TRAIL — Catfish Cove is the new fishing hot spot at Lost Creek Reservoir, and Lonnie Johnson hopes extensive catch-and-release fishing there will allow it to remain that way.

TRAIL — Catfish Cove is the new fishing hot spot at Lost Creek Reservoir, and Lonnie Johnson hopes extensive catch-and-release fishing there will allow it to remain that way.

Catfish Cove is where Johnson last week helped release 236 mature largemouth bass in this latest effort to jump-start what used to be a vibrant fishery at this Rogue River Basin reservoir.

Some of those largemouth are as big as 6 pounds, and they were quickly discovered by smallmouth anglers who garnered great memories of their own over the holiday weekend.

"Catfish Cove was packed with anglers," says Johnson, a Grants Pass man who is president of the Oregon Black Bass Action Committee. "The word didn't take long to travel that suddenly there were some real toads in there."

Johnson hopes those toads don't get croaked by anglers because these fish are far more important in the lake than in frying pans.

These fish are the latest installment of largemouth as part of a monumental effort by Johnson's committee and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to turn back the clock at what used to be one of Oregon's premier largemouth fisheries.

Though somewhat of a longshot, the hope is these large fish will survive among the thousands of smallmouth bass that have overrun the lake, possibly spawn and create the seeds for revitalizing the reservoir's original largemouth bass fishery.

That's why Johnson and ODFW biologist David Haight released the fish last week in Catfish Cove, out of sight from Stewart State Park visitors.

"We really don't want them taken out right away," Johnson says. "We want to see them have a chance.

"It was probably poor timing for us to put them there before Memorial Day weekend," he says.

Poor timing is a recurring theme to Lost Creek fisheries ever since the 3,430-acre reservoir was carved out of the forest in the mid-1970s.

The clearcut basin carved into bedrock was more conducive to rock-friendly smallmouth bass than largemouth, which prefer vegetative cover.

Still, the original stocking of rainbow trout and largemouth bass proved effective as largemouth feasted on fingerling rainbows and grew to become the largest largemouth in Oregon.

Lost Creek Lake had its coming-out party in 1988 when Joe Pool of Central Point caught an 11-pound largemouth which, at the time, set a new Oregon record that since has been broken.

But the lake already had tasted its fate.

Sometime in the mid 1980s, someone illegally released smallmouth bass in the reservoir, where they felt at home among the rocks and didn't struggle with fluctuating summer water levels as much as largemouth do.

By the mid-1990s, smallmouth bass were everywhere and only a few big largemouth remained. Smallmouth were feasting on juvenile largemouth, and by 1997 the fishery was all but gone, another casualty to renegade fish-stocking.

Since then, groups like Johnson's committee have helped ODFW biologists catch bass in other lakes and release them into the reservoir. They also are planting willows and sinking discarded Christmas trees by the thousands each winter to create more largemouth habitat in the moonscape lake bed.

But too many smallmouth, too few largemouth and far too few Christmas tree rows leave largemouth in the lurch.

"The largemouth component might increase some, but with all the smallmouth there it'll never really take off as a good largemouth lake," Haight says.

Still, Haight and Johnson will continue trying.

Last week, they helped electroshock central Oregon's fly-fishing-only waters of Davis Lake for largemouth, hauling their catch of mature bass over the Cascades for release.

They'll follow that up next month with angling clubs catching hundreds of smaller, immature largemouth from Hyatt Lake for release in Lost Creek.

"The large ones provide for the fishery right away and it gets people excited," Haight says. "The smaller ones, if they grow, provide a fishery for the future. If not, they won't be that valuable."

For now, the Catfish Cove largemouth are like gold to Johnson, who sees years of Christmas trees and willows in Lost Creek's future before it becomes a destination largemouth lake again.

"Transferring fish is a stop-gap measure," Johnson says. "They're to keep the fishing alive and keep people aware of it for now," Johnson says. "The more people practice the catch-and-release that we preach, the better for those things to survive and get established."

At least through Free Fishing Weekend on June 6-7.

"They've been catching them so easily because all those Davis Lake fish have seen are flies," Johnson says. "They've never seen spinner baits before. But they'll probably spread out in just a couple weeks and (anglers) won't be standing shoulder-to-shoulder in Catfish Cove anymore."

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