One rod for dry flies if fish were rising. One rod rigged for chironomids if the trout were stubborn. One rod with a slow-sink line for a streamer if the tigers were chasing. And we hoped they were on the prowl.
When tiger trout were introduced as fingerlings to Diamond Lake in fall 2016, I marked summer 2019 as the time to chase them. And when I talked to John from Diamond Lake Resort last winter at the Central Oregon Sportsman’s Show, I marked out two days in July.
Tiger trout are a rarity; the best bet for a wild one would be to go to Michigan or Wisconsin where introduced German browns dally with native brook trout.
The product of a female brown trout and a male brook trout, tiger trout were first noticed in the wild in 1944. I figured I would never get a chance at one until I heard they were going in Diamond Lake. Then it was just a matter of time.
Brown trout are true trout, while brook trout are char. Trout have dark spots on a light background, while char have light spots on a darker background. In combination, the tiger trout has vermiculations — irregular wavy lines — instead of spots, evocative of a tiger.
Tigers tend to be fish-eaters and are used by fish and wildlife agencies to control less-desirable species — such as tui chub in places like Diamond Lake. And that is why I was excited when, in 2016, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife first stocked fingerling tigers in that gem of the Cascades.
We met at the boat launch on a Monday morning, my dad and I, with Sam Pyke. Larry Zeilstra and Craig Schuhmann drove up from Klamath Falls with Craig’s 14-year-old fly-fishing daughter, Camille.
Bob Gaviglio, from Sunriver Fly Shop, had just scouted the lake on Saturday. Gaviglio said the tigers were on the south end of the lake and that confirmed recent reports.
To hunt my first tiger, I tied on a No. 12 CJ Rufus with a copper bead, black-and-copper sparkle chenille and rust-and-yellow marabou. Like all Rufus patterns it would ride hook up and dive headfirst fast in the strip, strip, pause, strip retrieve I would try first.
We anchored our boats in 4 feet of water where we could cast into the edges of weed beds and a creek channel. Before the sun hit the water, I speculated, the tigers would be out hunting in the weeds.
From the front of dad’s Smokercraft, I bombed long casts in one direction and another, and I tried to remember to keep the retrieve slow and measured. Strip, strip, pause, strip. A fish hammered the fly and ripped the line right out of my hand. Line lifted off the floor of the boat and snapped out of the guides and a trout soared 5 feet out of the water and then streaked right at the boat, jumping again and again and again. Six times it cleared the water, giving everything it had to throw the fly. Twenty-one inches, I guessed, but it spit the hook.
Out of breath, I stripped line and bombed out another cast. Another fish grabbed. This one did not jump but battled down deep among the weed stalks. In a few minutes, it surfaced alongside the boat and with a long jab, it was in the net.
This one stretched the tape to 18 inches, and since all tiger trout must be released at Diamond Lake, we let it go and watched it kick into the deep, clear water.
To target tiger trout, start with minnow and baitfish patterns. Although tigers may be caught on any other bait, lure or fly, imitations that mimic golden shiners or tui chubs, baby rainbows and brown trout are good choices. Stillwater staples like damsel and dragonfly nymphs, leeches, chironomids and callibaetis will also turn a tiger’s head.
Tigers came fast for most of us that first morning, with the average about 18 inches long. The smallest tiger we saw in the net was about 14 inches.
When a pod of large rainbows showed, we turned to callibaetis nymphs and it was easy to forget the tigers.
Back in the 1920s, a man named George Howard fished Diamond Lake for the first time and said the trout were so big he had to sink a corner of his raft to get the fish aboard. Diamond Lake is still like that. Fish grow big fast in this food-rich water. By next summer those 2016-class tigers should be well into the 22- to 26-inch range.
—Gary Lewis is the host of “Frontier Unlimited TV” and author of “Fishing Central Oregon,” “Fishing Mount Hood Country,” “Hunting Oregon” and other titles. Contact Gary at www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com.