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Fishing Backcountry Lakes 

Enjoying the solitude and beauty of Central Oregon

Sparks Lake offers good trout fishing and stunning scenery. Photo by Michael Burkhardt.

Sparks Lake offers good trout fishing and stunning scenery. Photo by Michael Burkhardt.

Though the general trout fishing season is well underway in Oregon, many of the High Cascade Lakes that sustain planted fish remain inaccessible due to snow and ice. It can be as late as mid-June or even early July before some of these lakes can be reached on foot or by horseback, but when the trails become accessible, there are ample backcountry and wilderness fishing opportunities. In the Deschutes National Forest, up to 65 remote lakes from as small as two acres in size are planted every other year with Rainbow, Brook, and sometimes Cutthroat trout. These trout grow to legal catch sizes in about two years, and some, depending on weather and other conditions, can live for as long as five years or more.

The vast majority of these lakes were barren of fish until 1912 when state fishery managers, using pack horses and mules, began stocking those that could sustain fish. Ten gallon buckets of fingerlings from the Bonneville hatchery were transported by train and then packed in and released. Those packing the fingerlings in would often cool the containers by placing them in streams, stirring them to keep oxygen levels high enough to keep the fish alive. From the early 1950s until about 1980, fixed-wing aircraft were used for stocking, and in 1980 it was determined by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife that helicopters were economically feasible for stocking purposes, making the planting process much easier and more efficient.

Erik Moberly is an assistant fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in the Bend District. He says the agency stocks 330 lakes statewide every other year, including about 65 in the Bend district. "We have five loading spots in the state and it takes us about a week to stock those 300-plus lakes," he says.

The next stocking will be in 2017. "Some of those fish can live five or six years, and there's a new generation of fingerlings that are introduced every other year," he explains. He says survival depends on variable factors such as fishing pressure and weather, both of which are hard to track and forecast accurately. "This last year was pretty cold. Those lakes freeze over, and if the shallow ones don't thaw out in time those fish lose oxygen and some of them perish." The deeper they are the more oxygen available and the better the survival rate. ODFW surveys a number of lakes each year to determine survivability and whether stocking should continue in certain ones.

High lake fishing can be productive with advance planning and timing. Moberly says, "When the lakes thaw out and the weather gets warmer, the fish get really active. They're really hungry from not eating for a few months. Early season fishing in the high lakes can be extraordinary if you hit it right." ODFW also tries to evaluate lakes to see which species of trout does best to try to determine planting strategies.

It can be tricky to pick a lake to hike into and fish because there are so many from which to choose. ODFW's website contains a listing of the backcountry and wilderness lakes in the Bend region that it stocks. "We want to promote this as much as we can, but we also want to let anglers find out for themselves what's going on in these high lakes," Moberly explains. Once a lake is chosen, consult a U.S. Forest Service trail map for directions, including information on whether the trail is accessible depending on weather conditions.

Though planting these high lakes has occurred for more than 100 years, Moberly says a lot of Oregonians don't know that ODFW stocks the lakes on a regular basis. "It's a great opportunity to go out backpacking, to catch a couple fish and cook them right on site. In my mind, it just adds to that wilderness experience." Moberly advises fishing early morning and late afternoon for best results. "Sometimes we go out there and don't see another person for a few days. To have that element in this world is refreshing. This is a chance for people to get out and not see anybody for a few days, refresh their minds, and enjoy the natural beauty of this state," he says.

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