Set back by a cool start to spring, the best trout fishing of the season has finally begun to hatch in the region’s desert lakes.
To see how good it can get, sit back and spend a virtual day at Isaak’s Ranch with a fishing guide who’s been schooled by one of the region’s most distinguished faculties of trophy trout.
George Cook has fished all over the world as a guide and rep for fly-fishing manufacturers. He can make anglers salivate with photos of British Columbia steelhead or Alaska kings.
But from his spring and autumn base in Eastern Washington, he’s lived an angler’s dream of managing and fishing a couple of prized “home waters” for 22 years.
Cook posed lot of questions in 1987 when a wheat farmer asked him if there might be a future in guiding fishermen at couple of sage-country seep lakes he’d seeded with trout.
“My eyes got bigger and bigger as he was telling me about these lakes,” Cook said, recalling the conversation with Curt Isaak. “When I asked him about hatches, he shook his head ‘yes, yes,’ and then he mentioned in passing that the lakes were absolutely crawling with millions and millions of little shrimp.
“That’s when my eyes bugged out. Scuds! These lakes are absolutely crawling with all sorts of natural food for trout. The pantry is the key to any good fishery.”
Cook was in his mid-20s, just a couple of years out from being a teaching assistant for a fly-fishing course at Washington State University, when he was handed co-stewardship for the waters.
Today, Isaak’s Ranch is bordering legendary status among anglers with the assets to pay $225 a day to catch lunkers until they drop.
Here are some lessons from Cook’s classroom.
“The main thing I’ve learned about stillwater fishing is that every week of every month is different,” Cook said. “And it often changes by the hour.
“Water temperature, clarity, weed growth, fish behavior, depth preference, hatch activity, hatch preference – these are just some of the factors that determine whether a trout is going to take your fly.”
Two weeks ago, Cook saw a major migration of water boatmen, a phenomenon that usually occurs before April 1 when they normally begin fishing at Isaak’s Ranch.
“Everything has been late this year, so we were using Black Rubber Legs-Prince Nymphs, which were deadly on the trout. Normally we’d have been using chironomids, but they’re late, just coming on here.”
Isaak’s Ranch includes a 40-acre lake stocked at 100-110 fish per acre, geared for faster action on fish ranging mostly from 16-23 inches.
The other lake is 60 acres, stocked at 55-65 fish per acre for anglers wanting fewer but bigger average-size fish. Two 29- to 30-inch rainbows were caught there last weekend.
“Those are our senior class fish,” Cook said. “They’re the survivors of the fish kill we had years ago. We have four classes of fish. The sophomores and juniors being the most plentiful. They range 17-22 inches.
“No matter how well you take care of a desert lake, you can expect some sort of calamity with the fishery every eight years or so, mostly because of summer warm water temperatures.”
On the other hand, he said, “If you have a die-off, the grocery level for the surviving fish goes off the charts.”
Isaak’s Ranch protects its investment by stopping guided fishing around June 10 and resuming roughly from Sept. 10 through Halloween. “We give the fish a break when they’re stressed by warm water temperatures,” he said. “We fish for them in spring and fall when they have the food bag on, but even then, we only fish these trout four days a week.
“Williams Lake (in Spokane County) sees more pressure on the opening weekend of fishing season than our fish see in a season.”
Trout tend to feed almost all day long in April and early May, but when he fishes public lakes in summer, Cook concentrates on morning and evening while keying on any areas that get an infusion of cooler water, such as springs.
“I put up the rod and do something more productive in the middle of the day.”
Although browns and tiger trout are released at Isaak’s Ranch, the bulk of the fishery is triploid rainbows.
“The non-triploid fish grow faster for the first 30 months or so, but the triploids grow faster after that and they tend to live a couple years longer, maybe to 8 or 9,” he said.
“I don’t think triploids are as surface-oriented,” he said, offering the downside to the sterile hybrids for dry-fly enthusiasts.
Nymphs are the most important part of the aquatic insect cycle for stillwater anglers to master, he said.
“I’ve seen callibaetis (mayfly) hatches in mid-May when there were virtually no fish keying on the dun (adults on the surface), but you know the fish are pigging out on the nymphs.”
Streamers and big Woolly Buggers fished along the bottom are Cook’s first pattern choice in early spring. He’s fond of patterns such as the bead-headed Thin Mint.
“Often fish react to something way different during midday,” he said. “You hear about the white Woolly Bugger working at Rocky Ford (Creek). If things slow down at the lakes, we might go to a chartreuse Carey or an orange Woolly Bugger. We call them our ‘change up’ flies.”
By May, stillwater trout tend to get “a little buggier, and tougher to catch on streamers,” Cook said. “We’ll be concentrating on things like chironomids and damsels.”
Cook’s desert stillwater fly rod preference: “A 9½-foot, 6-weight rod, throws far and accurately. It handles streamers and other bigger flies with the punch to handle wind.
“However, I prefer a 9½-foot, 5-weight for fishing chironomids.”
A boat is a good investment for stillwater anglers, he said.
“Foot anglers can catch a lot of fish at a lake, but they never put up the numbers the boat anglers hook, especially when chironomids are on. Boaters can fish more water and greater variations of depth.”
Putting all of this wisdom together last weekend, Cook escorted eight anglers to Isaak’s Ranch and turned them loose.
Some took off hiking while others got in their prams, pontoons or float tubes and disappeared until evening.
It’s not everyday an angler finds himself in hog heaven, and they were taking advantage of it.
Meantime, Donna Woodroof of Corvallis, Mont., took a more savoring approach.
In a peak of late-afternoon action, when trout were hitting everything from Snow Cone chironomids to Thin Mints, Woodroof was wading the shoreline near the takeout when she hooked a 26-inch rainbow that caught everybody’s attention. Line peeled off her reel. The fish smacked water like a belly-flopping sumo wrestler with each leap.
Cook trotted over to help her land the fish and pose for a photo before turning it back into the lake.
Woodroof gave him a hug, set down her rod on the bank, walked to the car and came back with a glass of red wine.
“I’m savoring the moment,” she said.