Southern Oregon's most popular trout-fishing derby has two new wrinkles this year that organizers believe could draw a record number of participants.
The 14th annual Rainbow $5,000 trout derby, set for June 25 at Diamond Lake in eastern Douglas County, still will award cash prizes of up to $1,000 for the heaviest rainbows caught during the event. But this year, it also sports six specially tagged fish that, if caught, collectively will add another $1,000 cash payments to the lucky anglers who catch them.
Six trout will be fitted with blue plastic tags on their adipose fins, with five of those tagged fish worth $100 each to whomever catches them.
Another fish, dubbed the "Lithia Lunker" because of its sponsorship by Lithia Motors, will sport an orange tag that will fetch its catcher $500.
These cash fish likely won't be the same kind of Diamond Lake denizens of 20-plus inches that normally win prizes in the various categories, says Mike McMullen of the Black Bird Sporting Shopping Center of Medford, which is the derby's main sponsor and organizer.
"We're going to tag some smaller fish," McMullen says. "That way, anything they catch, people on the lake know they might be reeling in a fish that wins them some money."
And if not, the new eight-trout daily limit at Diamond Lake sure makes it a good day of fishing, McMullen says.
Already, more than 340 anglers have registered for the derby, and that's about 20 percent more at this point than last year, McMullen says. Last year's derby drew almost 1,000 participants, and this year's could top the 1,200 record of 2009, he says.
Cosponsored by the Mail Tribune as well as the Diamond Lake Resort and Riverhawk, the Rainbow $5,000 is the trout derby where everyday anglers play like the pros — earning cash prizes for the largest trout caught by preregistered contestants.
The largest fish by weight will win its angler $1,000, with second place netting $750 and third place fetching $500. Prizes descend in value until $100 for 10th place.
The 11th- to 20th-place finishers each will win $75, while the 21st- to 30th-place finishers will earn $50 each.
The derby entrance fee remains $15, and the weigh-in will end at 3 p.m. As with past derbies, each registered contestant can weigh in only one fish.
But for those seeing dollar signs, all eyes will be on rainbow trout's adipose fins.
McMullen and some other Black Bird employees plan to fish at the lake Thursday to catch the lucky cash fish before they're tagged.
They will be kept in an aerator until Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Holly Truemper selects the six fish that are most likely to survive. She will then fit them with two "foy tags," which are sometimes referred to as "spaghetti tags" because of their noodle-like appearance.
The tags are about 3 inches long and each bears a secret code denoting it as a derby-winning fish, Truemper says. Only she and McMullen will know the codes.
Those fish will then be released in undisclosed parts of the lake.
"They will acclimate back to the lake and, hopefully, be ready to eat again in two days," Truemper says.
If they don't get caught during the derby, they still have a shot at earning some lucky anglers some cash.
McMullen says Black Bird and Lithia Motors plan to honor the cash payments if the fish are caught any time during the 2011 angling season, which runs through Oct. 31 at Diamond Lake.
Anyone who believes they caught a foy-tagged fish needs to have it checked at the resort for verification, McMullen says.
"Now that certainly adds a little extra to it," McMullen says.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.