It took Steve Nicovich longer to dig a hole in the ice at Diamond Lake Saturday than it did to pull a limit of rainbow trout out of it.
The 31-year-old Sams Valley man waited more than a half-hour for his turn at an ice auger supplied by Diamond Lake Resort, then dug his holes and caught his five-trout limit in staccato fashion.
"Right off the bat the fish were biting, and I limited out in less than 45 minutes," Nicovich says. "It was fun. Everybody was catching fish."
The 2011 trout season began with quite a bang at Diamond Lake, where anglers lured by the spectre of almost a half-million trout there broke the ice of the spring season by fishing through the ice of Oregon's best trout lake.
Fits of snow, wind and the occasional batch of sun have greeted anglers at this eastern Douglas County lake since Saturday's start of fishing here, with anglers catching and releasing more fish than they keep.
Gavin Weaver, 23, of Roseburg, pulled 13 fat trout out of his ice hole Sunday, losing several others and keeping his legal limit despite distractions from howling snow and watching a couple chase their tent as it was blown across the ice by brisk winds.
"There were all kinds of different weather up there," says Weaver, a Diamond Lake devotee. "Sometimes the snow was coming in sideways. But it wasn't real bad, as long as you kept your hands in your pockets."
Anglers will get their hands on more trout beginning Sunday, May 1, when the limit jumps from five trout per person per day to eight, though anglers will still be able to keep just one fish longer than 20 inches.
The limit is increasing because Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists are concerned that the lake's great trout population could become too much of a good thing. They say the sheer mass of trout is about as dense as the lake can handle. Too many trout could trigger an imbalance in the lake's ecosystem — similar to what happened in the early 2000s, when millions of unwanted tui chub damaged the lake's zooplankton levels and triggered huge blooms of potentially toxic algae.
Since the lake's 2006 poisoning to kill off the chubs, the lake has been Oregon's most productive trout lake.
Anglers last year averaged 3.5 trout per trip — twice that of the previous year — and Laura Jackson, ODFW's Umpqua District fish biologist, said the average daily catch rate this year could reach five fish per angler per day.
Anglers last year caught and kept about 128,000 fish at Diamond Lake, but they caught and released more than 76,000 trout in the process, with anglers often releasing smaller trout in hopes of catching 16- to 19-inch trout to beef up their stringers.
Removing the 20-inch limit would encourage anglers to release even more fish than last year in search of larger trout, Jackson said.
If the same number of anglers visit Diamond Lake this year, biologists expect anglers to keep about 175,000 trout — or about 46,000 more than in 2010.
The ice is expected to be thick enough for anglers to venture onto the surface at least through the weekend. Once the ice starts melting, anglers will have to wait for it to melt and sink before the boating season on the lake begins.
Until then, ice fishers are urged to wear snowshoes or skis to displace their weight and wear life jackets in case the ice beneath them fails.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.