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ODFW hopes to combat bass influx

Outdoors

ASHLAND ' Floyd Grimes shares a long and unique bond with Howard Prairie trout. In fact, it's as old as the reservoir itself.

When water first filled behind the Bureau of Reclamation dam in 1960, the 19-year-old Grimes was there to cast for the lake's first trout.

Over the ensuing 45 years, he's caught his share of the lake's trout, touted across Oregon for their tasty insect-fed flesh.

Grimes' Ashland barbershop is sprinkled with pictures of Howard Prairie trout. Between snips, he fields phone calls from fellow fishers looking for this week's tip. Even the Howard Prairie Resort restaurant named its biscuits and gravy after him.

I guess you can say I've kind of adopted that lake, Grimes says.

— And now Grimes has taken in Howard Prairie's infamous illegal alien.

Floyd the Trout Man started actively fishing for the lake's illegally introduced smallmouth bass, which have exploded into Southern Oregon's hottest new summer fishing opportunity.

If you would have asked me a year ago if I was going to fish for bass, I'd have said no way, says Grimes, 64. I didn't want anything to do with those blooming things. I just wanted trout.

But now I've become a bass fishermen, he says.

Almost a decade after the bass were illegally stocked there, state fisheries biologists still don't know what to do with the bloomin' bass.

But they are poised for an experiment that may help keep the trout-rich lake of Grimes' past without allowing the bass to squeeze out the trout in the future.

Afraid Howard Prairie could become the next great trout lake to be overrun by bass, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife plans to alter its trout-stocking program in hopes of getting the best trout the lake can grow in the presence of bass.

Currently, the agency stocks the lake with 350,000 fingerling trout in May. Those that don't get munched by the predatory bass grow quickly on a diet rich in the lake's famous underwater insects and become legal-sized 8-inchers by fall.

That differs from the stocking of reservoirs like Lost Creek Lake, where the fingerling trout fishery was overrun by smallmouth in the 1990s. There, the agency stocks legal-sized trout that are more expensive and less prized as food trout by many anglers.

The Howard Prairie Lake experiment, however, calls for skimming 50,000 fingerling off next spring's plant, raising those trout all summer at Butte Falls Hatchery and then stocking them in November after the Oct. 31 fishing season ends.

Those experimental fish will be 5-6 inches long, making them better apt to withstand bass predation. And the November waters are more suited to cold-water fish like trout than the bass, which are sluggish and less active predators in the fall.

They would provide a much better quality trout than if we were just stocking legals in a put-and-take fishery there, says David Haight, an ODFW fisheries biologist in Central Point. And, it would be cheaper for us.

At this point, the bass don't seem to be out-competing the trout, Haight says. We want to try this (stocking experiment) now to see how they do for size and survival, Haight says.

The project lives or dies Friday, when the ODFW's Restoration and Enhancement Board decides whether to grant &

36;18,000 in fish-license fees to the study.

The money is needed to pay for the extra hatchery time and for fin-clipping the trout before release.

The clipping allows for anglers and biologists to differentiate between the fall-release trout and the spring-released ones, allowing survival rate estimates that would decide if the fall stocking is a success.

I think it's a real good idea that they're trying to be pro-active, says Chris Johnston, who manages the Howard Prairie Resort marina. Getting out in front of this is a really good idea.

Johnston doesn't want an altered trout-stocking program that would diminish the palatability of his lake's trout.

We'll see if they make a difference in how those trout grow and how they taste, Johnston says.

Grimes agrees.

He works three days a week just so he can spend the remaining four at the lake.

April through June are hot months for trout, and he's limped through the July and August doldrums of traditionally slow trout fishing.

But accidentally catching bass after bass convinced him last July to start trying to catch them.

Man, I started catching 15 to 20 bass every time up there, Grimes says. I got to admit, I had a ball.

Once a place where only trollers and sailboats competed for space, the lake has swarmed with expensive bass boats this year. Bassers at times outnumber trout fishermen.

I think it's going to grow into a great fishery, Grimes says.

If it does, it will have to do so on its own.

Howard Prairie's management plan calls for managing for trout and trout only, Haight says.

No matter how much fun they are to catch and no matter how many trout anglers like Grimes they can convert, bass are still illegal aliens in the ODFW's collective mind.

Haight says actively managing the bass would take a change in the management plan. The ODFW would hold at least one public meeting before doing so, he says.

Grimes doesn't want to let go of the Howard Prairie of the past. But he's welcoming bass into his future.

You know? I like it so much I've really surprised myself, Grimes says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail ODFW hopes to combat bass influx"mfreeman@mailtribune.com.