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Future brightens at Howard Prairie Lake

ASHLAND — Three months after Howard Prairie Lake turned into a Gary Larson “Far Side” cartoon, life and future expectations have returned.

In July, this reservoir southeast of Ashland was so low that the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife lifted the limit on catches of rainbow trout to get them into coolers and onto barbecues before they possibly died amid low, hot and poorly oxygenated water.

But Larson’s image of two anglers seeing atomic mushroom clouds on the horizon and declaring that it means “no size restrictions and screw the limit” gave way to a nod toward the future last week.

After seemingly giving up on the reservoir for now, ODFW last week stocked it with 60,000 large fingerlings to jumpstart one of Jackson County’s most popular trout fisheries for 2021.

The agency normally drops 150,000 trout fingerlings each fall to give them a fighting chance against an illegally stocked bass population that eats them as voraciously as kids eat Reeses on Halloween.

With the lake less than 7% full, it was a huge hedge bet in hopes of making 2021’s fishing season stamp out this year.

“I was real nervous about stocking those trout,” says Dan VanDyke, ODFW’s Rogue District fish biologist. “Howard Prairie is as low as I’ve ever seen it.”

Dumping fish in a struggling reservoir can be a risky endeavor. But in the past, reservoirs like Howard Prairie that draw down to historically low levels have an incredible insect rebound the following year.

So VanDyke’s all-in bet could pay big dividends for anglers next year.

“Now we have some flexibility,” VanDyke says. “The future should look brighter.”

That certainly wasn’t conventional wisdom in July, when the already low reservoir was threatening to dip in to unprecedent levels that threatened to kill off stocked rainbows.

ODFW lifted the five-trout daily limit to give anglers more chances to take fish home before ospreys carried away their dead bodies.

It is the latest proof that drought can be great for fishing but not for fish.

But the lake bottomed out at about 7% of capacity, the lowest ever, but not low enough to trigger a die-off.

“There was a real concern that we were going to get really low in this drought, but that really didn’t come to pass,” VanDyke says.

Still, the Talent Irrigation District reservoirs on the Dead Indian Plateau are the lowest since they were scraped together with bulldozers in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Hyatt, Howard Prairie and Emigrant reservoirs collectively now hold about 6,000 acre-feet of water, which is about one-third lower than the record low set in the fall of 1992.

Still, Howard Prairie is an important fishery, even if the water levels don’t get high enough to float the Howard Prairie Resort marina, which hasn’t seen water since 2019.

VanDyke is a trout guy and knows the relevance of this fishery. So he tapped into some ODFW savings during the COVID-19 shutdowns to buy about $2,000 worth of gravel to extent a makeshift boat ramp from the lake’s dam to the water level.

That was good enough to get those 60,000 fingerlings stocked.

“If there was more water, we could have stocked more fish,” VanDyke says.

At Hyatt Lake, the situation is more bleak.

At just 4% of capacity, water levels are not high enough to get fish into it now, VanDyke says.

“It’s just not looking good to be stocked this fall,” he says.

Hyatt is a different critter on its own, anyway.

It’s managed for bass and rainbows, with 40,000 fall rainbow fingerling stocked annually. That’s a far cry from the 250,000 spring fingerling stocked in the past.

But low water levels and a dearth of fresh fish at Hyatt means Howard Prairie again will be the toast of the plateau in 2021.

“What we’ve done is given ourselves some flexibility,” VanDyke says. “The future should look brighter.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Howard Prairie Lake, seen Thursday, is at the lowest point in its history.