Joel LeGrande punches the motor throttle and powers his ship's ice-crunching bow forward at full ramming speed, horizontal snow be damned.

Joel LeGrande punches the motor throttle and powers his ship's ice-crunching bow forward at full ramming speed, horizontal snow be damned.

"You gotta get a running start," LeGrande says. "Then go as far as the ice lets you go."

Then the ice-breaker grinds to a halt, a lonely sentinel on the icy expanse of Howard Prairie Lake. LeGrande shifts into reverse and sets up for another running start. Then another, and another, until his quest is complete.

It's this kind of mettle LeGrande needs to forge a new Northwest Passage all the way to ... Grizzly Campground?

LeGrande's no Admiral Amundsen, and the metal pontoons and wooden deck of his open-air Howard Prairie Resort barge doesn't quite reach cutter status.

But LeGrande and his makeshift ice-breaker are doing all they can to open water for trout anglers who will descend upon Howard Prairie Saturday for no other reason than it's time for fishing here again.

LeGrande is helping the lake unclinch itself from winter's icy grip. On Tuesday, during a high mountain blizzard, he was opening pathways through the ice and linking areas of open water on what perhaps will be the only South Cascades lake set to open Saturday that actually can float a boat.

Hyatt Lake — Howard Prairie's sister lake on the Dead Indian Plateau east of Ashland — remains shrouded in ice. Diamond Lake's ice is so thick some anglers plan to auger holes to catch trout there.

A few warm spells, plus LeGrande's regular ice sorties, had opened about a quarter of the lake's water by Tuesday, with water around the resort's popular fishing jetty and the northwest shores toward Grizzly Campground ice-free.

Other areas of the lake sport open water as well and should be accessible by boat Saturday, depending upon where the wind blows the final two inches of the lake's winter crust.

"I can't guarantee anything, but it looks promising," says LeGrande, looking forward to his first Opening Day as the resort owner. "Just look at the weather forecast. It's supposed to be 61 degrees here Saturday."

Whether 61 degrees or 16, Howard Prairie's faithful know the trout bums will be there regardless.

"It's Opening Day," says Terry Sowerbutts, a veteran of 18 openers at the resort. "They'll come. It's tradition."

The de-icing of the lake is only one part of the story awaiting anglers who are as interested in how to get on Howard Prairie as to find out what's in it.

This is the first spring when anglers will see the results of the great Howard Prairie experiment — an effort to see whether larger juvenile trout planted in the fall fare better against predation from illegally stocked bass than the traditional fingerlings planted in May.

As part of a study, the ODFW stocked 50,000 trout 6-7 inches long in October and again in November to see if their larger size and release in cooler fall waters helps from turning them into bass food.

A November gillnet showed that these late-release trout, which have clipped adipose fins, were surviving far better than spring releases that spent a summer finning away from bass.

The fish also grew an inch and their flesh already started to turn pinkish, VanDyke says.

"Our goal is to produce that 10-inch fish in good condition by the April opener," says Dan VanDyke, the ODFW's Rogue District fish biologist.

The other goal for opening weekend here is that overall catch rates average .75 trout per hour. In other words, four guys fishing in a boat would catch three fish for each hour they spend on the lake.

The catch rate since 2003 has been more like .3 trout per hour — a pace that has those four guys a bit bored in that boat.

Now, the questions are, "how many survived the icy winter and will they reach that 10-inch goal?"

"We're excited, but it will probably take more than opening weekend for us to get a good idea of what's going on there," VanDyke says. "That's going to be the proof of the pudding — if we see a better catch rate."

The proof, for now, remains locked beneath the ice of green-tea lake.

LeGrande says he believes the new stocking regime is just the recipe to feed Howard Prairie trout anglers who are the resort's bread and butter.

Plus, the extra 10,000 legal-sized trout stocked at the resort last week won't hurt either.

The only problem is removing the icy obstacles that stand between anglers and their trout.

"Mother nature hasn't really cooperated this year," says LeGrande. "But you gotta do what you gotta do."

So LeGrande has gone ice-breaking daily this week, taxing the boat's 25-horsepower outboard with every crunch.

A former graphic designer for an electronics store chain, LeGrande can't help but spin his pursuit into a commercial, complete with catchy slogan and a sound track plucked from a Neil Sedaka eight-track.

"How about 'De-Ice Man Cometh' or 'Breakin' Up is Hard To Do,' " LeGrande says.

His nervous laughs are tempered by optimism. LeGrande knows a few warm days and afternoon winds can peel the ice from this lake faster than it takes Pennsylvania to count primary election ballots.

"It's amazing what can happen here in a couple days," he says.

Even if large swaths of the lake remain ice-covered this weekend, circumstances are such that anglers could be no worse for LeGrande's wear.

Saturday's 61-degree forecast for the lake is accurate — at least it was earlier this week. And most opening weekend anglers focus their attention on near-shore waters 10-feet deep or less, because that's where the most active rainbow trout will be cruising for spring's first terrestrial morsels.

That means boaters can follow LeGrande's Northwest Passage from the resort toward Grizzly Campground, which remains closed. They can follow it as far as their ice-crunching propellers will take them.

"At worst case, you can launch at the resort, turn left and fish the western shore on the north end of the lake," LeGrande says. "Just bring extra shear pins."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.