Trout are a moment of beauty known only to those who seek it.
Fly Diary–August 2011: Olallie Lake, Oregon: Adams #10, Black & Copper Pistol Pete #10, Big Black Gnat #10, Green Mayfly Dun #14
It has been years since my husband and I visited Olallie Lake. Not only were we anxious to see it again, we were anxious to fish it! (“Olallie” is an Indian word that means “berry” because of their abundance in the area.) Only recently, did the area reopen after a three-year closure due to heavy snowfall, the resort being for sale, and the 2010 south shore Lake View Fire that started from a lightning strike. While I am always up for adventure, Chris was apprehensive, and I knew what he was thinking. He was remembering our last trip to Olallie Lake, the long and winding drive through the Mount Hood National Forest, and the wrong turns on unmarked Forest Service Roads (FSR) that had us doubling back, and left him feeling a little queasy. This time, I assured him, it wouldn’t be like that.
Olallie Lake Scenic Area (elevation 4,936 feet) comprises 226-acres, and harbors more than 200 alpine lakes, ponds, and creeks. The area, known as the “Cascade Lightning Belt,” is located along the southernmost boundary of the Mount Hood National Forest, and the northernmost boundary of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. Despite its remoteness (about 50 miles from the nearest town), the area receives 30,000 visitors annually. Olallie Lake lies at the base of Olallie Butte—a shield volcano whose summit elevation is 7,219 feet, making it the highest point between Mount Jefferson (to the south), and Mount Hood (to the north). Olallie Lake has 188 surface-acres (as recorded by the US Forest Service), and almost four miles of shoreline, which makes it the largest lake in the area. (Note: Some reports show Olallie Lake as having 240 surface-acres.) The water, which is a drinking water source, is cool, clean, and clear with an average depth of 17-feet, and a maximum depth of 43-feet that harbors brook and rainbow trout. From the southeast shore is Mill Creek, where a small dam works to keep water levels constant. (Second in size is nearby Monon Lake at 98-acres.)
Although this was only going to be a day trip, we didn’t want to be unprepared. I spent several days studying topographic maps to avoid any wrong turns. I checked weather conditions that indicated a fair-weather report with a high of 72 degrees, and NW winds 10 to 20 mph. The fishing report rated “very good” to “excellent.” Choice flies included black woolly buggers and the spruce fly. The night before, Chris filled the gas tank, and got some extra cash from the ATM to avoid the fifteen percent card fee charged at the Olallie Lake General Store. I gathered our gear, and had backpacks, rods, and fly boxes waiting by the door.
Sunday, 6:00 A.M., the alarm clock rang. It was our morning to sleep in. I lay in bed debating whether to put the trip off for another day, but I couldn’t get Olallie Lake and the fishing report out of my head. The thought of it having been stocked with 10,000 rainbow trout (averaging 8 to 10 inches), and 500 trophy trout (16 inches and bigger), got me to my feet! Chris slept while I got ready and loaded backpacks and fishing gear into the truck. I would have killed for a cup of coffee, but there wasn’t time to make any; I would have to grab one along the way. By 7:00, Chris was awake and had the rest of the gear–ice chest, oars, anchors, nets, and our two 9-foot pontoon boats loaded in the bed of the truck. We were ready to go!
A little before 8:00 A.M., we emerged from the woods like bats from a cave, our eyes sensitive to the morning sunlight. The air felt refreshingly cool, and smelled faintly of wood smoke. Traffic along Highway 26 was light. It was going to be a good day. Time was pressing, and we still had a few stops to make. First was the coffee shop, which was closed for another ten minutes, but the owner, knowing my iced mocha addiction, obliged my caffeine fix before the doors opened. Chris remembered he forgot his wading boots, and so back home we went. Fortunately, home was only a few minutes away.
After a brief inventory, and all gear accounted for, it was a go. We stopped in Zigzag for a breakfast sandwich, and then the Zigzag Ranger Station to double-check the route and road conditions. We would take Highway 26 eastbound over Blue Box Pass (elevation 4,024′), and turn right at the Olallie Lake/Timothy Lake cutoff, and follow Skyline Road. From Skyline Road there would be a number of turns and cutoffs, but only FSR #4220, and part of FSR #4690 would get us there. (Technically, FSR #4220 is the only road to and from the lake.) The longer route was FSR #4690 that bypasses a rough segment of FSR #4220, but it would add miles to our drive. There was time to think about it.
The drive was lovely, the road narrow, sandwiched between thick stands of Douglas, noble, and Pacific silver fir, western and mountain hemlock, lodgepole pine, and western redcedar. The forest met with the pavement, and I hoped nothing bigger than a chipmunk would step out of the woods. Along the way, were places worth revisiting—Little Crater Lake, Timothy Lake, the Oak Grove Fork of the Clackamas River with its pristine meadow views and historical ranger station—there was Clackamas Lake, home of the white bog orchid, and Summit Lake where black bear frequent. I wanted to stop at each of them, but if we wanted to get fishing, we had to keep moving.
No signs marked either cutoff. We were looking for road numbers, spray-painted on pavement in fluorescent orange that could be easily missed if not paying attention. We found FSR #4220 without a problem, and debated whether we should take it. After all, it would shave miles off our drive, but having been down this rough and rocky road before, we opted for the longer route that would bypass the roughest stretch of FSR #4220.
We drove for miles before finally reaching FSR #4690, and turned left to drive 13 more miles to the lake. FSR #4690 begins as a paved, one-lane road that turns to gravel where is connects with FSR #4220. If this has you scratching your head, you’re not alone. The area can be confusing, and a good topographic map is recommended. The road was narrow and winding. In places, the scenery was stunning. A bend in the road brought us to a clear-cut with power line towers that stretched for miles into the wilderness. Rounding another bend put the eyesore behind us, and the scenery turned lovely again. We crossed bridges and creeks, including Olallie Creek, and a stretch of canyon that fell sharply to one side as scree slopes rose on the other. Sadly, one couldn’t help notice the many lodgepole pines that were either dead or dying from infestations of western pine beetle, which is a problem in this area.
Just past Olallie Meadow and Triangle Lake, the road turned to gravel. We were now on FSR #4220 that would take us 3-miles to the lake. We were in the “dust zone.” A car traveling 10 mph or less was enough to raise clouds as thick as smoke. At times, we couldn’t see the road ahead, and had to stop and let the dust settle before we could continue. Travel was slow and made three miles feel like six. When at last we reached First Lake and then Head Lake, we knew we were close.
A signboard read Mount Hood National Forest–Olallie Lake Scenic Area. Crossing the path of the Pacific Crest Trail that runs 2,000 miles from Canada to Mexico, we pulled into the parking lot of the Olallie General Store at 10:40 A.M. Here we saw our first breathtaking views of the lake from its north shore. We’d made good time. An hour and forty minutes, and without any wrong turns. It felt good to stretch our legs and brush away the dust. Chris made a dash for the outhouse, while I stood at the edge of the lake taking in all there was to see. To the south was Mount Jefferson (elevation 10,497 feet) that wore an impressive snow blanket even for August. The water lapping at the shore with inviting shades of blue, made me want to jump in and wash away the dust. Unfortunately, swimming is prohibited in Olallie Lake.
I’d read that mosquitoes and yellow jackets are troublesome here in July and August. While I didn’t find yellow jackets to be much of a bother, the mosquitoes were horrendous! They lie in wait in the vegetation and attack in swarms! I was bitten four times before reaching the steps of the General Store. Inside, it was as if we’d gone back in time to 1933. Recently remodeled, the stores rustic charm was well-preserved among its fresh timbers that smelled of pine. The floorboards creaked, and the low beam ceiling made me want to duck my head. It reminded me of an old trading post, like the ones I have read about in Alaska. The store sold only the necessities, and thank goodness, insect repellent was one of them. With three brands to choose from, I reached for the Deet Free, Coleman Botanicals Insect Repellent made with lemon eucalyptus oil. It was the last one, and the cheapest at eight bucks a bottle. Skeptical whether it would work, I paid the money, and hoped for the best.
Meanwhile, Chris asked about the fishing. The woman behind the counter said, “It’s been a little slow, but usually picks up around 7:30 in the evening.” That wouldn’t work for us since we were here only for the day. “What are the fish biting on?” Chris asked. The woman pulled out a plastic tray from behind the counter, and apologized for the scant selection. “Let’s see,” she said, pointing to the spruce fly. “The fish really like these.” She then added, “Last week, a guy was out on the lake fishing with an artificial brown and purple worm and caught a 29-pound rainbow!” Our mouths fell open. That would explain the large fish scale hanging from the corner eave outside the store. We didn’t buy any spruce flies since Chris had a few of them in his fly box. We thanked her for the information, and she wished us good fishing!
We decided to put-in at Peninsula at the southwest end of the lake. We’ve always liked this reach with its primitive campsites near water’s edge tucked cozily among the pines. From Peninsula, we had a great view of Olallie Butte, and got our first look at the burned forest of the Lake View Fire. With pontoons loaded, and our skin slathered with sunscreen and skeeter repellent (which really worked by the way), we pushed-off across open water, and rowed towards Olallie Butte.
As the sun beat down, the gentle breeze coming off the water kept us comfortable. Across the lake, the fish were jumping! I dropped anchor about 20-feet from shore in about 14-feet of water. I was fishing using my Orvis Access, 9-foot, 4-weight with weight-forward floating line, with 4 lb. leader and 4 lb. tippet. This is one of my favorite rods since it gives me more control with my casts. I tied on a dry-fly—a Green Mayfly Dun, barbless, size 14. I’m now in the habit of using barbless hooks, not only because it’s required in some places, but also because it allows for a clean and quick release without injuring the fish. Ever since Chris and I took up fly-fishing, we’ve grown accustom to catch-and-release; something we used to frown on. We used to keep every fish we caught. Most went into the freezer only to get freezer-burned. The waste was awful, and the guilt overwhelming.
My third cast hooked an 8-inch rainbow. While not a big fish, its fighting ability surprised me, and I attributed it to the high altitude, and cool, clean water. I admired it for a moment, its brilliant colors flashing in the sunlight. Then I let it go. Meanwhile, Chris was trolling a black and copper Pistol Pete, size 10, when he yelled, “Got one!” He brought it to his hand, “Do you want to keep it?” “Only if it’s a big one!” I shouted. We usually don’t keep anything under 10-inches, and so Chris let it go. I caught two more rainbows. Only one of them met the 10-inch criteria, and I slid it on to the stringer. I decided to do some trolling, and tied on the same black and copper Pistol Pete, size 10. I rowed for half an hour without a bite, and went back to using a dry-fly. I dropped anchor, selected a Big Black Gnat, size 10 from the fly box, and again, had no luck. I went back to using a mayfly.
Meanwhile, still fishing a Pistol Pete, Chris caught-and-released another rainbow. After that, the water went dead. Like most fishing, there comes a lull, and we were in the lull. Chris dropped anchor nearby, and tied on a Big Black Gnat, size 10, and caught two more fish; one of them an 11-inch rainbow that he put on the stringer. I was still having no luck, even as I sat in the midst of a mayfly hatch—black mayflies, size 14, but all I had were green. The trout were now snubbing the Big Black Gnat, so Chris tied on an Adams, size 10. He caught two more rainbows, an 11 and 12-inch, and put them on the stringer. We now had four nice trout; any others we’d let go, unless one of us hooked an exceptionally big fish, but that wasn’t going to this day. By late afternoon, the wind picked up. It blew from several directions that made casting difficult. There was also a lot of chop that forced us to troll, but our efforts were futile.
Pleased with our catch, we decided to stop for the day, and rowed back to Peninsula bracing a stiff crosswind. Halfway across the lake, an osprey circled overhead like a vulture circling a road kill. It was obvious that the osprey wasn’t having any luck either, and I leaned back to see it disappear over the pines towards Monon Lake. Soon after, a bald eagle appeared soaring in tight circles that brought it closer to the lake. For a moment, I felt as if I could reach up and touch it. The eagle circled a dozen times before disappearing over the tops of the pines in the same direction of the osprey.
At the boat landing, we put the trout in the ice chest, and loaded the gear into the truck. I opened my canteen and gulped down some cold peach tea. Just then, Chris announced he couldn’t find the truck keys. They had to be close because he had just used them to pry open the oar release. We searched half an hour, retracing our every step between the boat landing and the truck. I was just about to give up looking, when Chris said he’d found them inside the bottom of the truck box partially hidden between the anchors and nets. Although we would miss the evening bite, the day had been a success. I stood at the edge of the lake taking one last look at this beautiful place. It was hard to leave. “Come on hon, we still have a long and dusty drive ahead,” Chris said. Inside the truck, I fastened my seatbelt, turned to Chris and said, “Next time, I think I’ll try a spruce fly!”
Copyright 2011. All rights reserved.