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Reservoir days.

Byline: MIKE STAHLBERG The Register-Guard

DEXTER - At 1 o'clock Sunday afternoon, a thick blanket of fog wrapped most of the Eugene-Springfield area in its damp embrace. Twenty miles away at Dexter Lake, however, Maynard Herting was squinting into bright sunshine reflecting off the surface of the water as he checked to see if yet another fat rainbow trout was messing with his baited hook.

Around the lake, other people took advantage of the warming rays of the mid-winter sun to paddle kayaks, row pleasure boats or sit on the grassy slopes of the park and watch waterfowl. A couple of hardy souls even rode water skis and a Jet Ski.

It was all a reminder that U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundments are reservoirs of recreational opportunity - even in the dead of winter - and that they often provide an escape from the Willamette Valley's low-lying fog.

The Corps of Engineers operates nine reservoirs in Lane County - Blue River, Cottage Grove, Cougar, Dexter, Dorena, Fall Creek, Fern Ridge, Hills Creek and Lookout Point. All of them provide at least some recreational opportunities, and several are usually "above the weather."

In all of them except Dexter Lake, however, the water goes up and down like a yo-yo during the winter months, when the Corps of Engineers' primary concern is flood control.

Dexter Lake, alongside Highway 58 between the towns of Lowell and Dexter, is what's known as a re-regulating reservoir. It helps smooth out peaks in the discharge of water from Lookout Point Dam, just upstream.

The fairly constant water level in Dexter Lake means boats and anglers can count on it being in good condition just about any day of the year.

Fishing is the most popular winter recreation activity on the reservoirs, and Dexter has become one of the top three winter trout fisheries in the area, according to Jeff Ziller, district fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

`It's got quite a following of anglers,' Ziller said.

That hasn't always been the case.

In fact, for most of the second half of the 20th century, the ODFW considered Dexter Lake "a black hole for catchable trout," Ziller said. Creel checks in the early 1960s indicated so few of the hatchery trout released in Dexter were being caught that the agency stopped stocking the lake.

In the mid-1990s - under pressure to provide more angling opportunities close to the Eugene-Springfield area - the ODFW decided to give Dexter Lake another chance.

"Lo and behold, people started catching fish," Ziller said. "Even more surprising was that the fish survived all the way through the summer period and produced a nice fishery in the fall and winter."

The state now schedules the release of almost 50,000 "legal-size" trout in Dexter annually. About 35,000 of those are planted in the spring. The balance are stocked after Labor Day to supplement the fall and winter fishing.

The program appears to have caught on with anglers.

"There are boats out there fishing for trout almost any day of the week," Ziller said. "And there's also a pretty good bank fishery, both at the causeway and also upstream from the causeway on the north bank."

The causeway is the most popular spot because people literally can fish from the parking area, and many do rather than clamber around on the rocks below.

More than a dozen anglers were fishing from the causeway Sunday morning, in spite of the fact that the bite was "slow."

"There are fish out there, but sometimes they'll bite and sometimes they won't," Tom Liempeck of Eugene said just before noon. "I've got one fish and I've been here since 7 o'clock."

A few minutes later, Liempeck had another trout on briefly before it shook loose.

"They're not swallowing the bait too good today," he said. "They just kind of mouth it."

Sitting in folding chairs a few feet away, Larry Stephens and his daughter, Jody Wood, hadn't had any action on their lines.

"It's still a nice way to spend a day sitting out here in the sun," Stephens said.

The fishing was considerably better over on the northwest corner of the lake, where Herting fished with a couple of buddies.

Herting had four fat rainbow trout in his bucket - all 12- to 14-inch "holdovers" planted by the ODFW last spring. Each had gobbled up a chunk of red and white "Power Bait." Herting's two friends had three similar trout between them.

Fishing isn't the only thing to do at Dexter Lake.

Boat ramps are available at both of the Oregon Parks Department-operated parks on the lake, Dexter on the southwest corner and Lowell on the north side. The lake is suitable for both power boating and sailing.

During the winter, there's usually some waterfowl around to watch on any of the reservoirs, and it's not unusual to see bald eagles fishing for their dinner at several of them.

Keep in mind that fluctuating water levels (and color) can have an impact on reservoir fishing. Also, some boat ramps will be left high and dry at certain times of the year. (A daily report showing water levels in relation to boat ramps is available at: www.nwd-wc.usace.army.mil/nwp/Reports/synopsis.out).

Two other reservoirs stand out for their winter fishing prospects, according to the ODFW's Ziller - Dorena east of Cottage Grove and Hills Creek southeast of Oakridge.

"Dorena is pretty amazing ... it's one of our best lakes for growth rate and catch rate," Ziller said. "It's similar to Dexter in terms of the number of fish we're getting that are holdovers."

About 28,000 legal-size trout are planted in Dorena every spring. The fishery there is primarily boat-oriented, Ziller said.

(Nearby Cottage Grove Lake should also provide decent fishing for holdover trout; it is stocked with 18,000 legals each spring. But angler pressure has declined there, Ziller said, perhaps because of posted warnings of possible mercury contamination.)

Hills Creek Reservoir at one time was the winter season lake fishery in the area, but the emergence of Dexter seems to have cut into its popularity.

"We continue to stock it and it continues to produce fish," Ziller said. "In fact, we have a two-story fishery up there. If you're fishing near the bottom you'll catch rainbow, and if you're fishing more in open water you'll catch chinook."

The land-locked chinook, which are similar to kokanee, are the progeny of adult chinook salmon that were trucked around Dexter, Lookout Point and Hills Creek dams and released in tributary streams to spawn.

This is expected to be the last year that anglers will be allowed to harvest these chinook.

Fin-clipping already has begun on the 100,000 or so hatchery fingerlings released in the lake every year and the ODFW plans to go to a "fin-clipped-only" harvest rule in 2004. That move is being proposed to reduce angler impact on bull trout, a threatened species that is being re-introduced to the Hills Creek basin.

"It's important that people recognize there will be bull trout in Hills Creek Reservoir this year, and it's extremely important that those fish are released unharmed," Ziller said. (For help in distinguishing bull trout from chinook or rainbow, see photographs in the Oregon Angling Regulations booklet.)

Two other reservoirs in the Middle Fork Willamette Basin are not good prospects for fishing, Ziller said. Lookout Point Lake is "one of those huge bodies of water that seems to have trouble producing a fishery," he said. It is not normally stocked.

And stocking of Fall Creek Lake, northeast of Dexter Lake, fell victim to state budget cuts that resulted in closing down the trout production facilities at Willamette Hatchery. As temperatures begin to warm in a month or two, however, Fall Creek Lake will produce some very good bass fishing.

In the McKenzie Basin, the lake behind Cougar Dam would normally provide some winter fishing opportunities, but that lake is being kept as low as possible this winter due to a construction project at the dam. Blue River Lake is stocked annually with 15,000 trout and can produce some holdover trout. However, it is not known for being particularly productive in the winter.

Fern Ridge Lake west of Eugene is not much of a winter fishery, either. It contains mostly crappie and other panfish, which need warmer water to become very active.

Fern Ridge, however, is an ideal spot for wildlife watching, as thousands of ducks and geese winter there.

About 15 percent of the state wildlife area at Fern Ridge is closed to public access six days a week from Jan. 20 through March 15 to provide waterfowl with sanctuary from disturbance and to encourage them to maximize use of the habitat provided on the management area.

However, public access is allowed on Saturdays to provide for wildlife-viewing opportunities. Spectacular concentrations of waterfowl can be seen just before dark when birds flock into the food crops after resting on the reservoir's open water during the middle of the day. Also, shorebirds, wading birds, raptors and small mammals are abundant.

CAPTION(S):

An angler shows off a stringer of 12- to 14-inch rainbow trout.
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Title Annotation:Army Corps reservoirs provide fun, as well as a chance to trade fog for sun; Recreation
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 9, 2003
Words:1531
Previous Article:New numbers mean bad news for state's deer population.
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