Denis Peirce: Three days on the pond
There are waters on this continent that feature epic fish in their depths. Generally speaking, big fish grow in big water. One of these is a couple hours away, Pyramid Lake Nevada and its cutthroat trout exceeding 20 pounds. There are some huge salmon and halibut swimming off the coast of the Pacific Northwest. Another of these places has fascinated me for years, Lake Pend Oreille (pronounced ponderay) just below the Canadian border in Idaho.
“The Pond” has the “gerrard” strain of rainbow trout brought in from Kootenay Lake, British Columbia in the 1900s. With an adequate diet of kokanee salmon these fish will grow over 3 feet long and weigh in excess of 30 pounds.
Last month I was able to fish Pend Oreille for the first time. The story started more than a year ago when I was contacted by a couple of Idaho anglers wanting some of my largest trolling flies to fish on the lake. The Pond is famous for giving up some of its largest trout to anglers trolling with flies. As fate would have it, these fishermen were accomplished anglers and the rainbows liked my flies. Ultimately I was invited to fish with them when the season returned in the fall of 2019.
The big fish are deep in the summer when the surface is warm. As the water cools into the high 50s in October the kokanee and the rainbows that feed on them move up to the lake surface and the serious anglers turn out. The best fishing will last until the water temps drop down through the 40s which can be well into December.
I showed up to fish with my California scaled fishing tackle, and I was under gunned. Pend Oreille is an ocean scale fishery. The lake is over 40 miles long and 1150’ deep. Like Pyramid Lake NV, when the wind picks up the waves can reach treacherous levels, not a place for small flat bottomed boats.
I fished three full days with Matt Oliver and Craig O’Neal. Up at 4 a.m. to be at the lake at dawn. We called it a day as the sun set in the evening.
Pend Oreille has a unique style of trolling that is used on big waters such as the Great Lakes. Planer boards are sent out 150’ from each side of the boat on cables. Multiple lines are sent back as much as 300 feet behind the boat and then sent out the cables. With five lines out each side of the boat and couple off the stern we were pulling a set of dozen over a spread 300’ wide. As the waves pick up during the day the planer boards jump and lunge animating the cable and the flies dragging from it.
According to Matt and Craig the trophy fish are line shy and stay away from the boat when they are feeding near the surface, hence the wide spread and long set backs for the flies.
Day one with launching and set up we were on the water an hour after first light. As we began heading north with the lines out Matt pointed to a pair of small white specks a couple thousand feet up one of the nearly vertical shore line cliffs. They were mountain goats.
By mid morning the first good sized gerrard hit a fly on the port side spread and the game was on. The reels have line counters on them and the fight started with nearly 500 feet of line out. These fish are not sluggish. They pull hard and jump. I could feel the power in the fish through the rod, and it was the experience I had hoped for. Almost 15 minutes later the trout was in the prop wash behind the boat and then in the net. It weighed in at 18 pounds, the biggest rainbow trout of my life … to date.
We spent our days out in mid lake rather than close to shore. The big fish hunt for kokanee well out from shore. There are not a lot of small fish out there. We did catch a few trout in the 4 to 6 pound range, a trophy at home, just a dink on The Pond.
At one point on day two, Matt hooked into a huge fish. It did not show itself by jumping, there was just a tremendous throbbing coming through the rod, then nothing. He reeled in the line and the flies’ main hook, high quality steel, was bent like a cork screw. A testament to the power of these fish.
On day three Craig set the hook on the largest fish of the trip. Another hard pulling rainbow that crossed the scales at 19 pounds.
Fishing The Pond is not about numbers of fish. It is about a chance at a trophy. I did some back of the napkin math. With a dozen flies in the water, for the hours we fished at 3 mph we logged 750 “fly miles” to land two rainbows close to 20 pounds, we had a few smaller fish and some lost fish. All of our fish were revived and released back into the lake.
One evening we attended an awards dinner for a derby that concluded the previous week. The winning rainbow was over 25 pounds as was the winning mackinaw. Derby rules require that trout must be in excess of 31 inches to be weighed in. This prevents the killing of fish below 20 pounds.
Many thanks to Matt and Craig for making this trip possible. Being on the boat as a peer is a different experience than being a guide’s client. If I am reported missing someday, a good place to look for me would be Lake Pend Oreille, Idaho.
Denis Peirce writes a fishing column for The Union’s Outdoors section and is host of “The KNCO Fishing & Outdoor Report,” which airs 6-7 p.m. Fridays and 5-6 a.m. Saturdays on 830-AM radio. Contact him via his website at http://www.trollingflies.com.
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