The Wallowa Mountain Range stands watch over former Indian lands and a charming small town “” and some of the best trout fishing in northeast Oregon.
By Gary Lewis
You can see the snowcapped mountains for miles as you head southeast on Oregon’s State Route 82. By the time you reach the end of the road and catch your first glimpse of the sapphire-blue jewel named Wallowa Lake, you begin to understand why the Nez Perce Indians loved this area. Today this slice of paradise is known as the Wallowa Valley.
The Indians fished for steelhead and salmon in the Wallowa River and hunted deer, elk, sheep, and goats in the Eagle Cap Mountains above the lake. Skilled at raising horses and cattle, the Nez Perce had immense herds that were coveted by their European neighbors and tribes in the surrounding area.
American pioneers began to settle in the area in the 1860s, and relations between the two groups were pleasant for many years. In fact, from the time when they met Lewis and Clark in 1805, the Nez Perce called the Americans their friends. But promises were made and broken, and in 1877 Chief Joseph and other leaders refused to honor a fraudulently obtained treaty. Eventually, after traveling many miles in a fighting retreat, the Nez Perces had to relinquish their land “” which included the valley where they spent their summers. Old Chief Joseph, father of the famous leader, is remembered with a monument at the foot of Wallowa Lake.
Water made the valley precious to the Nez Perce, and it is the reason for the beauty of the region today. Situated behind a natural dam built by centuries of glacial activity, Wallowa Lake is 300 feet deep (at its deepest point), and its more than 1,600 surface acres makes it the largest natural lake in northeast Oregon. To sound like a native when you visit, pronounce “Wallowa” so that the “low” part rhymes with “cow”: wa-LOW-ah.
If you are a seasoned, serious fly fisher, the following tips “” and their jargon “” will be “old hat” to you. Novices, on the other hand, may be scratching their heads at some of the following information. If you fall into the latter category, and are curious about fly-fishing, plenty of books, Web sites, and happy fly anglers are ready to help you learn.
Fishing for lake trout
The deep, clear, cool water of Wallowa Lake provides ideal conditions for rainbow trout, lake trout, kokanee (landlocked sockeye salmon), and bull trout. Wallowa Lake is regularly stocked with rainbow trout that average 8 to 11 inches long. Trolling and still-fishing with bait are favored techniques with local fishermen, but fly fishermen catch their share of rainbows as well, including some in the 20-inch class.
Anglers can bring float tubes or inflatable rafts to reach the best water, and boat rentals are available at the marina.
For rainbows, fish the edges of the lake. Target shallow waters early in the day, and move to adjacent ledges as the sun rises higher in the sky. The shallow water warms faster than the main body of the lake. Look for trout to be feeding in shallow water early in the season. As the water warms, fish will be found deeper in the lake, but still may return to the shallows to hunt their food in the morning and evening.
Look at the topography of the shoreline for another indication of where to concentrate your efforts. Rocky points or steep shoulders give an indication that the ridge will continue below the surface. This type of structure will hold feeding rainbows in the morning and evening.
During the warmer months, one of the best places to find fish is at the mouth of inlet streams where cooler water rushes into the lake. Underwater weed beds or woody cover such as downed trees or submerged stumps are also good bets. Such places provide cover and feed.
Some of a trout’s favorite foods are leeches and damselfly larvae. Wooly Bugger and Seal Bugger lures are some of the most effective patterns in your fly box, because they imitate these food sources.
The fly should be weighted at the head for the most realistic action. Leeches swim with an up-and-down motion; damselfly nymphs swim with a back-and-forth motion. Start with one-inch strips and vary the retrieve motion until you start hooking fish.
Brook trout in the backcountry
August and September are by far the best times for fishing the high mountain lakes of the Wallowa Mountains. In the Eagle Cap Wilderness, the alpine lakes are accessible only by foot or by horseback. By late summer, the snows have receded enough to allow passage along the trails.
Be aware that it’s still very chilly at these elevations, even in summer. If you hike out to these other lakes in the area, warm clothing is a must. Toward the end of September, sudden snows may catch you by surprise. You will definitely need to pack in your own water or bring a filter.
To fish these lakes, you must be willing to rough it and stay overnight without the motorhome. Tents are a must. Mosquito repellent and sunscreen also should be essential components of your camping kit. Bears are a concern in some areas, and precautions should be taken in the storage of food at night.
Dry fly-fishing for these uneducated brook trout provides great sport in the clear water. The fish see the fly from far beneath the surface and streak upward, sometimes two at a time, to slash at the bait.
Wet flies and nymphs can be even more effective. If your ambition is to catch two fish at a time on a tandem rig, you can do it here. The extra flash of a bead-head pattern proves too tantalizing for these trout to resist. Wearing polarized sunglasses as you fish helps cut the glare and allows you to see more of the action beneath the surface.
It pays to bring a well-stocked fly box. Adams, Mosquito, Royal Wulff, Mouserat, and Schroeder’s Parachute Hopper are all effective dry flies, enticing hungry trout to the surface. Large dry flies are eagerly attacked by these brook trout. Often they will attempt to drench the fly first by dunking it before returning for the kill.
The Hare’s Ear Nymph, Prince, and Zug Bug flies bring slashing strikes when fished deep. Fish the Brown Hackle, Carey Special, and similar wet flies on a slow-sinking line, varying your retrieve until you see a fish streaking upward to grab your offering.
Streamer patterns work for these hungry fish as well. Try a No. 8 Zonker or a Janssen’s Minnow behind a No. 14 Brown Hackle wet fly, and watch what happens. These fish are too competitive to let a minnow steal their lunch.
Popular backcountry fishing spots in this area include Ice Lake, a deep, 46-acre body of water with plentiful, hungry brook trout that average seven to 11 inches long. If you are prepared to stay in a tent, you’ll find several good campsites near the lake. To reach Ice Lake, leave the Wallowa Lake trailhead and follow the West Fork of the Wallowa River upstream, crossing it and heading west into the high mountains. In September you will see showy daisies in bloom, alpine buttercups, and Indian paintbrush. Around the lake itself are mountain gentian and wild onion. The lake is eight miles from the trailhead; four hours on horseback. Part of the trail to the lake climbs approximately 2,250 feet up the side of a ridge, but does so over a span of five miles.
Aneroid Lake is 39 acres in size. Brook and rainbow trout provide good fishing and tent campsites are located around the lake. A simile hike to the lake is required from the trailhead, and the trail gains almost 1,200 feet in elevation in the first two miles.
Glacier Lake and Frazier Lake are two more small (and chilly) bodies of water high in the mountains. Again, brook trout provide the sport for the angler tough enough to get to them. These each also have their own rugged trails with no access by vehicle.
Frances Lake is accessible via a very steep eight-mile trail that gains 3,000 feet in the first three miles. It is 30 acres in size and not deep, making it subject to winterkill. Here, brook trout are sometimes stocked to supplement the fishing.
Of course, you can fish only Lake Wallowa, and not visit the backcountry. But if you do not mind hiking and tenting and want a professional at your side, consider booking a trip with a guide for your first time into the Wallowas. Several good outfitters currently offer horseback fishing trips into the Wallowa wilderness. You can find their names and phone numbers by contacting the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce, which is listed with this article.
When you put away your rod, head for civilization. Joseph, home to approximately 1,000 people, is at peace with its past, and is steeped in the rich tradition of Indians and pioneers. Hitching rails can be seen along the street, and sometimes you can actually find horses tied to them. Joseph’s residents are not all horse owners, however, but Westerners of all persuasions.
Main Street’s new “old” look also includes old-fashioned lampposts, which stand near modern bronze sculptures depicting a variety of subjects.
The last 20 years have seen an influx of artists and sculptors drawn by the beauty of the region. Their works show a decided emphasis on the landscape and wildlife. Bugling elk, soaring eagles, ducks, and wild trout can be found in the galleries, brought to life by the world-class artists who live in and around the small town. The history of the region also is reflected in bronze and oils. Nez Perce Indians and early residents are favorite themes.
The history of the area also is depicted at the Wallowa County Museum (open from Memorial Day weekend to mid-September only). It’s located in an 1888 bank building and includes artifacts from pioneer and Nez Perce cultures. You can tour a bronze foundry, Valley Bronze of Oregon, where fine sculptures are born. Shopping at gift stores and specialty stores, in addition to the art galleries, is no doubt appreciated by both buyer and seller. Kids will enjoy the mini golf and go-carts at Scenic Meadows RV Park & Go Karts. All ages can be treated to a mountaintop view by taking the Wallowa Lake Tramway (the steepest gondola ride in the United States), which transports you 3,700 feet up to the summit of Mt. Howard, far above the lake “” and many of the Wallowa mountains, too. To learn more about these attractions, contact the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce.
At Wallowa Lake Campground
When shadows lengthen in the evening and the wood smoke begins to curl from nearby fire pits, spend the last half-hour of the day watching Wallowa Lake or walking along the edge of the campground there. Mule deer live in and around the state park. Though they may appear tame, give them enough space to feed without fear. This is one of the few places in the United States where you can observe these magnificent wild animals at such close range.
Then take a few minutes to sit beneath the trees. Close your eyes and listen to the wind whispering in the pines. Some of these old-growth ponderosas were here when feathered warriors rode their steeds on the long hills, and Nez Perce lodges lined the banks of Wallowa Lake.
Mountain wilderness will provide you with memories that last a lifetime. The fishing can be extremely good and the scenery is breathtaking.
Wallowa Lake State Park
72214 Marina Lake
Joseph, OR 97846
(800) 551-6949 Information
(800) 452-5687 Reservations
(541) 432-4185 Information
Wallowa Lake is approximately two miles south of Joseph on State Route 82. Continue along the eastern shore of the lake to the community of Wallowa Lake. Turn right at the fork in the road and follow signs to the park.
The RV campground has 121 full-hookup sites and can accommodate a maximum length of 90 feet. The campground is open between mid-April and late October. Amenities also include picnic tables, picnic shelters, flush toilets, showers, drinking water, a dump station, telephones, a marina, a boat launch, and moorage.
Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce
P.O. Box 427
936 W. North St.
Enterprise, OR 97828
The chamber provides an area map and information about the entire county, which includes the town of Joseph; attractions; and a listing of commercial campgrounds in the region.
Before you dip a line, be sure to obtain the proper state fishing license. For information about fees and where to obtain a license, contact the Wallowa County Chamber of Commerce (see information accompanying this article) or the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife at (503) 947-6101; www.dfw.state.or.us.
Once that is taken care of, what should you bring to Wallowa’s great fishing spots? Here are some suggestions.
- 4-weight to 7-weight, 9-foot graphite fly rod
- Single-action fly reel stocked with at least 75 yards backing
- Floating line
- Intermediate sinking line
- 5x 9-foot leaders
- Wading boots
- Mosquito repellent
Your fly box should have …
- Schroeder’s Parachute Hopper
- Wooly Bugger
- Soft Hackle Hare’s Ear
- Zug Bug
- Jannsen’s Minnow