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Raining rainbows

TRAIL — It rained trout Friday at the Holy Water during the latest effort toward determining whether this sliver of Rogue River trout water can live up to its name or become a fishery to ignore.

So far, it looks like something in between.

The 2,000 fingerling trout released Friday into the impoundment between Lost Creek dam and Cole Rivers Hatchery are the latest complement aimed at keeping viable this fly-fishing-only oasis for rainbow trout smack dab in the middle of salmon country.

Early data from an earlier release of tagged fish and a recent creel survey is showing that this eight-tenths of a mile stretch of trout water can be the best of times or the worst of times for anglers, depending on when and how they fish.

During June's famous salmon-fly hatch, for instance, many anglers reported catching five or six trout a day longer than 14 inches. Other times, half the anglers filling out creel carts between May 20 and mid-July reported catching two trout or fewer.

"The guys who figure it out have a hell of a day up there," says Ryan Battleson, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist working on the Holy Water stocking. "Those who don't put the time in and adjust their techniques, they struggle.

"So some guys are crushing it, and some aren't," Battleson says.

John Bjorkholm represents both ends of this spectrum.

A Holy Water faithful, the 78-year-old Bjorkholm filled out more than a half-dozen creel cards, showing the wide span of success and lack thereof here.

"The days I went when the salmon fly hatch was good, I caught four or five fish a day and lost about eight a day because of barbless hooks," Bjorkholm says. "As the hatch wound down, the productivity fell off."

After the roughly three-week hatch, returning to small midges and other match-the-hatch flies yielded few, if any, takers.

"I basically did not do well," he says. "That's the Holy Water. That's fishing."

In all, anglers are averaging 1.22 trout per trip — not enough to canonize these waters, for sure. But just enough to keep most fly-fishers from becoming ardent non-believers, in part because there aren't too many other traditional trout-fishing opportunities for fly-fishers to convert to.

The Holy Water was created artificially in 1977 between Lost Creek dam and the downstream dam blocking salmon and steelhead migration and forcing fish into the hatchery's collection pond.

It's a classic tail-water fishery, with excellent insect production just below the dam's release gates, and at one time it was a fly-fishing mecca — Oregon's only catch-and-release trout fishery restricted solely to traditional fly-fishing with barbless flies.

That's as tweed as fly-fishing gets, even though ironically the fishery exists largely over stocked rainbows not unlike those released into Jackson County's Expo Pond — trout that previous knew no other life than milling around in concrete pens waiting for the pellet-dispensers to go off.

The early numbers in this study are bearing that out.

Members of the Rogue FlyFishers Association this spring tagged 400 trout released into the impoundment. Creel cards show that for every one of those tagged fish anglers caught, they caught five others, Battleson says.

"It shows there are fish up there, and they're being encountered a lot more than the tagged fish," Battleson says.

So another 2,000 fingerlings hit the water to assume their position as the next pellet-heads for fly-fishers.

Their release was a bit of fishing theater.

The trout were pumped out of a stocking truck parked 40 feet above the dam's release chute, and the fingerling fluttered to the water in a mix of half-gainers and belly flops.

But no floaters.

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

Rainbow trout are corralled in a holding tank before being dumped into the Holy Water. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]
Cole Rivers Hatchery technicians dump rainbow trout into the Holy Water section of the Rogue River Friday. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]