As Jake Riley slowly stripped his fly through the depths of Lemolo Lake, he suddenly felt a hefty jerk and knew instantly what was coming.
"The rainbows just make the line stop in your hand," says Riley, 16, of Grants Pass. "The browns just hammer it, and they go the other way. You know when you hook a brown."
Minutes later, Riley coaxed a brown trout to his float tube, where he stuck its head in a way-too-small net. Then he hoisted onto his lap the largest documented brown trout seen in Lemolo Lake in years.
The 17-pound trout, which measured 26 inches long, joined Riley for a brief jpeg moment before it was revived and released.
"I finally got a photo of one," he says.
Riley would have rather had a snapshot of the roughly 33-incher he lost a half-hour earlier when he knocked the fly out of the trout's mouth with his puny net.
"It was a monster," Riley says. "It would put this one to shame."
Riley this spring has uncovered compelling evidence that, when it comes to big brown trout, Lemolo doesn't have to take a back seat to any Oregon waterway.
The teen's two big browns on the morning of June 14, along with his release last year of what likely would have been a state-record brown, are starting to convince many that Lemolo's well documented troubles with tui chub have waned.
The combination of aggressive trap-netting of tui chub and a reservoir draw-down that likely sucks small chub into hydropower conduits is tipping the lake's ecosystem back in favor of naturally producing brown trout, which have responded in kind.
Lemolo Lake Resort owner Scott Lamb has culled more than 100 tons of chub from the lake during netting done since 2008. Also, the lake is drawn down 25 feet annually by PacifiCorp to fuel hydropower facilities, and the smaller chub are more apt to get sucked out of the lake than the bigger browns, biologists say.
Test netting is showing a spike in browns that coincides with the drop in chub numbers, leaving the large and highly predacious browns to feed off their smaller brethren, growing exponentially along the way.
"It's a complicated system, but things are starting to shift again," says Dave Harris, a fish biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Roseburg office.
"It appears that old reputation is coming back, and we're getting more big fish there," Harris says.
And in the process, Lemolo is building a new reputation for Riley, a North Valley High School junior-to-be who is parlaying his brown-trout interludes into a possible future as a fly-fishing guide.
"This kid is a phenom," says Lamb, who hired Riley to work at his resort this summer. "Jake Riley is a name people are going to be hearing for years to come. He's an outstanding fly-fisher.
This life of Riley typically begins about 4:30 a.m. when he wakes for a few hours of float-tube fly-fishing in Lemolo, where he's fished religiously since age 5. After his shift at the resort, he ends his day at dusk on the water.
A catch-and-release angler by trade, Riley says last year he landed a 36-incher, which he released without photographic evidence because he had no camera.
"It was such a big and beautiful fish that I thought it would look better alive in the lake than dead on my wall," he says.
At Lamb's behest, Riley took the fish's measurements to a taxidermist, who estimated its weight at 31 pounds, well above the Oregon state record of 28 pounds, 5 ounces caught by Ronald Lane in Paulina Lake in 2002.
The next near-record brown trout won't get the same treatment.
"I'm going to have to sacrifice one," Riley says. "The next one is going to be a record."
Riley says he was inches from the record book early June 14, when stripping a Bingo Bug — a small feathers-and-plastic contraption that's technically a lure — about half-way down in 30 feet of water.
He fought the trout to his tube, but his atypical technique for landing big trout kept him from sealing the deal.
With only a small net, Riley guides the head into it, then grabs the big trout by the tail and hoists it onto his lap.
This time, the net poked the big brown in the mouth, dislodging the Bingo Bug from its upper lip.
"The hook popped out of its mouth and the fish shot to the bottom," Riley says.
The 17-pounder came later as more than consolation. It's validation that Riley's obsession with big trout is sound and that Lemolo once again is a good place to be for behemoth browns.
"I think there could be a 4-foot-plus brown in there, easily," Riley says. "There's got to be a couple in there."