Ross Lake's four-month recreational fishing season opens Monday, July 1, with the likelihood that its vaunted rainbow and bull trout will be even bigger than past years'.
Hordes of redside shiners, numbering by some estimates a million or more, that were first noted in the lake about a decade ago are the reason for the stunning surge in size.
The small prolific minnows have supplanted the reservoir's microscopic zooplankton as the key food for the older native trout and with this beefier fare, rainbow and bull trout average sizes have increased to perhaps trophy stature.
Fifteen years ago, 13- to 14-inch rainbows were the standard Ross offered, but now specimens 20 to 25 inches long are being landed with increasing frequency. Brutish bull trout well in excess of 10 pounds also are reported.
If at this juncture a natural stability were to be reached among Ross' fish populations, all would be well.
However, that may not be the outcome.
Reed Glesne, a research scientist for North Cascades National Park, said there is concern that the diminutive shiners could precipitate a significant change in the relationships between fish in the lake, with one species, perhaps the native rainbow trout, eventually declining.
Biologists speculate that the problem could be the competitive pressure that swarms of redside shiners impose on tiny rainbow trout fry, naturally produced in some of the lake's tributaries and the Skagit River headwaters above the reservoir. Most of these young rainbows must eke out an existence in the lake, following hatch-out in streams, for several years until they get the advantage and take to dining on shiners.
Small rainbow and the shiners likely eat the same microscopic organisms, but it's presumed that the variously aged shiners vastly outnumber the rainbow youngsters.
Glesne said several basic lines of research are or have been underway in recent years to determine trends that may influence decisions on future management.
Lower reservoir tributaries have been surveyed each spring to count rainbow trout spawners. Biologists also have done creel census sampling to estimate angler harvests with scale samples taken to look at the number of rainbows caught in each age class - usually three-year-olds and older.
Park service personnel also have surveyed various areas of the lake to estimate the shiner population.
These efforts replicated past studies so the results can be compared.
In a fourth initiative, Canadian biologists have been monitoring the rainbow and bull trout populations in the British Columbia portion of the river above the lake.
Glesne said analysis of all the information is underway with release of findings targeted for early 2014.
And though it is too soon to draw firm conclusions for Ross Lake, Glesne said several clear distinctions have been seen.
One: The annual number of rainbow trout spawners is down in May and Roland creeks.
Another: As reported by the B.C. biologists, bull trout have increased in the Skagit River above the lake while rainbow trout numbers have declined. More than half of Ross rainbows are produced in the river.
Another point of interest in the evaluation will be comparisons of the most recent shiner population estimates with those of the past, Glesne said. He noted, too, that shiners have now been found in Diablo Lake, the next downstream Seattle City Light impoundment.
Their population trends will provide insights into what may be expected for the lake's rainbow and bull trout. That is likely to translate into recommended changes in fishing rules, according to Glesne.
As for the shiners, whatever their affect on the futures of other Ross Lake game fish, this stock of Northwest native minnows is in these waters to stay, said Glesne.
But at this moment, with this year's crop of Ross rainbows poised to tip the scales even more, anglers should savor the opportunity.
GETTING THEM ON THE HOOK
With the use of traditional multi-bladed pop gear also known as gang trolls declining, Ross Lake anglers are turning to simpler rigs, solo lures trolled on full-sink fly lines, lead core lines or heavier monofilament with sinker set-ups for the trophy trout.
One strategy for this set-up is to troll close to shore where the bigger rainbows are seen slashing through swarms of smaller shiners. But since the predatory bows and bulls seem to take the run of the reservoir, trollers in open water report getting their share of hook-ups as well.
With this change Dick Nites, particularly those with brass finishes, emerged several years back as lures of choice. Needlefish, especially one in a red, white and chrome livery known as the Silver Shad, also work quite well.
Another favored trout lure is the Bingo Bug.
While the in-shore trolling strategy is yielding more and more fish for anglers, they should be aware that the lake's submerged nearshore rock outcrops and stumps remain the ultimate tackle grabbers.
It can be an expensive proposition for trout seekers who don't know the local waters or don't have a portable depth finder.
Getting to and venturing on the waters of this 24-mile long North Cascades reservoir is limited to two main ways. Its long shoreline is largely roadless and even trailless on most of its west side.
For self-contained RV or tent-billeted fishers towing their own boats, the north approach via British Columbia into Ross' north or up-lake end is the most convenient and appropriate.
Ross' south end (where Seattle City Light's gravity dam/hydroelectric facility holds back the Skagit River) is the alternate route, accessible via the North Cascades Highway (State Route 20).
FOR LAKE SHORE STAYS
The Ross Lake National Recreation Area that encompasses Ross Lake in the United States is part of the North Cascades National Park complex administered by the U.S. National Park Service.
The British Columbia provincial forestry and parks agencies manage road access to Ross Lake's north end as well as a large recreational camping complex on the B.C. side of the border in the Skagit Valley. The occasionally rough Silver-Skagit Road leaves the pavement of the TransCanada Highway just west of Hope, B.C.
Because of the area's popularity and the desire of its managers not to see it ruined by indiscriminate use, access to and camping along the reservoir's shore is regulated.
At the north end of the lake, the park service operates Hozomeen Campground and Winnebago Flats for first-come, first-served drive up use. If these camps are full there is usually space available at fee sites on the B.C. side.
Boat-in or eastside trail travelers may depart from Hozomeen for points south, but they must acquire the backcountry permits required to use the developed lakeshore campsites.
No overnight stays on Ross Lake's shores outside developed sites are allowed.
North end visitors may get backcountry camping permits from the Sedro-Woolley park headquarters office. Would-be lake camp visitors entering Ross Lake National Recreation Area from the south may get their permits from the park service's Wilderness Information Office at Marblemount.
Backcountry permits for any of the 19 lakeside (boat- or walk-in) camps are issued to applicants in person only on the day of or day before use starts. Due to the demand, no reservations can be made, nor can these permits be self-issued.
For more details about a Ross Lake backcountry visit or stay call:
- The park's Wilderness Information Office at Marblemount (360) 854-7245.
- North Cascades park headquarters office (360) 854-7200.
- Or visit the nps.gov.noca website and check out its Ross Lake National Recreation Area Web pages.
AS COMFORTABLE AS HOME
Ross Lake Resort, a floating accommodation in the North Cascades, offers all the comforts of home.
And if you don't come equipped, it doubles as a full-service fishing camp providing all the gear necessary to pursue Ross' burgeoning rainbows.
Kicker boats with gas motors are available for every party staying in one of the resort's modern cabins. Day fishers and campers bound for up-lake shore campsites also can rent them, as well as canoes or kayaks.
The resort also has a small store with snacks, sundries and gas, plus a mini tackle shop. Short-term and annual Washington state fishing licenses can be purchased as well.
For would-be anglers sans the basic gear, fishing rod, reel, line and pop gear packages are available for rent.
Among the additional services available from the resort are water taxi up Ross Lake and a portage service, now for canoes or kayaks only, from Diablo Lake up and over to Ross Dam. Due to a large rock slide, the transfer of larger trailered boats between the two lakes has been suspended.
Overnight accommodations at Ross Resort range from furnished electric-heated modern cabins with kitchens for families and friends and comfortable two-story chalets to less expensive smaller private cabins or a large, shared-facilities bunk house.
There are two ways to get to the resort.
One: Ride the Seattle City Light transport tug up Diablo Lake and portage by resort flatbed truck up over Ross Dam. This twice daily service is recommended for resort stayers who have a lot of personal gear as well as the food they will need for their stay.
Two: For more self-contained visitors such as day fishers and backpackers bound for west shore waypoints, the trail down from Highway 20 at Happy Flats is more direct and requires no time-sensitive connections, unless you want to be ferried across the lake from Ross Landing.
For more details about Ross Lake Resort, call 206-386-4437 or log on to rosslakeresort.com.
Reservations are essential for accommodations and are highly recommended for boat rentals and special transport services.
Some discount rates for cabins and boat rentals are available during shoulder season months (June and October).
RESERVE A HUNT
Under the state's Private Lands Access Program, arrangements have been made with a growing list of landowners in eastern Washington to allow small numbers of hunters, under individualized sets of rules, onto property that would ordinarily be off-limits.
All you have to do is go online and if you like the looks of the land and the terms and a spot is open you can reserve it.
ROSS LAKE RULES
? Washington state fishing license is required.
? Selective gear rule applies (including mandatory single-point, barbless hooks, knotless net and no bait).
? Three trout (all one species or combined rainbow, cutthroat or eastern brook) per day and six trout in possession are the limits.
? Minimum trout size is 13 inches.
? Trout may be released until daily limit is kept.
? Native char (bull trout) must be released.
? Season runs from Monday, July 1, to Thursday, Oct. 31.
Doug Huddle, the Bellingham Herald's outdoors correspondent, since 1983 has written a weekly fishing and hunting column that now appears Sundays. Read his blog and contact him at http://pbogs.bellinghamherald.com/outdoors.