Outdoors: Trout Worth the Effort at Eagle Lake

by Tom Stienstra
San Francisco Examiner

When it comes to big fish, some people will do anything and go anywhere. When it comes to the biggest trout in the West, that is exactly what is required.

Do anything and go anywhere? That can mean an unbelievably, long road-grinder of a drive, frigid temperatures and cutting winds, and a chance of getting zeroed despite your best efforts.

This is how it is at Pend Oreille Lake in Idaho, Lake Paulina and Klamath Lake in Oregon, and Twin Lakes in the eastern Sierra, which have produced the biggest trout across the West in the 1990s. And so it is as well at Eagle Lake in Northern California, set at 5,100 feet in remote Lassen County, where the average trout is bigger than that at any of the state's other 850 lakes and stream with trout.

Big? Trout measuring 18 to 20 inches are average, 4- and 5-pounders are common, and it takes a 6-pounder or better to get a local to even raise an eyebrow. Not only that, but the techniques used are simple, most using a nightcrawler under a slip bobber, and there are good prospects from shore, that is, for those without boats. The lake also has several excellent campgrounds and cabin rentals.

But all this comes with a price. As we pointed our boat north out of Spaulding Tract, with whitecaps with chop slowing our speed to a crawl, I thought about how disappointed some people could be. For starters, the drive can seem endless, about 320 miles from San Francisco (a check of a lodge registry showed that most of the visitors were from the Bay Area), and the wind typically howls by noon, with a frigid bite to the air that can petrify the soul.

But people put up with this for a chance at the biggest trout of their life. Many get it.

To get out of the wind, we anchored our boat behind a shoreline point, ducking in amid some tules, in just 6 feet of water. We then followed the prescribed procedure for catching the big trout here: You rig by placing a tiny plastic bobber stop on your line, adding a red bead and a slip bobber, then tie on a No. 4 hook, adding a split shot about 12 inches above the hook. You then use a nightcrawler for bait, hooking it with a worm threader so it lies perfectly straight in the water, as natural looking as possible. For those new to the game, the operators at the lake's shops and marinas will demonstrate this rigging.

Then I cast along the tules, the bobber floating about. The big trout like the tules, and sometimes they will cruise in and out along the edge of them looking for food.

About 20 minutes passed, and I started thinking about how cold it can get at Eagle Lake -- so cold that even with its immense size, 100 miles of shoreline and 27,000 surface acres, the lake usually freezes over solid by Christmas. But the best fishing is when the cold weather arrives, from mid-October through early December, so anglers put up with it.

Then, suddenly, the bobber started dancing for a few seconds, then a moment later, was pulled under the surface. In a flash, I reeled the slack out of the line, then set the hook hard: Got him!

The trout ran off on a curving arc to the left, about 40 feet, and I just hung on, and listened to the reel clicker as the line was pulled out. A good fish, to be sure, a big one. I managed a few cranks on the reel, but then the fish tore off again, this time straight out, about a 10-second run. In my mind, I began asking myself: Good knot? New line? Strong hook? How well hooked?

The answers came in the next five minutes, as the fish was slowly brought near the boat, only to take off on yet another run, but everything held. The fight was a good one, the sensation absolutely mercurial. Then, with the fish near the boat again, it zigged instead of zagged, and it darted right toward us. With a knifelike jab, my partner John Korb netted it, and we had it. The trout measured 22 inches and weighed a shade under 5 pounds.

Believe it or not, this is just another typical Eagle Lake trout. At the Eagle Lake General Store, they didn't even bother taking a picture of it to post on their wall. After all, a youngster had just brought one in a few minutes earlier that made mine look like a guppy.

It turned out that at the rock jetty at Eagle Lake Marina that morning, there was a 45-minute siege when just about everybody there caught one as big or bigger, by shore or by boat, according to marina manager Todd Amrein.

There are many good spots at the lake. The tules adjacent to the airport runway and the deep spot adjacent to Eagle's Nest are the top spots by boat. By shore, the best spots are the rock jetty at the Eagle Lake Marina and the shore adjacent to Highway 139 at the northwest end.

The best catches are usually with nightcrawlers for bait, but as the very cold weather arrives, some do well trolling Needlefish (bikini colored) along the many stretches of shoreline lined with tules. Four of us in two boats tried everything, and in two days, caught five trout, with three going better than 20 inches.

But yeah, the cold weather is arriving. It was 10 degrees on a recent Sunday morning, and with a north wind, the tops of your ears felt like they could break off. No problem. It's just another thing you put up with when there are big fish to be caught.