Chasing big-shouldered trout in central Washington’s desert scablands
My casts to the cattails below the rocky cliff were made more out of habit than hope. Fighting a headwind, I was anxious to return to the launch area before the waves got higher. I’d never caught anything here, and I didn’t have much faith in the untested strip of rabbit fur that was supposed to suggest a leech.
The first jerk caught me off guard, but I quickly recovered and pinched the line against my rod grip, lifted the tip, and reeled in a loop of slack. The reel spun as the fish made for the deep center of the lake, and after a healthy back-and-forth dance, I was looking at the bold, iridescent lateral line of a Lenice rainbow, at least 20 inches from nose to tail. Thwarting my plans for an early exit, several more fish followed, all on the same leech.
Lenice Lake can be full of impromptu surprises. A friend of mine once caught a 10-pound brown while crossing the deepest part of the lake, trolling a Woolly Bugger behind his float tube. I surprised myself recently by catching a tiger trout—a brown trout/brook trout hybrid. Still, the most common trout at Lenice (and its sister lakes, Nunnally and Merry) are triploid rainbows: hatchery-bred fish developed with an extra chromosome set that renders them sterile. Because they don’t expend energy by breeding, they eat and grow quickly. In Lenice, many of these fish stretch from 16 to 20+ inches.
Stories about the size and strength of the fish at Lenice bounce around your head as you drive down the final stretch of washboard gravel toward the parking lot. Dying Russian olive trees and abandoned railroad tracks are on your left, and the barren ridge of the Saddle Mountains soars to 2,000 feet on your right.
When you arrive, you may find more than a hundred cars, trailers, vans, and RVs, depending on the season and the day of the week. For the past few years there has been an encampment—including wall tents with stovepipes protruding through canvas roofs—at Lenice, housing a group of anglers who spend the first month of the season there.
The landscape is part of central Washington’s scablands, an arid geography topped by bunchgrass and sagebrush. There’s no sound of traffic, no rumble or whistle of trains. Aside from anglers’ voices carrying over the water and the occasional sound-barrier-crashing jet, coots rocking on the lake and the chattering of yellow-headed blackbirds in the cattails are all you hear. One remarkable spring day, coyotes serenaded me at noon. If it’s an early spring, you may spot sandhill cranes pausing on their annual migration.
Floods from prehistoric Lake Missoula carved out this landscape, but Lenice, Merry, and Nunnally lakes are less than 50 years old. They owe their existence to O’Sullivan Dam, built in 1949 as part of the Columbia Basin Project. The dam was intended to capture irrigation runoff and regulate Crab Creek’s flow. The geography of the site incidentally produced seep lakes, which are now some of the best state-managed stillwaters.
For fishing purposes, Lenice’s 100 surface acres are best accessed from chief walk-in entry points (a ½-mile hike) near the parking area at the lake’s south end. A locked gate crosses the dirt road leading to the shore, and there are paths branching to the left and right.
The main access area provides good nearshore fishing in water from 5 to 8 feet deep, as well as drop-off areas that descend quickly to about 20 feet. The lake’s cliffs plunge into cattails; perfect for prospecting with Woolly Buggers, leeches, scuds, and damselfly nymphs. Where there’s less vegetation and a mud bottom, savvy anglers fish chironomid patterns, unless something else is hatching.
The middle part of the lake is the deepest area, at 25 to 30 feet. Here anglers catch fish by trolling Woolly Buggers, Zonkers, or Carey Specials with fast, full-sinking lines such as a RIO Deep 6 (6-7 inches per second). In late July and August, when weeds fill much of the lake, this area provides some of the only open water and is a prime location for Callibaetis and damselfly hatches.
The east end of the lake is an inlet area, shallower than 5 feet in most spots, but with a steep drop-off. This is often an excellent area to walk the banks and sight-fish.
Much of Lenice’s north side is dotted with small, rocky islands, bays, and channels. Depths average about 10 feet.
This is my favorite area during the Callibaetis hatch. You can position your pontoon or belly boat between islands, track the paths of rising fish, and move from one trout to the next. The islands channel the fish, and anglers, that tend to cluster there later in the day.
When this area gets crowded, I head for the lake’s west end, which has a mix of characteristics such as channels between islands, a sloping ledge and, due to the outflow to Merry Lake, a slight current. The narrows help concentrate feeding fish, and seem to attract bigger trout. Some resident 5-pounders call this area home, and you’ll find plenty of 2- to 3-pound rainbows during chironomid season.
Hatches and Flies
Experienced fly fishers using the right flies and rigs during peak hatches can expect from 6 to 30 trout daily. The hatch progression at Lenice resembles that of other central Washington lakes, though Lenice opens on March 1, a month earlier than the general season.
Early springtime can be cold fishing from a pontoon boat, and worse in a float tube, but trout feed actively on chironomids through the end of April. Use size 16 to 22 pupa and larva imitations such as Chromies, Red and Blacks, Frostbites, Zebra Midges, WD-40s, Disco Midges, Bloodworms, Ice Cream Cones, and Brassies.
By May, Lenice fly fishers are anxiously awaiting the damselfly migration, the first of the season’s two headliner hatches. Lenice is renowned for its epic populations of these wriggling nymphs, which migrate en masse from the lake depths toward shore, where they clamber onto bankside vegetation, dry their wings, and eventually molt into adults.
Although drys can take some fish, the damselfly hatch is predominantly a nymphing event. Focus on shallow shoreline areas with marsh grass and cattails. Effective patterns include Marabou Damsel Nymphs, Living Damsels, and Beadhead Damselfly Nymphs in sizes 10 to 12.
Damsels peak in June, and their undulating bodies drive the trout—and anglers looking for a good match—nuts. The color is somewhere between olive and chartreuse, but I’ve found it’s the jiggling tail, more than a precise color shade, that attracts most fish. Marabou flies and short, jerky retrieves help activate the nymphs and trigger strikes from trout.
With sinking lines, use the countdown method and let your damselfly nymph settle just above the lake bottom, then work it up through the water column, or fish it slowly at a constant depth. With damsels, your retrieve is critical. Vary the presentation speed and cadence, and allow the fly to pause occasionally as you fish it back toward you.
With a strike indicator, use a leader long enough to position your damselfly in the feeding zone. Attach your hemostats to the fly for a sounding weight to find the lake bottom, set your indicator accordingly, and experiment with various depths. You’ll be rewarded when you hit it right.
Cast your rig, let the fly settle, and either use a slow hand-twist retrieve, or pop your indicator occasionally—just as you would a bass bug—to keep your fly animated. On a good damsel-fishing day, expect to boat double-digit numbers of trout at Lenice. The damselfly action tapers off in late July.
During the height of damselfly madness, starting in June, Callibaetis mayflies (#14-18) also enter the ring. Hatches start in the late morning between 10 and 11 A.M., as the water surface begins warming, and continue sporadically all day. The fish key in on all stages of the life cycle as the hatch progresses from nymphs to emergers, duns, and spinners. Lenice Callibaetis have decidedly cream-colored bodies. Their wings vary from almost clear to heavily mottled. As elsewhere, the hatch grows smaller as the season progresses.
Use Callibaetis Cripples, Parachute Adams, and Sparkle Duns for fish feeding on top. During the morning and afternoon, Flashback Pheasant-tail Nymphs, Mercer’s Poxyback Callibaetis, and Gold-ribbed Hare’s Ears fished under strike indicators or with sinking lines catch trout feeding subsurface.
In July the hatch is sporadic, more concentrated in the evening, but you’ll find fish patrolling the shallows and willing to hit a well-positioned dry or emerger. Long, 10- to 12-foot leaders and fine, 5X to 7X tippets are the norm.
Concentrate your efforts on submerged weedbeds and lake shallows, where swimming Callibaetis nymphs congregate and feed on diatoms and algae. Lenice and its sister lakes used to close during the height of summer. They’re open now, but rarely fished, and by August it’s often too hot for catch-and-release fishing.
Scuds are available to Lenice trout from opening day through much of September. I find scud patterns most effective starting in May, tapering off through the height of summer, with action increasing again from mid-September through October. For best results, fish these diminutive (#14-16) crustacean imitations on intermediate sinking lines with slow, steady retrieves close to underwater vegetation. You’ll also do well targeting the islands and stalking cruising trout with a floating line, long leader, light tippet, and beadhead scud patterns.
Lenice has spring and fall caddis hatches. Although less prolific than damsels and Callibaetis, this late afternoon/evening hatch can produce surface-feeding trout. Use an Elk-hair Caddis or a CDC & Elk (#14-16), and focus on riseform targets.
The chironomid hatch is a solid fall producer that extends through closing day on October 31. The techniques and flies are the same as the spring chironomid hatch.
Leeches are another noteworthy year-rounder on Lenice (#6-10, black, olive, brown, and variegated) that fish particularly well just after ice-off. Fish them on sinking lines with slow and deep retrieves. They are also effective fished chironomid-style, weighted and suspended under a strike indicator. Make your cast, let the fly reach the desired depth, and use a hand-twist retrieve to crawl your fly through the strike zone. Marabou, mohair, rabbit-strip, or goat-hair DC Leech patterns are all good choices.
Use black, olive, and brown Woolly Buggers, Zonkers, Muddler Minnows, and Carey Specials (#6-10) for probing the depths when there is no obvious hatch. They are also the best way to entice one of the lake’s notoriously hard to catch big browns, which can tip the scales at better than 5 pounds.
In addition to season specifics, time of day is also important at Lenice. If there’s no hatch, early morning and late afternoon are the best times to fish. Although chironomids often hatch throughout the day, the midmorning to early afternoon bite is best. The same goes for Callibaetis. Even then, Lenice trout have their own schedules. I’ve known a leech to start working at 2 P.M. and quit an hour later, and there are no leech “hatches.”
Equipment & Rigs
Many anglers carry two rods on Lenice—one with a sinking line, the other with a floater. Use a 9- to 10-foot, 5- or 6-weight rod with a clear intermediate line for fishing scuds and damsels in the shallows, or with a full-sinking line—4 to 9 inches per second (ips)—for working leech patterns and Woolly Buggers in deeper (20 to 30 feet) water. Use a 7-foot or shorter fluorocarbon leader, and tippets in the 3X to 0X range for fishing sinking lines. A heavier tippet also allows you to free your flies from snags in the reeds and shoreline structure with a solid tug.
I rig an additional 5- or 6-weight rod with a floating line and a strike indicator setup for fishing chironomid patterns and nymphs, and for fishing drys when the occasion arises. Going lighter than a 5-weight makes it hard to turn some Lenice Lake fish. A fast-action rod helps you combat the wind, which can be a factor here. (The Saddle Mountains ridge to the east is a favorite with hang gliders.) If you can bring only one rod and one line, you’re best off fishing the 5-weight setup, and you can always carry a sinking line on a spare spool if two rods is too cumbersome.
Use an improved clinch or nonslip loop knot to connect your lead fly to the tippet. With this setup there is no need to cast great distances: 30 to 40 feet will suffice.
I fish two or three flies spaced from 6 to 12 inches apart, and vary the sizes and colors of the flies. The bottom fly should hang 6 to 12 inches above the lake bottom, with the whole assembly supported by the strike indicator. I’ve also had success fishing the middle fly nearest to the bottom, leaving the final dropper (unweighted) to drift freely above it.
You can fish chironomid patterns the same way, in a string of up to three flies—state maximum—with a sinking line. Depending on what line you’re fishing, vary the countdown until you reach the bottom, then begin a slow retrieve.
As a general rule, use a dry line when you see cruising fish or suspect they’re present, or if the area is weedy. Use an intermediate line when you can’t see fish, or for trolling back and forth while moving to a new location. When trolling, drag 60 to 90 feet of line behind you to maximize your chance of a strike.
It’s a good idea to have a net to release fish. Regulations require a knotless mesh bag. Rubber mesh nets are easiest on the fish. The desert can be scorching hot, so don’t forget drinking water, a hat, sunscreen, and polarized sunglasses.
Due to the lake’s soft bottom, wading at Lenice is almost entirely confined to the shelf at the east inlet. Most anglers use pontoon boats or float tubes, though some launch canoes or prams. Pontoon boats like those available from Scadden (North Fork Outdoors) and Outcast have raised seats, which keep you drier and make casting easier. Their oars and maneuverability allow you to cover a good deal of water, while fins let you troll with the rod in your hand.
Float tubes are generally lighter, easier to transport, and less expensive. More and more craft of all kinds are fitted with depth finders, which are great for learning the lay of the lake bottom including underwater structure and drop-offs where fish frequent.
Lenice is the most popular of the three sister lakes. The hike in is the shortest, and the scenery is the most varied. But at 100 acres, it’s not the largest. That distinction belongs to Nunnally, which covers 120 acres and is the westernmost lake.
Nunnally consists of two rectangular arms linked by a short, narrow channel. There are two parking areas. The turn for the first, on the left of the paved road from Beverly, is well signed. The trailhead takes off from the west end of the lot, near a sign with regulations posted. It ends midway up the south shore of Nunnally’s lower arm. There’s a second, unmarked parking area at an obvious crossing a mile down the road. This route is longer and wetter, with more tree branches to contend with. It brings you to Nunnally’s eastern arm, sometimes called Bobb Lake. Launching and heading east—to the right—seems natural, but you’ll find the water shallow and weedy. Instead, head west, to the east end of Nunnally’s lower arm.
If you’re hauling a pontoon boat, the level trail at the first entry is a good choice; with oars you can get to any area of the lake relatively quickly. The second entrance saves belly boaters almost an hour of kicking to fish the east end of the western arm. If you like solitude, Nunnally is a good choice.
Merry, the little sister at 40 acres, is the least fished of the three lakes. It requires the most time and the greatest effort to reach. The standard route is to hike west from the Lenice lot, following the ridge and watching for rattlesnakes. Though the lake is stocked regularly, holdover fish are fewer here. Merry’s deepest section is its west end, with a few troughs between the islands. The rest of the lake is shallow. Still, there’s a firm, wadable shelf at the east end, and high cliffs, which partially block the wind. Merry is about ¾ mile from the west end of Lenice. With a car rendezvous, you can start at Merry and finish your day at Lenice.
Hatch schedules for the sisters coincide with those at Lenice.
I first saw Lenice when I was new to fly fishing. On late spring evenings, a friend and I would make the one-hour drive, don waders, and hike through sagebrush to the lake’s west end, then cast across the outlet or wade out onto a long shelf. For a while we regularly caught the Kamloops transplants, which are no longer stocked. Then our luck ran out, the sunfish population grew, and the lake was poisoned and restocked with trout.
Recently I returned with a local angler who knew Lenice’s Callibaetis and damselfly hatches, and rediscovered the phenomenon of catching fish in wide expanses of empty time. You change flies, study twiglike chironomids sticking straight up from the water. You pause. There’s one splash, then another. Then bird calls and coyote howls are drowned out by the sweet slap of rising trout.
Mark Halperin lives outside Ellensburg, Washington, near the Yakima River. He is the author of a book on prosody and five volumes of poetry.