LAKE BILLY CHINOOK, Ore. (AP) - After a month of looking at weather forecasts, postponing, rescheduling and stalling, we finally made a plan to fish the reservoir in mid-January.
Snowstorms and rainstorms kept coming and going, and the forecasts changed frequently.
For some outdoors pursuits, inclement weather is no big deal: a snowstorm can only make the skiing and snowboarding better, and sometimes a little rain is good for mountain biking.
But if you’re sitting on a boat for several hours in the middle of a lake, you kind of want some decent weather. That can be a challenge during a true Central Oregon winter, when you know the fishing is still good in certain locales but you’re not sure if the misery is worth the trout.
A few years ago I fished Cultus Lake in June with guide John Garrison, and it was snowing sideways pretty much all day. I vowed to never repeat an experience like that.
So as the midwinter sun shined in all its brilliance on our 50-mile drive from Bend to Lake Billy Chinook, I looked forward to a comfortable day of fishing.
Then Garrison got a text from Rolando Mendez, a friend who was prepping his boat in Culver: “Fogged in.”
Perfect. Stagnant air had gathered over Lake Billy Chinook, creating an inversion. Nothing could be colder than sitting in fog on a boat on a lake in January.
Luckily, by the time we reached the boat launch at Cove Palisades State Park, the fog had shifted to the Deschutes and Metolius arms of the reservoir, while the Crooked River arm remained bathed in sunlight.
“It’s kind of neat up there,” Garrison said of the Crooked River arm. “It’s a lot different than the Deschutes arm. It’s a lot more enclosed. You’re sitting there looking straight up and there’s a cliff right above you. It’s kind of crazy. The water is beautiful up there.”
After launching his 24-foot pontoon boat, Garrison, who operates a guide service in Sunriver, motored toward the Crooked River arm, stopping just before the boundary where the river flows into the reservoir. Here, bait would be legal, but beyond the boundary, fishing with bait is now prohibited year-round on the Crooked River.
The stark, rugged cliff walls rose high above us as the abundant bird life made a racket. We anchored and set up fishing lines with chunks of herring or a worm and a marshmallow, casting them out and letting the bait settle to the bottom of the reservoir.
Not two minutes had passed and Mendez had our first fish, a hungry bull trout that didn’t seem to care that it was the middle of winter.
Turns out, fishing Lake Billy Chinook in the dead of winter is a lot like fishing Lake Billy Chinook in the spring - only about 30 degrees cooler.
But we soon forgot about the frigid conditions as the bulls kept coming, 16- to 18-inch beauties that went for both the herring and the worms. We had to be careful not to get the bait hung up in the rocks and weeds at the bottom of the lake.
Most anglers this time of year at Lake Billy Chinook are fishing for kokanee, and fishing reportedly has been good for that species. But other anglers like to troll for bulls in the Deschutes or Crooked River arms.
The Metolius arm contains the highest population of bull trout of the three river arms of Lake Billy Chinook, but it is closed to angling until March 1, and a Warm Springs Indian Reservation tribal permit is required to fish there when it opens. The Crooked River arm holds its share of bulls and offers anglers a chance to land rainbow trout as well.
Anglers are allowed to keep one bull trout longer than 24 inches per day on Lake Billy Chinook. Rainbow trout longer than 20 inches and kokanee exceeding 16 inches must be released. There are no limits on bass or brown trout.
Bull trout are typically characterized by their aggressive feeding on kokanee and by their coloring - olive green to bronze backs, with spots of pale yellow, orange or salmon pink.
Federally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1998, bull trout are continuing to thrive in Lake Billy Chinook, one of the few bodies of water in the country where they can be legally caught. Many anglers love to fish for the unique, hard-fighting fish, even during the bitter cold of winter.
Garrison said good bull trout fishing should last through the end of April, before the water warms significantly and the fish go down deep.
I expected fewer bites in the depths of winter, but that was not the case as we finished the day having caught and released nine bull trout and two rainbows.
“It just depends on the time of day and the weather, if you’re in front of a storm,” Garrison said. “Right now, one storm left and one storm’s coming in. So it’s just up and down. But it’s nice if you get cabin fever, to get away from the snow for a while.”
Still, we could not escape the cold. In the spring and summer months on Lake Billy Chinook, anglers can expect the sun to eventually rise up over the towering canyon walls - not so in the wintertime in the narrow Crooked River arm. So we shivered in the shade as the temperature stayed in the 30s.
But that’s OK. The hot fishing warmed our souls, if not our bodies.
The original story can be found on The Bulletin’s website: bit.ly/1PQcTtd
Information from: The Bulletin, https://www.bendbulletin.com
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