Fly-fishing is a sport that is gaining in popularity as nationally hunting is on the downswing, according to Rob Lamb, owner of the Joseph Fly Shoppe. "One of the problems that Wallowa County faces is that people from outside of the area tend to tie hunting and fishing trends together. Over the past 20 years, elk and deer kills have declined. Some people just write fishing off figuring that it is on the decline, but that's not the case," Lamb said.
Over the past 25 years, two-thirds of the fishermen angling for trout on theWallowa River used bait verses flies. The trend seems to have reversed in favor of fly-fishing. The change is due in part to the stoppage of fish stocking practices plus some other variables. Fish stocking ended with the adoption of the Endangered Species Act that Congress passed in 1973.
Steelhead fishing is extremely good right now but prime conditions can change with snow melt and springtime rains. "We've had some water fluctuations so this time of year fishing is like farming. On any given weekend, river conditions can blow out," Lamb said.
His guide service had two boats on the Imnaha River on Friday. According to the Joseph businessman, river levels and water color were perfect. He said that the Imnaha River was full of fish, so fishing should be very good.
The number of steelhead in local rivers has been on the rise over the years. Good hatchery programs, favorable ocean currents, the tribe's involvement, plus the billions of dollars that the Bonneville Power Administration has spent to re-establish fish runs are all contributing factors.
"It's partly luck and partly effort," Lamb said. "Steelhead fisheries, whether down at Troy or on the Wallowa or Imnaha Rivers, have been real bright spots, plus they are economically important," he said.
The rivers around Wallowa County are not the only great fishing resource. The deep, cold waters of Wallowa Lake garner a lot of attention for their prize kokanee fishing. State record kokanee have been taken from its depths three times over the past couple of years. The lake also has an abundance of planted trophy trout.
"We've got these real good steelhead and kokanee fisheries and we've got a new salmon season on the Imnaha for the first time in who knows how many years, all bright spots for the surrounding communities," Lamb said.
The quality of Wallowa County's lake fishing for trout has never equaled that of Central Oregon and Washington because of the minerals and nutrients found in their waters. The lake waters of the county are mostly snowmelt that tends to be sterile. Shrimp were introduced into Wallowa Lake as a food source for the kokanee, which in turn draws anglers from across the region.
Last year some of the biggest trout (20 inches and over) were caught out of the Wallowa River, Lamb said, since he started guiding eight years ago. "I'm not saying that the Wallowa and Imnaha produce huge trout. They do not compete with the trout taken on the Deschutes or some of the Montana rivers.
Typically, our trout are more in the nine to 14 inch range but there are a lot of them," he said.
Fishing access is a big problem in the county. "This valley consists of the steep mountains, cascading streams and no roads for easy access....then you hit private farm land," he said. It is illegal to hunt or fish on private property without permission whether it's posted or not. Good fishing spots are accessible along the Wallowa River above Minam from the confluence of the Minam River up to Rock Creek at the upper end of the canyon. There are about eight miles of uninterrupted fishing in that stretch of river. The only other public access is on the Imnaha at Horse Creek where there is about seven miles of dirt road that parallels the Imnaha River.
For the adventurous fisherman, a trip into the high lakes in the Eagle Cap Wilderness may satisfy their fishing desires. The high lakes are full of brook trout that typically grow to be six to eight inches in length.
"The reason that we have stayed in business for ten years, in part, is that we help a lot of people learn how to fly-fish. People come in here looking for something to do when they come to the area," Lamb said.
There are a few tricks that Lamb and his guides teach clients if they go out on a guided trip. They include how to mend their line so that it won't drag their fly under the water, where to cast and how to set their hook. "We can also take you out here on the yard and teach you how to cast," he said.
According to Lamb, women seem to pick up the fly fishing concepts a little faster than their male counterparts, "Strength is not as important as timing," Lamb said. "You make the rod do the work. The follow-through is important in a number of sports but fly-casting is different. If you follow through, the fly line will tend to pile up. "We have a variety of techniques that we can use to help people become comfortable with casting," he said.
The type of fly to use varies throughout the season. Presently the fly of choice for steelhead locally is the black or purple leach pattern. "The steelhead in our rivers take a little different fly than on the Deschutes or the coastal streams," he said.
Anglers will switch to dry flies as soon as the hatch starts coming off. "The hatch is an amazing thing," Lamb said. "Most people don't have a clue that there are millions of insects that the fish feed on, the majority of which actually hatch underneath the water. Some spend their entire lifespan underwater while other rise to the surface, dry their wings and fly away," he added.
Lamb's guided trips include the use of boots, waders, rods and reels. Clients have to buy an eight dollar license for the day and a half dozen flies. All trips are float trips that allow people to get right out in the middle of the river. Lamb advises that people should check at the local fly shop in each area that they go to for recommendations on what flies are working at that particular time.
Traditionally steelhead fishing is good throughout the day in this county. Trout fishing is usually best when the shadows hit the water in the afternoon. Cloudy and rainy days will extend the window of opportunity.