ASHLAND — After a whirlwind offseason that saw Jackson County take over operation of Howard Prairie Resort for the first time in its 53-year history, county Parks Manager Steve Lambert hopes no one will even notice the different faces behind the cash register.
The docks are floating, the lake is ice-free and it's 81 percent full. PowerBait and Triple Teasers are stocked at the store, and the campgrounds already are clear of the tree limbs blown down during winter storms.
Trout can be caught at Howard Prairie from boat or bank.
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, and the fishing jetty at the resort is the most popular public-access point.
Other popular spots 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 access.
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 longer.
— Mark Freeman
And those who venture to Howard Prairie during this year's trout-fishing season should be pleasantly surprised, because despite the change in who's running the joint, many things have stayed the same.
"We've got all our boats on the water, and we're ready for folks," Lambert says. "They won't see anything different in particular. It'll be normal operations there. They'll just make their check out to a different person."
The litmus test comes April 27 when Jackson County's most-visited reservoir comes alive on the opening of the annual trout season.
The LeGrande family, who bought the concessionaire license from the Johnston family in 2007, have gone out of business, and the Jackson County Parks Department now is running the marina and the campground.
The marina already is open, and the campgrounds are set to open Thursday, Lambert says. If not, they definitely will be open on Friday, the eve of the fishing season that runs through Oct. 31 at the lake.
The restaurant and store will be operated by the Mt. Ashland Association under a concessionaire agreement with the county. The restaurant likely won't be in full operation until mid-May, Lambert says, but food will be available.
And, by the way, there are plenty of trout on hand.
The lake is in the midst of a major trout rejuvenation that 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, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife crews stocked slightly larger fish in the fall, when cooler water makes smallmouth less active. The combination of bigger trout and sluggish bass led to much better survival rates for rainbows. The same approach has been applied successfully at nearby Hyatt Lake.
In 2009 and 2010, ODFW stocked more than 150,000 trout there each fall, triggering a fishery that rivals the Howard Prairie of yore. After a dip to 106,000 fingerlings in 2011, ODFW followed last fall with 175,000 fingerlings that will be 8- to 9-inchers on opening weekend.
"There should also be a lot of holdover fish that are 13 inches to 17 inches and more," says Dan VanDyke, ODFW's Rogue District fish biologist.
One thing that will be different is that the resort will sell only one-day angling licenses. It won't operate the Internet-based point-of-sale system that caused frustratingly long lines at times because of its intermittent availability, Lambert says.
By selling the one-day licenses, the resort can accommodate those who forget their licenses at home without causing people to wait in line just so one person can buy a license he or she could have bought earlier in town, Lambert says.
Also new this year will be some new signs ODFW has installed to educate anglers about a couple of growing issues at the lake.
One sign will educate anglers about better ways to handle fish they hook, catch and release to ensure better survival rates.
VanDyke says during his trips to Howard Prairie, he's seen anglers squeezing trout too tightly and holding them in towels while hooks are removed. These practices can cause stress and injuries and kill the fish.
"I've seen some pretty poor fish-handling practices there," VanDyke says.
And they do more than just hurt the trout. Creel surveys done in 2008-09 showed that anglers release about 10,000 rainbows at Howard Prairie each year.
"If we can reduce hooking mortality by 10 percent, that's potentially another 1,000 trout that can be caught as bigger, holdover fish later," Van Dyke says.
Another sign will address copepods, those small, white, naturally occurring parasites that are found on trout in several area water bodies, most notably Lost Creek Lake.
Anglers have reported seeing copepods at Howard Prairie more frequently in recent years, VanDyke says. That could be because of higher trout concentrations, which allow the parasites to find hosts more easily.
The copepods can be scraped away before the trout are cooked, and they are not harmful to trout or the people who eat them.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.