OREGON CASCADES - Volunteers from the McKenzie Upper-Willamette River chapter of Trout Unlimited have been backpacking into the high lakes for the last several years to fish and assist the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) with its high lakes stocking program.
Loaded down with float tubes, camping gear, waders and ODFW survey equipment, TU volunteers travel to backcountry lakes, making basecamp and fanning out to cover as many of the small jewel lakes as possible in a weekend operation.
The effort is part of ODFW’s High Lakes Fish Survival Survey program. Volunteers record lake temperature, depth, vegetation, size and species of fish, and take digital photos of the lake.
These surveys help ODFW evaluate one of Oregon’s most unique stocking programs. ODFW often stocks remote lakes via helicopter. But following up on the survivability of those remote trout populations is an impossible task for a state agency with limited manpower.
Biologists want to know if a lake is not producing fish or producing fish that are barely surviving due to environmental conditions. All high Cascades Lakes have different environmental factors that could contribute to sustaining a healthy population of fish, so fisheries managers use these High Lake Fish Survival Surveys in stocking decisions.
ODFW does not get many angling reports back of the High Cascade Lakes. Most anglers like to keep their "secret" lake under wraps so people don't find out about it and fish it out. ODFW has tried to post kiosks at the trailheads in the past but, they were vandalized and hard to maintain.
ODFW also faces the challenge of balancing a unique, mountain fishery against adversely affecting other terrestrial and aquatic species that call the Cascade Lakes their home.
Most high mountain lakes don’t naturally support trout, so endemic species never evolved a mechanism for avoiding predatory fish. That makes threatened species like the Oregon Spotted Frog easy prey. ODFW, along with other governmental agencies, conducts periodic sampling of the amphibian populations in the High Cascade Lakes and tries to mitigate conflicts.
If you are interested in participating in ODFW’s high lakes angler survey, you can learn more about the program and download the form here.
September and October are primetime for checking out Oregon’s Cascade high lakes fishery - the mosquito activity starts to wind down and most outdoor enthusiasts are pursuing other quarry.
- This primitive campground, 43 miles from Oakridge, OR is in the Waldo Lake region. The final leg of the drive is a brutal 7-mile slog over rutted roads, but the campground is fairly isolated and close to many great lakes. Helen Lake is .3 miles from the Taylor Burn campground. We found many nice trout in Helen Lake, but couldn’t convince any to bite on a recent trip.
- Also nearby, Moolack Lake is a 2.2 mile trek down a switch-backed mountain to the Moolack Lake Spur trail. When I first laid eyes on Moolack, it looked pretty dead -- still and filmy. But we launched the float tubes into the lake and after a few minutes on the water I’d landed a giant cutthroat trout pushing 17 inches. We proceeded to catch Moolack’s down and deep cutthroats on weighted wooly buggers for the rest of the afternoon, including TU volunteer Bill Laroux’s monster 17.5” fish at the end of the day.
- Skookum Creek Campground is 31 miles north of the town of Westfir. It has great access to the Erma Bell Lakes in the Three Sisters Wilderness.
- On a recent trip, we found plenty of fish in Upper Erma Bell and Middle Erma Bell, and some really big fish that nobody in our group could catch in nearby Otter Lake.
- Last month, TU volunteers made base camp on Benson Lake, which had plenty of cutthroat and rainbows. Chapter officers Al Avey and Todd Mullen bushwhacked to Glaze Lake and Elf Lake and had excellent fishing. Brent Ross, Nate Stansberry and I tried Coffee Lake on day two -- no fish.
Fly Patterns for Oregon High Lakes
High lakes trout can be infuriatingly picky sometimes, but most of the time an angler can’t go wrong fishing a leech pattern on a sinking fly line. Chironomid patterns can also be effective. Here are two fly recommendations:
Matt Stansberry is a Eugene, Oregon-based blogger and outreach coordinator for the McKenzie Upper-Willamette Chapter of Trout Unlimited. Chris Daughters is a fly fishing guide and owner of the Caddis Fly Shop in Eugene. Stansberry and Daughters blog at OregonFlyFishingBlog.com.