube and fins.

Chironomids, snails, damselflies, crayfish and minnows are all on the menu, but many fly rodders opt for leeches on these waters. Presentation is everything.

Weight the fly at the head for the most realistic action. A clear, slow-sink line with a long leader does the best job of setting the table for a strike.

Good action can be found in the tules along the shore, especially in and around the mouths of feeder streams like the Wood River and the Williamson. Underwater weed beds or woody cover such as downed trees or submerged stumps are good bets. Sometimes you can see the tules shake as the fish bash their way through. Cast right to the edge of the reeds, let the fly sink, then start the retrieve with one-inch strips punctuated by pauses to let the fly sink.

That's exactly how I boated a trout the first time I fished Agency Lake. We were in stealth mode at the mouth of the Wood, keeping as far from the bank as possible, still within range of a long cast.

I broke off the fly I was using and knotted on a brown, head-weighted leech to my tippet and laid a long cast into a pocket in the reeds.

Twist, twist, twist. Fish on! I set the hook and the rainbow rolled beneath the surface, then dove, surging against the backbone of the rod, line peeling off the reel.

It came out of the water again and again, walking on his tail, shaking his head.

My leader held. We measured the trout in the water before letting it kick away. Eighteen inches, a bit small by Klamath Basin standards but a pretty good fish as far as I was concerned.

Three- to five-pound rainbows are standard fare for anglers on Upper Klamath and Agency Lake, but those who put their time in will often catch much larger fish. Every year a few anglers boat big rainbows weighing in the high-teens.

Lava Lake

Fed by springs and marshes and bounded by lava outcrops and pine forest, Lava Lake is a scenic spot – Mt. Bachelor, South Sister and Broken Top are visible from the shoreline.

Their reflections would have glimmered in the blue-green water, but a breeze blew a riffle on the surface. We couldn't have asked for better conditions.

Fred Foisset, owner of The Hook Fly Shop in Sunriver, pushed the boat away from the dock and eased out into the lake. Ryan Young, manager of the Orvis shop in Bend, mounted a reel onto a ten-foot, five-weight.

With the wind out of the southwest, we started in 17 feet of water off the southwest corner of the lake, the boat angled broadside to the breeze. “Try different retrieves,” Fred said, “till we find the way the fish want to chase it.”

Armed with intermediate lines and fluorocarbon leaders, we cast straight into the wind and let the lines sink. The wind pushed us north into deeper water and we mixed up our retrieves. It was Ryan that touched the first fish. Line slid back through his guides and he set the hook. Now we had the recipe for the retrieve, a series of five-inch strips. Perhaps they thought they were eating chubs.

“For some reason, these Lava Lake fish like to follow the fly then peck at it. Let the fish take it, then come back and grab it,” Fred said. 

I felt the bump as a fish flared its gills to suck the fly in. Opening my fingers, I let the line slide out till the fish had turned. At the hook-set, the trout went airborne.

ODFW stocks rainbows as six-inchers. The typical trout more than doubles in size by the next season. The key to Lava's fishing is its shallow waters and weed growth that promote abundant insects.

The lake is easy to read. Outcroppings, marshes, shoals and rushes break up the shoreline. The average depth is 20 feet.

Woolly Bugger patterns resemble leeches, but are suggestive of many food sources. Leeches and buggers might imitate a minnow, a damselfly nymph, a dragonfly nymph, a crawdad, or, of course, a leech. It all depends on color, depth and retrieve.

Slim patterns, tied with an economy of materials are the most versatile. Black, brown and olive will see the most use, but tan, rust, red and claret should see a lot of use. Red and claret leeches have helped me catch some memorable fish.

Harriet Lake

The flooded timber makes this lake food-rich with plenty of structure and character. The head of the lake has a riffle, pools and islands like a river. Trout feed all day in the three- to five-foot water around the stumps and floating logs. Shadows concentrate the fish. A wind-riffle on the water encourages them to elevate toward the surface. 

This 23-acre reservoir on the Oak Grove Fork of the Clackamas, has become well-known for trophy browns, rainbows, cutthroats and brook trout.

The upper end of the lake is best for bigger fish, especially early and late in the day. Two boat launches make access easy and bank anglers set up along the upper north shore. The size of the lake makes it ideal for rafts, canoes and float tubes. The best fishing is near the top of the lake.

Spin fishermen, armed with worms and eggs and Power Bait line the bank, but fly fishermen do as well or better. The best fly fishing is from a boat.

A callibaetis hatch was in progress when we fished the lake in early July. Although the trout were feeding on the surface, a callibaetis nymph paired with a rubber leg hare's ear brought strike after strike. 

Upstream and downstream, the Oak Grove Fork of the Clackamas is one of the only fisheries in the state where you can catch and keep cutthroats.

Krumbo Reservoir

A shallow lake on the west side of the Steens, Krumbo Reservoir is a great rainbow and largemouth bass fishery in the desert. And it is a great choice in March and early April, before the trout in most other waters have snapped out of their winter torpor.

Bring a float tube, a canoe or a car-topper. Launch at the ramp and fish out from the cove to 15 yards from the rocky point on the south. A long weedbed stretches north across the lake. The lake averages ten feet deep. Rainbows stack along the weeds and grow fat on callibaetis and chironomids.

Use a clear intermediate line and troll along the weedbeds. Fish a No. 12-14 callibaetis nymph, or better yet, a pair of them. To tempt with chironomids, employ No. 16-18 zebra, black or red midge larva imitations under an indicator.

Leech patterns are effective here as well. Use black, red or olive buggers, weighted at the head. Twitch the fly with one-inch pulls.

Krumbo is stocked in late March. Trout that winter-over grow to 16 inches in their second year. Every season the lake produces a number of 20-inch and bigger fish.

The lake is open for day-use-only from the opening of trout season through October 31. Electric motors are permitted.

Page Springs campground is a few miles down the road. There is RV camping available in private campgrounds on both sides of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

The days are getting longer and the sun warms the shallows. Now is the time to put one of these great lakes on your schedule. Better yet, put them all on the calendar and try to hit them on an epic road trip, your rods strapped to the truck, rigged and ready to go.

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