Anglers heading to Howard Prairie Lake for the opening day of trout fishing on Saturday, April 26, are going to find conditions at the lake and the resort that haven't been seen in two decades.
Low water levels from a dry and virtually snowless winter have left the marina resting on a mud flat where lake water should be. The moorage docks jut out into a few inches of water. The fishing pier rises 15 feet above the water.
Even in low-water years like this, rainbow trout can be caught at Howard Prairie from boat or bank during the first few weeks of the season.
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.
But anchoring in 10 to 14 feet of water and fishing a ball of PowerBait off the bottom is a very effective technique, especially in the early season when the water tends to be cooler and the big rainbows cruise the flats for food.
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. However, that jetty is high over the water, so anglers will either have to scramble over the rocks to get to the water or winch their fish up to the casting platform.
Other than the resort ramp, only the ramp at Klum Landing will be operable this year, but all the campgrounds will be open.
The limit is five trout a day, with an 8-inch minimum, and only one can be 20 inches or longer.
— Mark Freeman
Even daffodils are blooming next to the restaurant where snow drifts should be.
"Daffodils shouldn't be blooming up here in April," says Steve Lambert, manager of the Jackson County Parks Department, which is in its second year of running the resort.
It's the lowest the water has been at this point in the year since 1994, and it may be tough getting boats in and out of the half-empty lake. Limited dock and mooring access and only two working boat ramps for the entire lake could mean longer launch lines and a few hassles for anglers used to docking their boats overnight. But anglers who do it should find the best early fishing in decades, with rainbows far easier to find in the reduced lake.
"I think it's going to be great fishing to start with," says Dan VanDyke, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Rogue District fish biologist. "I don't think the low water is going to cause any problem with fishing until late summer or fall. That's when we'll see some challenges."
That's the yin and yang at Howard Prairie heading into the fourth Saturday in April — the traditional date of the trout-fishing opener for the lake off Dead Indian Memorial Highway, as well as for nearby Hyatt Lake and Jenny Creek.
At Howard Prairie, county crews are in the midst of altering the marina to give visitors the best access they can to the water, the store and a makeshift marina that will be installed in the parking lot.
The county recently acquired 180 feet of excess floating dock from Lake Billy Chinook, and it will be added to current public docks to make room for rental boats, Lambert says. About 40 moorage buoys will line the cove for anglers and sailboaters who want to leave their boats in the water overnight, and a barge will be on hand to ferry boaters to and from the buoys.
"Marina access is something folks won't have, but they'll still get gas, rent boats, visit the restaurant and use the bathrooms," Lambert says.
Only a few slips will be open in the marina, and they could be too shallow for boats within a few weeks, Lambert says.
"We're going to do everything we feasibly can to put boats in the water and keep them in the water," Lambert says.
Only the resort ramp and the Klum Landing ramp will be open this month because the lake already has dropped below the concrete.
As the lake continues to drop and the resort ramp goes dry, boaters will be able to use a gravel road built during a 1994 drought to launch boats north of the resort.
The lake's water level will depend upon how quickly the Talent Irrigation District needs to draw down the reservoir.
It was listed Wednesday at 58 percent full, but TID likely will draw that percentage down into the teens by the end of the irrigation season, TID manager Jim Pendleton says.
"Things are going to be pretty grim, but I am still holding out for late spring (rains)," Pendleton says.
The lake's trout "should be easy to find, but hard to get to," he says.
Conditions are even more grim at nearby Hyatt Lake, where boat access could be severely restricted even on opening weekend.
The Bureau of Land Management boat ramp at the BLM campground will be open, but it could be dry.
The ramp is designed to launch powerboats until the water level drops to 5,009 feet above sea level, according to the Bureau of Reclamation. The end of the concrete ramp is at 5,005 feet elevation. On Wednesday, the water level was listed at 5,005.8 feet above sea level, meaning more water is needed for most anglers to launch powerboats at the lake, according to the bureau.
At both reservoirs, the low water will concentrate trout into smaller areas. And both reservoirs have been ice-free for months, meaning the trout have had insects to feed on and should be plump and firm from the get-go.
"That's why you do everything you can to put boats on the water," Lambert says.
The low water does have at least one positive aspect for the future at Willow Point, Lambert says. Parks crews want to take advantage of the exposed lake bed to extend the boat ramp there to match the lake access at Klum Landing, Lambert says.
The county is awaiting word from the Oregon State Marine Board on a grant to build that extension while the water is low.
"We're trying to make lemonade out of lemons in a low-water year," he says.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or email@example.com.