Over a dozen low-elevation lakes in Washington sagebrush country opened up for angling March 1, providing great opportunity for catching fat and sassy holdover trout up to 18-inches long. Consequently, this die-hard stream fisherman, who is two months away from opportunity to wet a line in his favorite northeastern Oregon river, kicks a float tube around a desert seep lake. It’s been two years since I last fished still water but I hope to find success.

Three anglers, two in pontoon boats and another in a pram, sit vigilant on anchor, casting chironomid patterns below a strike indicator, i.e., bobber. I have no interest in their repetitious technique although the bend of their rods and the splash of fighting trout gets my attention.

My two fishing pals hauled their pontoon boats on homemade trailers to this 93-acre lake. Ken’s trailer looks like an oversize wheelbarrow made out of barn wood. His son, Matt, fabricated a device that resembles a baby buggy with the sun hood removed. In contrast, I backpacked my float tube on the quarter-mile dirt track to the rustic launch site. Although we each rely on fins for hands-free mobility while casting, their craft allows them to sit higher above the water and with oars to cover more water.

The sun is out and wind is still. Redwing blackbirds puff out their red epaulets and sing from the bulrush. A fighter jet splits the sound barrier as it passes overhead. Peering into the water, I observe an occasional midgefly breaking through surface film. No dimples from rising trout, though.

I spool out a sink tip fly line to trail a two-fly tandem, olive/brown Wooly Bugger and an orange Leech pattern behind my tube. One fierce strike missed, a couple of bumps, then a grab. A fine 16-inch rainbow is led to the net for release. I am not skunked.

Later that day, Matt finds a honey hole where a deep trough is sandwiched between the gently sloping shoreline and a pair of shallow shelves. Casting in both directions he hooks half a dozen trout while I eat a sandwich and consider challenging his personal distance. In one corner of the lake, bobber fishermen hook up every 15 minutes or so. When one paddles by, I ask, “Have you given them all a sore mouth yet?”

Ken outfits his pontoon boat with an anchor and a metal bracket that supports a small electric trolling motor and battery. He recently purchased a depth finder with a GPS that displays troll speed, path, and surface water temperature. You can never collect too much data if your name is Ken. Early on, he pumped the stomach of an “18-incher” to reveal its feeding habits. He shows me a small glass vial teeming with tiny black chironomids or midge larvae and even tinier water fleas.

Although we fished similar fly patterns, Ken and Matt spooled their reels with Type II sinking fly line. Upon retrospect, my flies dragged the bottom while they kept their offering at a preferred depth. That’s my explanation for landing five trout, while Ken and Matt reported 13 and 16, respectively—and I’m sticking to it.

Watching other anglers catch fish is not a particularly enjoyable experience for me unless I’ve had my fill or the parties in question are family members (excluding my older brother who is a braggart). My goal is to be the angler that others ask, “What fly are you using.”

Despite my pedestrian outcome, I elect to return to the same lake one week later. Sometimes you have to saddle up an ornery nag and learn how to ride it like a cowboy would. Storm clouds gather over Sentinel Gap as turn off the highway to Lenice Lake. On this trip I brought Type II fly line. Fresh in my mind are to the locations and corresponding bottom profiles where trout were caught on the prior trip. Wasting little time, I land a nice trout before I paddle half way along the east shoreline. Thirty minutes later, I land another. This will be your day, I tell myself.

Anglers spread out. A sure sign that trout are on the move. Cliff swallows swoop and dive high above the lake. Lesser scaups make 10-foot-long skidding splashes when they land in open water. The rattle bugle call of north-bound sandhill cranes fades to a distant echo. A northern harrier cruises below a basalt-studded cliff. Valley quail twitter in the brush. Bird-watching in a wildlife refuge can be a sublime experience when trout are not biting.

In early afternoon, rises dimple the water’s surface along the shoreline. Casting to a rise does not produce a strike, nor does trolling through the middle of the activity. Discerning trout no longer look down for food, but up. “They are feeding on emerging pupae,” Ken says.” “Probably about a number twenty-eight hook.”.

“I struggle to thread my tippet through the eye of a number sixteen,” I reply.

Once again, it seems I have the wrong gear, having left a reel with floating line and a fly box stuffed with tiny emerger patterns at home.

            When we call it a day, Ken shares that he caught three trout. I confess to landing only two, what I call “the minimum acceptable unit.” The third member of our party, Ted, waits until we finish before declaring, “I caught six.” When we press him for more facts, he says, “I’m counting the one that broke me off when my fly line got stuck in the reel, one that tossed the hook when it jumped fifteen feet from my pontoon boat, and one I couldn’t get into the net.”

I am reminded that Ted’s version of counting often comes into play when fishing is slow. Then again, I’ve got more to learn about fishing still waters before I can pass judgment.