Chasing Mr. Big

Chasing Mr. Big

Your best chances for a goliath trout may rest in these Western lakes.

  • By: Greg Thomas
  • Photography by: Greg Thomas
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Click image for slideshow.

Back to the wall ranch has been on my hit list for many years, dating back to the mid-1990s. I was just out of college, thought I was all that, and could talk my way onto any piece of water in the West.

I phoned, offered my credentials, touted the assignment in hand, then listened in disgust as the manager said, “Sorry dude, but we’re booked for the next hundred and fifty years.”

I knew that Back To The Wall, formerly known as Isaak’s, was the trout fishing jewel of eastern Washington, offering two lakes that booted out rainbows ranging between 17 and 28 inches. What really made these standouts was their girth. From the first year that anglers were allowed on the ranch, in 1987, they took ’bows with ridiculous length/girth combinations, including these perplexing measurements—a 28 X 181⁄2-inch rainbow and a 301⁄4 X 19-inch brown.

Those fish became tankers by eating an endless supply of scuds, along with size 14 and 16 chironomid pupae. Leeches also are abundant in those lakes and, oh yeah, those trout were sucking down the big wigglies, too. Anglers matching any of those food sources, presenting their offerings from floating or sinking lines, stood a good chance to walk away from a day at the ranch having landed and released the largest trout of their lives, possibly multiple times in a day.

Seeing anglers’ reactions to those catches, and watching the reservation list fill quickly, in 1989 the ranch went into production mode and planted its lower lake with 2,000 three-inch and 1,000 six-inch Kamloops rainbows. By the following year those fish ranged between 16 and 22 inches long, with massive girths—basically, some of them put on 16 inches of length in 13 months, making them, likely, the fastest growing trout in the West. The 40-acre upper lake may have had just 600 trout spread through it, which is why the average fish was longer than 20 inches. As word spread anglers came up with a moniker for those fish: the inland lake steelhead.

I put the ranch and its inland lake steelhead on the back burner for many years, knowing that my lifestyle wouldn’t take me out to a 150-year span and that I didn’t want to participate in some sort of Atlantic salmon camp madness where someone would have to die before I could take their spot on the water. But in 2011 I accepted an invite to fish with friends Andrew Bennett and George Cook, to see if the ranch was still worthy of its reputation. Over the years those lakes endured a few setbacks, including elevated water temperatures, fish kills and the invasion of yellow perch, the latter of which basically wiped out the 65-acre lower lake’s biomass. “If you want to kill a lake,” Cook said, “just dump yellow perch into it.” During that phase, one angler caught a 17-inch yellow perch that may have weighed three or four pounds, and Cook once caught 60 perch on 60 casts, minus cast number 58, in which he hooked and landed an 18-inch rainbow. Shortly later the lake was killed and replanted.

When I finally reached the ranch in 2011 I walked over to the shore and noticed that the entire bottom of the upper lake seemed to be alive, in constant motion, the work of near unbelievable numbers of mini-scuds cruising around. After putting on waders and working a long bank with a chironomid, I emerged from the water with a three-inch-long gray leech stuck fast to my waders, along with a mound of size 14 olive and tan scuds. “Biomass” wasn’t the word to describe it. Instead, I turned to Bennett and said, “This isn’t a lake. This is an organism. And it’s trying to eat me!” Wading and fishing the far end of the lake, in the trees and blowdowns and heavy weedbeds, would have resembled Bogart dragging the African Queen through that quagmire marsh.

I’ve never been a grand fan of private water because the playing field isn’t level. Is a 28-inch rainbow on private water to be treasured as much as the same fish caught on a public beat? I don’t think so. But as I fished Back To The Wall last year, that question seemed less pertinent in direct correlation to the numbers of fish we landed. Not that those rainbows were lining up to eat our flies; what I liked most about fishing those lakes, aside from the size of the fish, was that we had to work for our catch. During morning chironomid emergences we hand-wrap retrieved our imitations to the point of finger cramps, while managing just a few rainbows.

Around noon we broke for lunch and I enjoyed the sensation of exclusivity—we could take our time not worrying about a horde of conventional gear guys or even other fly fishers snatching our water. Between Bennet, Cook and me, plus the other clients, we numbered about a dozen.

But it wasn’t like I didn’t want to see these people or fish near them. Most of the group had fished the ranch previously and one dude, Mr. Jay Haglund, had been there 24 straight years. His boxes of impeccable chironomid pupae patterns—thousands of perfectly tied flies—hinted at failed marriage, carpel tunnel syndrome, and maybe even hemorrhoids, having planted his rear on a tattered mesh float-tube seat, conducting the twist retrieve, for far too many hours and way too many seasons.

There’s something about chironomid fishing that’s hard for me to embrace. Sure, in Western lakes trout probably eat more of those bugs than any other item, and anglers who fish chironomids catch more trout in the long run than the rest of us. But, it still seems like trying to toss a ball at a narrow hole at the amusement park when I cast a quarter-inch-long fly into 40 acres of blue thinking a fish might actually spot my offering creeping along at a whopping half-inch per two seconds, and then eat the thing when so many naturals abound. It happens, and often, but I’m always prone to strip a leech or a scud, for the same reasons that I couldn’t be an Eastern whitetail deer hunter sitting in a tree, getting chastised by squirrels, waiting for some miracle animal to find my corner of the forest. Instead, I prefer sneaking through the woods on foot, going mano-a-mano with Señor Buck, and I’m the same way with fishing.

Another reason I enjoyed the company was the feast that these returning clients served up on the lakeside picnic table: marinated and grilled lamb; endless bottles of fine red; Cougar Gold cheese; hard salami; and a post-meal selection of cigars, with brands hailing from around the world. It was a classy affair and reminded me of my youth, when my folks ran with a group of fun-loving food and wine connoisseurs, people who weren’t afraid to laugh and always included the Thomas kids in conversation. I could have sat on that bench the rest of the day. But, we all recalled, we were there to fish.

After lunch Bennett, Cook and I walked to the lower lake and pushed through reeds and mud bogs to reach water that Cook had named over the years—the Cliffs; Alcatraz; the Rock Pile; the Dike; Home of the Swamp Monster; etc. He had stories about each locale, saying things like, “Nineteen ninety-four. My biggest fish to date. Twenty-nine and three-quarter inches. Right here.” Or, “This is where Dec [Hogan] and I watched a fish that would have weighed 14 pounds. It looked like a chum salmon. But we forgot to cast. I can’t explain why, other than we were in shock from seeing its size.” And, finally, “This is the Home of Swamp Monster. It’s a brown and has to be 30 inches long. Nobody has landed it yet.”

Bennett cast off a dike into a likely looking channel between reeds and was fast to a fish, a rare brown it turned out, maybe the Swamp Monster. On a subsequent cast I hooked a five-pound rainbow but my heart was set on images of Swamp Monster, and my fish facilitated that by throwing the leech.

Bennett battled for several minutes before Cook corralled his fish. Honestly, just a year later, I can’t remember how long that fish was. It wasn’t Swamp Monster so we called it Channel Hog. And after a quick photo session it was on its way, swimming away to chow down on more scuds, to get even bigger, and to take another angler into his or her backing. When Bennett, Cook and I cased the rods and headed back to Soap Lake for steak dinner, I felt complete, having finally fished the Ranch and landed a couple big fish.

I didn’t think lake fishing could get better, but I returned this April and found it to be off the charts for giants, fish that grew significantly larger over the year I’d been away, with many now topping the 25-inch mark and several breaking the 30-inch barrier. These days the lakes are stocked with triploid rainbows, which are sterile fish that put all their energy into growth and take a pass on spawning activities.

Stringing rods at the upper lake, Cook waved me over and said, “I would just get yourself down to the lower lake and get your licks in there.” He’d seen the report from the week prior when one of his accomplices had fished clients on the lake. “GT, they got some mega, mega ’bows down there including two over 30 inches. Get your boat blown up, but you know the rule—you can’t walk past the pump without throwing at Swamp Monster.”

A few minutes later Cook and I were both throwing in the Swamp Monster’s neighborhood, when Cook hooked a small rainbow. Swamp Monster appeared. I cast, stripped, nothing. Cook cast a leech, let it sink and started a retrieve. I watched Swamp Monster track the fly, heard Cook yelling, “He’s on it, he’s on it! Come on. Eat it.” Cook ran out of line before the fish found the fly and as the leech elevated in the water column Swampie head back under the pump dock. We didn’t see him again.

No worries. I tooled around in my boat, casting a leech toward shore. I worked the deep holes, too, and let my fly sink into the depths. I taped a 28-inch brute and a couple 26-inch heavies. And then I hooked something different.

Part of the problem with Back To The Wall is actually landing fish. The ranch rests in the cattle country of northcentral Washington, with plenty of sagebrush and dry-wash coulees. Around the lake, however, cattails and brush grow thick. To land fish here anglers have to exit their craft and find an open patch in the brush. After a five-minute fight I was trying to do just that with this monster rainbow (and simultaneously film the action with a Flip video) when the hook came out and, I believe, a 30-inch-plus rainbow swam away.

Later, I rowed over to Cook and his friend, Warren Sly. Sly had just released a 27-incher and Cook was playing with a 2-weight rod and a chironomid. A fish rolled in front. Cook cast. And then he had his hands full.

That fish peeled line and backing from Cook’s reel as it headed down the bank, parallel to the marsh grass and cattails. Cook tailed behind, cracking through the brush, trying to keep his feet, desperately trying to retrieve all the line and 50 yards of backing. Over and over the fish was near hand before racing back to the depths. Until, finally, Cook was able to tail it and mark something new on his angling record list—a 26-inch rainbow on a 2-weight with 5X tippet.

Later, I broke out a 6-foot 10-inch L.L. Bean Pocketwater rod and tried to hook one of the lower lake’s goliaths, but the bite was off. So I joined others at the upper lake, casting chironomids from shore. We picked off fish at a steady clip, 20-inchers that felt like babies when compared to the beasts from the lower lake. For the day I’d gone 17 for 21 with a 28-incher, a 27-incher and two 26-inchers, with plenty others between 20 and 24 included in the mix. On the tiny 4-weight, even those 20-inchers were tough to corral.

I know lake fishing isn’t as popular as river fishing. And I know why: We’ve been conditioned by the regional tourism brochures showing anglers floating down big rivers through broad valleys, in the bows of McKenzie-style drift boats. They’ve brainwashed us into believing that catching trout in any other manner, and from any other craft, doesn’t constitute a true Western fly-fishing experience.

It only takes a trip to Back To The Wall or any number of public lakes, such as Idaho’s Henry’s, Montana’s Hebgen, Oregon’s Klamath, et al., to reaffirm that lake fishing offers all the challenge and reward of river fishing and that, given our focus on catching large trout, maybe stillwaters are really the places to be.

Be sure, I’ll spend plenty of time on the rivers and streams of Montana and beyond this summer, matching stonefly hatches and dredging the depths for big trout. But in the back of my mind, on those days when I cast for eight hours and hook nothing more substantial than an 10-inch brookie, I’ll hear that reel screaming and see those giant tails carving the surface of two great lakes in eastern Washington. 01_bwo20bug20small

Greg Thomas is this magazine’s editor. He lives in Missoula, Montana and runs the Web site