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Fish on

The hands that helped pump death into Diamond Lake last fall returned Thursday and delicately planted life in its waters.

For 14 years, Dave Loomis spearheaded the $5.6 million fight to poison this High Cascades lake to rid it of 90 million tui chubs that altered the lake's ecosystem and its once-famous trout fishery. On Thursday, seven months after he helped poison the lake, Loomis scooped a net full of trout from an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife stocking truck, then deftly dipped them into the waters and steered the confused fish to freedom.

"As a biologist, that's not something you want as your signature — 'I killed 90 million fish,' " says Loomis, head of the multi-agency Diamond Lake Restoration Project. "To me, we did the right thing seven months ago, but the better thing to do is put trout back into Diamond Lake.

"Every one of these fish is a precious gem," Loomis says. "I wish them well."

They were the first of 6,000 rainbow trout that will return life to the lake just in time for Saturday's opening of the lake's spring trout-fishing season.

Launched from a stocking truck at the lake's north-end boat ramp, they're the first of 80,000 legal-sized trout that will be released through early June to lure anglers back to what was once Oregon's most popular trout lake.

Diamond Lake's luster had faded dramatically since 1993, when invasive tui chubs were discovered. Unchecked by predators, their population soared to 90 million, choking off the stocked trout population and triggering toxic algae blooms during the summer.

The successful treatment last September with a natural pesticide called rotenone purged the lake of all its life to make room for rainbow trout again to thrive and support a six-month fishery.

"It was tough, if you were a tui chub," says Jim Muck, the ODFW's Umpqua District fish biologist. "They didn't have a choice in the matter because they were an invasive species. We're bringing this back to a trout-based fishery."

As the sterile waters lay beneath a winter of ice and snow, a few water bugs and crustaceans began to stir. The ice all but melted this week, and steady winds mixed oxygen into water, allowing biologists to plant the fish.

"There's no ducks out there, no birds flying around. Nothing," Muck says. "A week from now, you'll see diving ducks, osprey picking trout off the surface and trout fishermen. There will be life on the lake again."

But first the ODFW had to pump some life into the lake.

A truck carrying 6,000 trout, all 8 to 10 inches long, hauled the rainbows from the Klamath Hatchery near Klamath Falls to the lake. They were flushed through a tube while a small band of media representatives and a few accidental tourists watched on.

Among the tourists were Brid Walsh and Jon Twynham, two physical therapists from Scotland here to dabble in the job market. On a venture from Roseburg to Crater Lake, they stopped at the Diamond Lake Resort and became fascinated with the lake's saga.

The pair marveled as the hatchery-reared trout flopped to freedom.

"It's like 'Free Willy,' " Twynham says. "Those fish are like the city kids escaping from the concrete jungle."

Actually, the fish have gone from jungle to desert. Underwater insect populations remain extremely low, just as pre-rotenone studies predicted.

The lake bottom still sports water with oxygen levels too low for insects to thrive, Muck says. But a few adult midges have been seen laying eggs, and the insect population — the staple of trout in lakes — should pick up through summer, Muck says.

"There's some crayfish and a few other critters, but there's a limited supply," Muck says. "There's not much to feed them, except fishing bait."

The bait will start plunking an hour before dawn Saturday, the first legal moment Oregon anglers can start fishing Diamond Lake and other waters that open for the season that day.

"We're tickled," says Rick Rockholt, events promoter at the resort, which has limped through a decade of declining visitors. "The past couple years, this entire place — the campgrounds and everything — has been a ghost town."

The ODFW's goal is to return Diamond Lake's popularity to its heydays of the 1980s, when anglers logged 100,000 days fishing for trout.

To get there, the agency plans to release the 88,000 rainbow trout that are all 8-plus inches long and legal to keep, plus 100,000 4-inch fingerling trout this summer. Next year, the fingerling plant could jump to 200,000, depending upon lake conditions.

That will help create the two-tier fishery that once made Diamond famous. However, it likely will take two or three years before Diamond Lake again becomes a top-drawer draw for anglers.

"It might not be the good ol' days we remember, but it will be the good ol' days for our kids and grand-kids," Rockholt says

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

Rainbow trout appear to swim upstream Thursday as they are pumped into Diamond Lake. - Mail Tribune / Jim Craven