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Rock bottom at Diamond Lake

ROSEBURG — John Linson's winning fishing day Saturday on Diamond Lake didn't start by motoring his boat over his favorite haunts on the lake's south side — or even at the boat ramp.

The 60-year-old Prospect man started his winning routine by wading the shoreline to collect dragonfly larvae that he, his son and grandson would rely on as the X-factor as they looked to cash in during Saturday's Rainbow $5,000 trout derby.

In the end, two of the three Linson generations in his boat came away winners. The patriarch's 3-pound, 12-ounce rainbow garnered the $1,000 top prize in the 18th annual derby, while his 6-year-old grandson, Brian Linson, captured second place in the kids' division with a 2-pound trout.

Only son Tyler Linson failed to crack the derby's hero board, but he caught plenty of trout while others around them struggled to get even a couple bites.

"Anybody here can catch fish at Diamond Lake, but you just need to know what to use and where to fish," Linson says. "It's a trout pond for crying out loud.

"But it's nothing like it used to be," he says.

In the midst of its second straight slow summer of trout fishing, Diamond Lake is about to turn the corner and inch closer to the good ol' days of just a few years ago.

A new stocking strategy that consistently will put more rainbow trout in the lake annually beginning this year could return Diamond Lake to its past glory as Oregon's best lake for catching and keeping stocked rainbows — without threatening its water quality.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's new plan calls for the release of 275,000 rainbow fingerlings annually.

The new strategy takes into account changes in computer models used by ODFW biologists to estimate the number of holdover trout in the lake.

The agency recently discovered is was over-estimating the holdover numbers, adding to the lower catch rates.

The new stocking level falls short of the 346,000 fingerlings released in 2009, which triggered a record for catches in 2010. But the big 2009 release also caused some of the same water-quality problems caused by an overabundance of tui chub that led to the lake being drained and poisoned with rotenone in 2006.

The previous two years, the lake received 166,000 to 170,000 fingerlings, which has led to Diamond Lake catch rates plunging from the mercurial to the mundane.

Last year's catch rate was a skimpy 1 trout per angler per trip, even after ODFW released 37,000 more legals and sublegals in late summer and fall to kick-start the fishery. Since April of this year, the catch rate is up to 1.55 trout per angler per trip.

It's not really slow, but just slow for Diamond Lake, especially compared to years like 2010, when anglers had a post-rotenone record of 3.73 trout per day. Anglers caught and kept about 128,000 fish that year, while releasing 76,000.

Since this year's fishing is based largely on last year's stocking, the popular eastern Douglas County lake may have bottomed out catch-wise.

"So this year should be better than last year, but next year will hopefully show an even greater improvement," says Laura Jackson, ODFW's Umpqua District fish biologist.

This year's Rainbow $5,000 is a snapshot in that collage of the you-shoulda-come-here-next-year mantra.

Black Bird Shopping Center, which sponsors and runs the derby, couldn't have picked a more picturesque day for the 725 anglers who paid $16 apiece for the chance to cash in on a day's fishing.

"It was gorgeous," says Black Bird's Mike McMullen. "There wasn't a hatch going at all and very few mosquitoes. Everyone up there was just confused why there was unbelievably tough fishing."

Black Bird's prize-patrol boat turned into the "surprised patrol" over what they saw.

"I went by boat after boat of people who didn't get a bite," McMullen says.

Almost 150 trout were weighed in. And while Linson's rainbow was the best of the day, it hardly is representative of the big trout Diamond has been known to spit out on derby day.

"In lots of those years, 3 pounds, 12 ounces would maybe win something in the $50 to $75 range, not a $1,000 winner," McMullen says.

That's no problem for the lucky Linsons, who collectively boated close to two dozen rainbows during the tournament, mostly fishing in 11 feet of water.

The three generations all got some of the cash, then the elder Linson — a former Diamond Lake Resort dishwasher who guided for 10 years there in the pre-rotenone times — invested the rest in true trout-bum fashion.

"I got to have a ya-hoo day," he says. "Took the wife and went back to Diamond Lake."

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.