Anglers are coming off a very good year of fishing at Howard Prairie Lake, and another good season is expected at this trout-fishing mecca atop the Dead Indian Plateau.
The lake is 80-percent full, nearly ice-free and teeming with trout thanks to a shift in the lake's trout-stocking strategy that has paid big dividends.
"I fished it quite often myself in October at (the lake's) southern end and did well," says Dan VanDyke, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Rogue District fish biologist.
"I think we're going to have some really good fishing up there this year," VanDyke says.
Couple that with gasoline above $4 a gallon and locals who normally wander out of the 541 area code are even more likely to put this reservoir on their agendas during trout season.
"It's a tough economy, but people hopefully will realize what a great resource they have here in Jackson County," says Joel LeGrande, whose Howard Prairie Resort serves as the hub of the lake's fishing and boating community.
The lake's trout rejuvenation can be traced to a pilot program begun in 2007 that radically changed the way fish stocking occurred there.
Illegally introduced smallmouth bass overran the lake and preyed heavily on the 350,000 fingerling trout that used to be stocked there every May.
Under the pilot program, ODFW stocked slightly larger fish in the fall, when cooler water temperatures make smallmouth less active. The combination of bigger trout and sluggish bass led to much better survival rates for rainbows.
In 2009 and 2010, ODFW stocked more than 150,000 trout there each fall, triggering a fishery that rivaled the Howard Prairie of yore.
"Fishing came back, and they were really hammering them," LeGrande says. "We had people last year telling us it was the best fishing they had here in 30 years."
Howard Prairie boasts a bevy of opportunities for boat and bank angling.
For boaters, trolling around the lake's south end and down through a channel that runs the length of the lake along the eastern shore is popular. Tasmanian Devils and Triple Teaser lures are common sights in tackle boxes there. For bank anglers, chartreuse or rainbow PowerBait are the most common offerings, with the fishing jetty at the resort the most popular public-access point.
Other popular access points are Klum Landing on the lake's southern end and Grizzly Peak Campground on the north end. Both have boat ramps and offer bank-fishing opportunities.
Most opening-day fishing success, from boats or the bank, comes from still-fishing with PowerBait in 10 to 15 feet of water. The limit is five trout a day, with an 8-inch minimum, and only one trout can be 20 inches or larger.
Due to budget cuts and a shortage of rainbow trout reared at Cole Rivers Hatchery, ODFW stocked slightly more than 106,500 rainbows in the lake last fall, VanDyke says.
After a fall and winter of growth, those fish will be 8 to 10 inches long and will be the most common contributors to opening-day stringers, VanDyke says.
But VanDyke also expects to see a good complement of "holdover" rainbows — those stocked in previous years, mainly in 2010, that have survived subsequent fishing seasons. Those trout, he says, should be 13 to 16 inches long.
ODFW does not track trout populations nor give population estimates at Howard Prairie. But agency biologists set gill nets each fall, and last year's haul was down from previous years, VanDyke says.
But records showed the lake's volume in October was the highest since 2000, and that could have distributed the fish throughout the lake, he says.
"I'm not totally convinced there weren't other factors involved there," VanDyke says.
Visitor numbers skyrocketed last year at the resort, which LeGrande attributes to a new online reservation system for the resort's 244 tent and RV sites.
Reservations can be made at www.hplake.com.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.