Autumn Splendor: Fly-Fishing Trillium Lake

Trillium Lake with Mount Hood in the distance

I have many loves and fly-fishing is one of them; it brings peace and harmony to my being, which I can then pass on to others.

—Sue Kreutzer

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Fly Diary–September-October 2011:  Trillium Lake, Oregon:  Big Black Gnat #10, Irresistible Adams #10, Mosquito #12, Black & Gold Pistol Pete #10

One of our favorite places to fish in early autumn is Trillium Lake.   It is a peaceful time when the crowds have gone, and the kiddies are back in school.  It is also when the brooders (as if they know nature will soon cover the lake in winter white) are most likely to bite.    

From our personal pontoon boats, we cast off and let the wavelets carry us.  To the north, in the not-so-far distance, Mount Hood is a jaw-dropping thing of beauty, a distraction really, as I give my attention to the mountain instead of watching my fly on the water.  In early autumn, and at 3,600 feet above sea level, Trillium Lake (home to brook and rainbow trout) ushers in crisp nights followed by sun-warmed afternoons that turns the leaves and grasses vibrant shades of gold, copper, and bronze.  When the breeze subsides, the lake turns to glass.  Trout rings appear on the surface, dozens of them like swirling targets that await our flies to strike their centers.

Trillium Lake (named for the wildflower that blooms in the surrounding forest in springtime) is no secret.  An attractive body of water, its oval shape spans 57 surface acres with depths ranging from seven to 16-feet.  While the lake looks as though it’s been here for centuries, it is in fact synthetic—harnessed by the 1960, 21-foot high, 985-foot long dam that blocks the headwaters of Mud Creek (a tributary of the Salmon River).  With its sparkling reflections, encompassing forest, and stunning mountain backdrop, Trillium Lake is one of the most picturesque scenes in the Mount Hood National Forest.  A fishing hot spot and recreational playground, the area draws thousands of visitors each year.  Even in winter, when the road is gated and snow piles high, cross-country skiers and snowshoers take up the slack.  

Having crossed the lake, we anchored fifty yards apart, and twenty-feet from the lily bed where the water depth is six to twelve feet.  The lily bed provides excellent cover where big fish are most likely to hold.  As I rummaged through my fly box, Chris was already fishing.  I selected a Big Black Gnat #10, and tied it on the end of my tippet.  No sooner had I tightened the cinch knot than I heard Chris yell, “Got one!”  A sudden splash and a large rainbow broke the surface.  It jumped several times, shaking its head from side to side trying to throw the hook, and then did the classic tail-walk.  Chris played it beautifully, and brought the trout to the net.  “It’s a nice one,” he shouted, as he held up his prize; “18-inches!” he yelled, as he put it on the stringer.  “Excellent!” I shouted back.  My next question was inevitable; “What are you using?” I had to know.  “An Irresistible Adams #10,” he yelled as he examined the fly and cast again.

A rainbow trout hits the surface

In spring, the lake is stocked with some 3,000 legal-sized rainbow trout.  In summer, another 8,000 are added, and 500 to 800 trophy trout that measure 16-inches or larger.  It is said that some of the best trout flies to use at Trillium Lake are the weighted Wooly Bugger #8, Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear nymph #12, Callibaetis nymph #16, dry Peacock Herl Midge #16, dry Adams #12, and dry Mosquito #12.  To my surprise, the Big Black Gnat didn’t even make the list.  Like the Adams, trout find the Big Black Gnat irresistible, enticing even the most elusive trout.  Even when the fishing is slow, the Big Black Gnat usually brings a fish or two to the surface.

I dabbed some floatant on my fly, and let it come to rest ten feet from the lily bed.  A ripple across the water gave the fly a spark of life.  In a flash, a brookie shot from the reeds like a torpedo, took the fly, and I set the hook.  Brook trout are terrific fighters that do much of their fighting underwater, seldom breaching the surface.  This one, however, was an exception to the rule.  Not only did it clear the water once, but twice!  Each time I brought it close to the net, it darted away.  With a barbless fly, I held my breath for fear of losing the battle at any moment, but found success on the third try.  Although not a trophy fish at 10-inches, it was very meaty, and I secured it on the stringer.  Brook trout have a delicate, sweet flavor that is delicious, and this one would do just fine.

After a cool start to the day, the afternoon turned warm and pleasant, as it often does this time of year.  Nearby, several mallard hens, and a pied-billed grebe, dabbled in the reeds.  On a submerged snag, twenty yards away, a great-blue heron stood motionless, perhaps waiting for an unsuspecting frog whose chorus was all around us.  There were also dragonflies, dozens of them, whose clicking wings sounded like miniature castanets.  I find that as the days grow shorter, the dragonfly’s behavior changes.  It becomes increasingly curious, almost aggressively so, certainly persistent.  Maybe it has something to do with mating habits, or perhaps there are fewer insects to prey upon, in any regard, I was constantly under inspection.  If they weren’t flying into me, they hovered just inches from my face as if to study me.  No doubt, a behavior that earned them the name “Devil’s darning needles”; a name derived from superstition that dragonflies sew shut the eyes, ears, and mouths of children that misbehave . . . but only children?  One had to wonder.  While dragonflies have no stingers, they have powerful jaws that can inflict a painful bite; nothing as severe as a wasp or bee sting, more like a pinch really, that leaves a red welt on the skin, but doesn’t itch like a mosquito bite.  I learned this the hard way, but this day I was prepared, and wore waders instead of shorts. 

One of the mallard hens, swimming between the reeds and myself, made a quick meal of a dragonfly.  With wings extending from her bill, she wore them proud, and swam away with a grin on her face.  I pulled anchor and rowed to the north end of the lake, and fished thirty yards from a beaver lodge where the cover was thicker.  I tied on a #12 mosquito, gave it a dab of floatant and with a zealous cast, cracked the line like a whip!  A sound that clearly indicated I’d lost my fly.  I tied on another, and made a gentle cast that put the fly several feet from the reeds.  A third cast, brought to hand an 11-inch rainbow.  Not bad, but hoping for something a little bigger, I let it go.  After that, the water went dead.  After a few more failed attempts, I tied on a Pistol Pete #10, payed out the line, put the rod in its holder, pulled anchor, and started trolling.  Just about to the center of the lake, the tip of my rod quivered, and bent half over.  I let go the oars, grabbed the rod, and set the hook.  The fish felt heavier this time, but had less fight, which suggested that it was probably a rainbow.  Ten yards off the bow, it broke the surface, a rainbow that, from the looks of it, appeared to be a decent-sized fish.  Several minutes later, I had it in the net.  It measured 14-inches.  Not too shabby, I thought, as I put it on the stringer.  Chris also had good luck.  He’d caught another–a 16-inch rainbow that now brought our total catch to four.  

With a nice catch in-tow, I rowed slowly towards the boat ramp.  I could see that Chris was in no hurry to leave.  He too was trolling, and had caught another fish—a small rainbow that he let wriggle to freedom.  As the sun slipped below the mountains, the air turned crisp, and steam began to rise off the lake.  From the northeast shore, smoke curled from the campground (closed for the season) where walk-ins had made their camps and fires; fires that smelled deliciously of cedar and pine.  The lake was like a mirror, and so incredibly peaceful, one could hear a pine needle drop.  This silence was broken when a great-blue heron, maybe the same one I’d seen earlier, made a few deep squawks as it landed in the shallows.  At the head of the lake, through a thin vapory haze, Mount Hood stood in all its glory exhibiting colors of orange and pink that softened to shades of blue and lavender.  A slight breeze moved across the lake that felt warmer than the air itself.  I leaned back in my seat, letting the breeze carry me, and basked in the autumn splendor.  

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Brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) also called brookie, speckled trout, squaretail, mountain trout, and salter, is actually a char native to eastern North America that was introduced to western waters in the early 1900s.  The brook trout is an elongated fish with a triangular, spotted, dorsal fin, and a squared or slightly forked tail fin.  Overall, males and females have an olive-green back with a dark worm-like pattern, olive-green sides with large white spots with few red flecks that sport blue halos, and a have white belly.  Adult males have a white belly tinged with red.  Breeding males have a bright, reddish-orange belly, and reddish-orange ventral fins with black and white edges.  In western rivers and streams, brook trout threaten native trout populations as they compete for food and habitat.

Authors note:  As a naturalist, I am always curious to learn what a fish has eaten.  With lake fishing, the stomachs of rainbow trout often contain the usual fish baits such as colorful gobs of power bait, earthworms, and partly digested insects.  Brook trout on-the-other-hand, offer a few more surprises.  While cleaning the brook trout that I’d caught, I found its stomach full of little brown hard things the size of BB’S.  Puzzled, I thought for a moment.  I’d caught the brookie near the lily bed where the flowers had gone to seed, and where the seeds were floating on the surface.  Could it be?  I went to my collector cabinet where I keep tokens of nature gathered from my wanderings, and retrieved a small manila envelope labeled:  Seeds–Yellow Pond Lily/Spatterdock (Nuphar lutea polysepalum).”  I compared them to those I’d found inside the stomach of the brook trout, and was amazed to learn they were one in the same; brook trout do eat the seeds of yellow pond lily!  Among the many seeds, however, came a second, rather appalling surprise–the partly digested remains of a roughskin newt! (Taricha granulosa).  Needless to say, I cleaned the trout thoroughly before cooking, and tried not to think about my findings.

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 Copyright 2011.  All rights reserved

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