Fishing the Central Oregon Pond
by Dave Hughes
My wife and I arrived at W.U.’s Highway Lake around midmorning. A quick scan over the still surface revealed that trout were already rising. I’ve fished the central Oregon W.U. ponds in every recent spring and early summer. I’ve also collected and photographed their insect hatches and have had the good luck to fish the ponds with Rick Hafele, known for his many DVDs about trout fishing, and co-author of the book Western Hatches. Erik recently asked Rick and me to have a look at the four recently-added Highway Ponds just south of the town of Grass Valley. We poked around enough to find them very favorable additions to the W.U. list of great places to fish. They have substantial populations of healthy and fat rainbow trout, which we caught in satisfying numbers and in sizes that exceeded the magic twenty-inch mark.
The new ponds are similar in size, shape and richness to the already-established Grass Valley Pond, Schilling Ponds and Wamic Pond. The flies and tactics that we’ve worked out on the older holdings apply to the new ones as well. I’ll summarize what we’ve found, and what works for us.
Aquatic transportation: With the exception of Grass Valley and Wamic Ponds, the central Oregon ponds are rimmed by extensive cattails that limit access and make fly fishing from shore difficult. Though you’ll find an opening or two on each pond from which you can cast, a float tube or pontoon boat will be very beneficial on some, almost mandatory on others. If you dangle yourself from a float tube when the water is cold in early spring, be sure to wear layers of fleece, or you’ll seize up quickly. If you use a pontoon boat, don’t rely on oars to hold you against the wind. Use fins, so you can position yourself with your feet while you use your hands to cast, not row. Or rig an anchor, perhaps as simple as an onion sack into which you can insert a shoreline rock and tie to your stern rope.
Fishing tackle: Your rod should be long enough to loft a backcast above steep banks and soft enough to protect a fairly fine tippet against big, brutal trout. I use an 8-1/2’ or 9’ rod balanced to a 4- or 5-weight line, but anything between 8’ and 9’, for a 4- to 6-weight line, will be fine. I do almost all of my fishing on the ponds with a floating line, and that’s all you need, but I like the option of switching to a clear intermediate or wet-tip line when trout are not rising. Your reel should have a smooth drag; many trout on the ponds are outsized, and will make strong runs.
I keep life simple by buying 7-1/2’ 3X tapered leaders, then carrying spare tippet spools in 4X, 5X and 6X. When I’m fishing Woolly Buggers, I use the leader as it arrives. When fishing nymphs or dry flies, I taper the leader appropriately for the size fly I’m casting, almost always 4X but sometimes 5X. I’ll use 6X only when fishing a size 22 midge hatch, and then I’ll expect to lose more than half the trout I hook.
You also need a skein of indicator yarn to suspend nymphs, dry fly floatant for the yarn and for your dries and a hemostat to release your trout.
I recommend a landing net; these trout are feisty, difficult to corral with your hands and we don’t want to damage them in our fumbling attempts to release them.
Hatches and patterns: Though these ponds are rich, they are not exceptionally varied. You can condense the food forms that are important to the trout and that you should carry flies to match to just four: leeches, midges, Callibaetis mayfly duns and green damselfly nymphs. The same flies that match these will be your searching flies for those moments when no hatches are happening and you want to cast and retrieve sunk flies to find the trout.
For leeches and for most of my non-hatch fishing, I use a size 12 Black Woolly Bugger with a gold bead head. I pinch the tails short by half and this is a much smaller fly than the average Woolly Bugger. For most midges, I use either a size 16 Zebra Midge sunk or a size 16 Black Ugly Duckling floating. In early spring I almost always fish at dawn and dusk.
I’ve fished over a tiny gray midge that I match with a simple size 22 CDC Midge dry fly pattern. For the mayflies, I use a size 14 Parachute Dun dry fly with a pale olive-tan body and brown wings. Almost any damselfly nymph pattern will do, but my favorite is a Brian Chan size 16 Baby Damsel. It’s tied with a gold bead, a thin green marabou tail and the same marabou wound for a slender body.
That is only half a dozen patterns, but it’s enough to solve almost all the situations I’ve found on these ponds.
Rigging and tactics: If trout are not rising, I’ll rig the Black Woolly Bugger on 3X, a Baby Damsel on 4X or I’ll trail a Zebra Midge a foot behind the Bugger on 4X or 5X. I’ll cast out, give the fly or flies 15 to 30 seconds to sink, then retrieve with a slow handtwist. The operative word is slow: retrieve about half the speed you think is about right, and you’ll have it about right. Most of the time I’ll rig sunk flies on my floating line, but in early spring, when the water is clear and deep, I’ll switch to an intermediate or sink-tip. If I’m afloat, I’ll often just cast out and kick slowly along, trolling, but again, slow is the key.
It’s highly effective to fish a Zebra Midge suspended beneath a strike indicator. If trout are not moving, rig to fish near the bottom, with 5 to 10 feet of tippet beneath a fan of yarn and a tiny split shot or bit of putty weight 6 to 8 inches above the fly.
If you see an occasional rise, and other signs that trout are cruising and feeding just subsurface, rig with a foot or so of tippet below the yarn, and no weight on the leader. Cast out, give the fly plenty of time to sink, then keep your eye on that indicator. If it twitches, quivers, or seems somehow to just reposition its seat on the water, as if it were suddenly uncomfortable, lift the rod quickly but not forcefully, to check if a trout is out there. Sometimes your indicator will dip clear under, and you won’t have any doubt about what has happened. But you’ll increase your catch if you watch for those subtle signs of takes.
When trout are rising, which will be most often and which will also provide you with the most fun, do your best to get a close look at the insect on which they’re feeding. It will almost always be a size 16 midge, a size 14 mayfly dun or a size 22 midge. I often use binoculars to observe what the trout are taking. Once that is figured out, it’s simple to rig the appropriate dry fly with the right size tippet. Cast it out and let it sit. Pond trout cruise in schools; you don’t need to lift it off and paste it into every rise ring you see. Get it in the right area, then let a cruising trout find it.
Note on the patterns: Most of the patterns mentioned are standards or slight variations on dressings that you’ll have no trouble tracking down. The Ugly Duckling is dynamite on these ponds and is so new you’re not likely to come across any reference to it. You won’t be able to buy it anywhere and will have to tie your own. It was devised by the great Gary Anderson, who fishes similar stillwaters in the Wenatchee, Washington area.
- Ugly Duckling (Gary Anderson)
- Hook: TMC 206 BL, size 16.
- Thread: Black 8/0.
- Body: Black or brown craft foam.
- Gills: White polypro yarn.
- Head: Orange craft foam.
Cut a narrow strip of dark foam twice the hook shank length. Tie it in. Tie polypro yarn across in front of it and nip it short on both sides. Tie in the short segment of orange head foam, cock it upward with turns of thread under it, then whip finish the fly. The result looks exactly like a midge emerging from a Wilderness Unlimited pond.
The depths are mysteries, but they’re where trout are found in early spring when the cold of winter still lingers in the water and also whenever no hatch or fall of terrestrials tempts them upward. If trout are deep you’ll catch none of them unless you’re prepared to send your fly way down there to get them.
Flies for the depths can be big. Size 6 and 8 Black or Olive Woolly Buggers work well. The same size Black Bunny Leech is also effective. Fly pattern is not likely to be nearly as important as getting the fly down to where the big trout lurk. I often like to trail one of the smaller flies already listed, just in case trout are shy about size. But it’s rare; a bigger bite is usually better.
It’s neither difficult nor expensive to prepare yourself to fish the three primary levels at which trout live in lakes. Buy a rod that’s a casting tool, not a delicate presentation rod, in 6- or 7-weight. Buy a reel, wind it with backing and the appropriate weightforward floating line. Acquire two spare spools, one for a clear intermediate line, the other for the depth charge line that best loads the rod you’ve bought. That’s all. Spool plenty of backing. You’ll be armed for trout at any level in any lake and some of them are likely to be big ones.