Fishing the Stocked Lakes and Streams of the Pacific Northwest

North America is the land of lakes

Just a quick glance at the map will clearly illustrate this fact. A ring three to five hundred miles deep around the Hudson Bay must contain a million lakes. Some of these spill over into the US, offering opportunity in Wisconsin and Minnesota for absolutely outrageous fishing just about anywhere, and for anything, you can imagine. The streams and rivers of the Pacific Northwest are salmon waters, and in season the game fishing, for every variety of salmon, but also perhaps the most sought after fish in the region, the steelhead , is also unbelievable. This is the fly fisherman’s mecca. Grand central for devotees of the fly. And if the wild fish are not enough, just under 100 million rainbow trout are dumped into the region’s waters every year at no expense to the angler other than the $30 price of an annual fishing license.

This is a fairly typical Oregon lake scene. Most of the lakes in the state are well stocked

This type of fishing is not particularly spectacular, and it is usually best in the more popular venues where the common systems are float fishing with doctored bait designed to be irresistible, or glittering steel spinners that rarely fail (in most overseas waters spinners are not permitted). But for the avid fly caster the opportunities are rich too. The fish are rainbow trout, they are tank bred, fin clipped and not particularly intelligent (or perhaps learned is a better word). They’ll take just about anything, and are great for kids, or anyone else, getting to grips with a fly rod for the first time. The trick is to get onto the Department of Fish and Wildlife website and plot the stocking schedule. In that way, if you time it a few days after the introduction of fish into a reservoir or river, you can float or wade all day and catch one after the other.

Some of the best locations

I have been fishing in Oregon for a few years now, and there are two main river complexes that attract the serious fly fisherman, and both are stocked. These are the Santiam and Mackenzie Rivers. Both have main streams and multiple tributaries, all of which are great to explore and fish during the summer season. What I am not talking about here are the annual salmon and steelhead runs. This is complex, intricate and difficult fishing, which definitely takes some years of very local practice to master. I am talking about simple fly casting for wild cutthroat or stocked rainbow trout.

This is a section of the Santiam River. Apart from the obvious beauty of the scene, it is a complex and challenging fly fishing environment

Each of these rivers themselves are absolutely classic fly fishing streams. Both are reasonably fast flowing, even at low water towards the end of the summer, and each requires a certain amount of technical mastery. The physical location of each, to a greater or lesser extend, is also reason enough to be there. Oregon is blessed with a richly verdant and beautiful natural heritage, which is at its finest almost anywhere you go. Accessibility is also excellent. Fly fishing is not a widely practiced style of fishing here, as actually is the case in most places, so these difficult fishing venues for bait and floater do not attract much traffic. Even if you don’t catch anything, just being out there is fantastic.

This is a very decent size for a wild cutthroat on any of the local rivers. A very energetic fish on the hook

Besides these two main rivers there are a good number of stocked reservoirs across the state. So far I have only fished a dozen or so of these, but bearing in mind my objective at the moment is to introduce my boy Scott into the art, the easy fishing on each of them has been pretty satisfying. Once again just about anything will work, but I always get good results from a green wooly bugger with a brass dropper head, or even a black wooly bugger with the same set-up.

A River around Every Corner

I have always been fond of small rivers and wild fish. In that context, even though it is not mandatory, catch and release is always the fairest approach. Wild trout in Oregon’s rivers usually are the native cutthroat, which are a fabulous fish to catch – canny, intelligent, aggressive but also cautious. You rarely ever get two hits on the same fly from the same fish. Catching a nine or ten inch cutthroat in a shallow river riffle is difficult, and rewarding. If that is your game then almost any one of the tens of thousands of streams that stitch together this countryside will do. I have a few favorites, but at the upper reaches of just about any river there will be a shoal hugging cutthroats examining your fly, and more often that not, deciding not to attack.

This is a section of the Molalla River. Although no less beautiful, it is also popular, so competition with kayakers and spin casters can dull the experience a little

They are also extremely fast on the hook. I have often been quite surprised once landed at the modest size of some of the fish I have caught around here, in particular the way they have fought the good fight before revealing what, and how small they are.

Fishing for native cutthroat in Oregon is a superb sport. Not too spectacular, certainly not a steelhead, but as has been commonly cited: never underestimate the courage and intelligence of a trout.

The closest river to my home, about 50 miles southeast of Portland, Oregon, in the Aiqua Creek which dissects Marion County, and although it runs through unprotected land – with homes and smallholding on either side, is as classic a small stream fly fishing venue as you could ever hope to find. During the season the character of the river is of alternating rapids and pools, usually quite shallow, but with boulder strewn beds where the little cutthroat hide, and where they can be caught with careful and judicious streaming.

There are a handful of other streams too – Butte Creek, which is beautiful but not quite so productive, and Silver Creek, which is the most beautiful of all, and occasionally yields a superb brace of cutthroats. In all cases, although it is not mandatory, catch and release, and barbless hooks, are the norm.

This is the Abiqua Creek, my all time favorite. You have to work hard for small fish here, but a more essential fly fishing experience is not possible

The Molalla River is also an excellent location for all the usual requirements of good fly fishing, with the added advantage of the fact that it is open all year, and hosts a modest winter steelhead run. This is arguably one of the most difficult fish to catch, winter steelhead, since they are not feeding and the usually difficulty of tempting their belligerent nature to snap at a colorful fly gives them their name of the fish of a thousand casts.