Mail Tribune

ASHLAND — Anglers visiting Howard Prairie Lake on opening day of trout season will see some welcome changes to what's happening on and beneath the water in mid-April.

The lake has been completely ice-free for more than a month, and the reservoir is two-thirds full despite El Niņo weather that has left much of Jackson County far drier than normal.

Also, visitors drowning worms or trolling lures on the Saturday, April 24, start of the fishing season will be doing so through what is expected to be a large passel of 10-inch rainbows thanks to the stocking of 150,000 six-inch trout released at the lake last November as part of an ongoing experimental stocking program.

Couple that with remnants of the 100,000 6-inchers stocked there in November 2008 plus a small cache of really large trout dating back to earlier releases, and the lake's triple-tiered trout fishery should provide some top-drawer angling.

"I'm feeling pretty optimistic about Howard Prairie," says Dan VanDyke, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District fish biologist. "We've seen a gradual improvement up there."

The improvements are none too fast for Joel LeGrande, who heads into his third full season operating the Howard Prairie Resort, which is the hub of the lake's fishing and boating activities.

Resort workers already have installed the docks and even began launching boats there this week in preparation for the upcoming season, which LeGrande believes will prove a good draw thanks to the strongest complement of trout there in recent years.

"Last year was the best fishing in five years, and the fish ought to be even bigger this year — and there's less water for them to hide," LeGrande says.

The hide-and-seek traditionally begins on the fourth Saturday of April on the Dead Indian Plateau, where Howard Prairie and nearby Hyatt Lake open together.

The resort officially opens today, LeGrande says. And thanks to the missing ice, Howard Prairie faithful can head to the lake early this year, launching and mooring their boats to avoid any opening-day delays.

"People can put their boats in now and race around, but they can't fish," LeGrande says.

And when they do, chances are better than they've been in recent years that they'll catch a stringer of trout here as the lake continues to go through its metamorphosis after yet another case of illegal fish-stocking.

Illegally introduced smallmouth bass have exploded in this widely popular trout-fishing lake, altering the fishery as well as the fish.

Each May, the lake has traditionally received 350,000 fingerling that feasted on the lake's bountiful insect population, usually reaching the 8-inch "keeper" size by late summer.

But the smallmouth turned those fingerling into forage, and the trout population crashed.

A two-year experiment began in 2007 to see whether releasing slightly larger juvenile trout in the fall would boost the lake's trout productivity. About 100,000 6-inch trout with clipped adipose fins were released in the hope they would be too big to be preyed on by bass in the cool fall and winter water.

Creel sampling done during the 2008 and 2009 seasons proved that to be true, and now the ODFW has abandoned its fingerling stocking program there in favor of the fall releases.

Not only did the agency stock the lake with its expected complement of 100,000 rainbows, another 50,000 6- to 7-inchers were added to the mix thanks to extra money available through the ODFW's new 25-year angling plan, VanDyke says.

Also, those fish released in 2008 that survived last year's fishery have had plenty of time to bulk up, VanDyke says.

"I'd suspect those fish should be in the 14- to 15-inch range," VanDyke says. "And those from the 2007 release will be really nice fish."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or e-mail