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Battling the Algae Blooms  at Cabela's

Battling the Algae Blooms

Author: Scott Haugen

Don't let summer algae blooms put an end to your fly fishing. There are ways to beat the algae...and catch more trout.

The author's father, Jerry Haugen, experienced great success with the rowing pattern.  Photos by Scott Haugen.
Stripping slimy fly line through thumb and index finger, my confidence waned. The sun's rays penetrated the water's surface and I discovered the source of the slime: Algae. Though I expected the algae bloom to have started, I had not anticipated it being so prolific. It was now obvious as to why we had Central Oregon's Wild Billy lake to ourselves.

Feeding line, I unwound the bird nest at my feet with another half-hearted cast. Retrieving it, I was now going through the motions, already gazing at the beauty of the high-lake setting. Abruptly, the line drew taught and the rod was nearly pried from my hands as a large rainbow attacked the leech pattern I was pulling. Over the course of the next two days, my partners and I hammered the rainbows by fishing right amongst the algae.

Fishing the Northwest's high lakes usually slows come mid-to-late summer. The bodies of water have been absorbing ultraviolet radiation for months, and the trapped heat begins taking its toll. Oxygen deprived fish slow down and line-tangling weeds flourish. The occasional bait fisherman can be found tediously plunking his bobber between weed beds in bloom, but fly-fishermen have all but given up on tapping these bodies of water.

If the conditions are right, late July and early August can be red-hot, so don't hang up that fly rod yet. Instead, be aggressive, battle through algae and weeds, heed the heat and do what you have to in order to find fish.

Algae can be a real menace, but if your timing is precise, you can fish right through it. Though it may appear thick on the surface -- sending most fishermen back to their recliners once they pull up to the boat ramp -- algae develops in stages and may actually be only a foot or two deep. Before you get frustrated, check out the situation beneath the water's surface.

This time of year, water temperatures can be high, but stick your hand in a little deeper to see what it actually feels like. Better yet, tape a thermometer to a six-foot long stick or tie it to a section of fishing line and see what the temperature is where you'll be fishing. You can always do as my partner, Butch Price, does and go for a swim to assess the conditions.

If the water is warm on top but cools eight to twelve inches below, you are in luck, despite the amount of algae floating around. Standing weeds reaching for sunlight from lake bottoms often corral algae, holding it in easy-to-locate pockets. As the algae collects among the weeds, fish congregate here to find shade and food. These are the areas you want to seek out.
Trout with leach pattern protruding from its mouth.
A sinking line is a must; you need that added density to cut through the algae bloom. Algae is buoyant and gathers near the surface and a reliable sinking line will slice right through it in good order to get you down to where the fish are.

At the very least, you might get away with an intermediate type II line, but this may be too light for where you are fishing. You should find success with uniform sinking lines of type II, III and IV and experience even better luck with hi-speed high-density lines of the same type. Using a six to eight weight rod, we found these to be the perfect combinations to get down to the fish.

Techniques for Fishing the Bloom
Casting and stripping or trolling are solid approaches for fishing the algae bloom. When casting and stripping, keep the rod tip low, even partially submerged. Holding the rod tip low prevents tangling the heavy line around the guides and allows you to be in a better position to give an occasional jerk, either to very the velocity of your retrieve or to power your way through weeds.

Trolling offers a fun and exciting change of pace to line-whipping. You may elect to go with a trolling motor to pull your pattern through weeds and algae, but don't forget to throw in a set of oars. Rowing is a preferred method of trolling by many; it allows you to regulate your speed, thus controlling the depth at which you are fishing, and it yields sporadic line movement. The intermittent line action swerves your pattern around accordingly, more closely mimicking a fleeing or injured leech or insect.

Oar-powered trolling also gives you the flexibility to alter your route and quickly change direction. A sudden change in direction will cause your line to go slack and your fly to drop quickly, often enticing a fish to strike. Added excitement comes to the troller when that monster fish finally strikes, yanking your rod from the boat if you're not paying attention.
Another healthy trout make his way to the boat.
The first time I trolled through an algae-choked weed bed, I stopped a half-dozen times to clean my fly. Flustered by the slow progress, on my next pass I decided to plow right through the weeds. My fly still latched on to every weed in its path, but I kept right on going. My momentum generated enough force to yank the fly free, and the trout didn't hesitate to attack.

Likewise, when casting into submerged greenery, retrieve with vigor. At times, it feels like the rod will be wedged from your hands as the fly and line bounce off and weave through tangle messes. Keep it moving; the fish seem to be attracted to such sporadic movement and are not hindered by toppling weeds.

Carrying on at such a fast clip, you'll have no trouble knowing when that fish attacks. If fishing from a small, one or two-man craft, a depth finder is ideal this time of year. A depth finder not only reveals at what depth the fish are holding, it shows weeds you can't see from above. You need all the help you can get for this late-season fishing when the cards are stacked against you.

Hot summer days can find fish finicky and lethargic, so a pattern sure to entice them must be employed. Leech, woolly bugger, scud and Mickey Fin patterns are among the most consistent fish producing flies in the high-lake arsenal. We've had great success with these flies through most of Oregon and into Washington.

Whatever lake you intend to fish, do your research. Find out what kind of feed exists and bring as many patterns in as many color variations as you can tie, or afford to buy. When you get to the lake talk with any anglers who might be around. See if they know what type of feed has been the mainstay over the past few days.

Investigate for yourself; wade in shallow sections turning logs and rocks trying to discover what feed may be gathering in these structured locales.

Late one afternoon, three of us went our separate ways in our two-man boats across Wild Billy Lake. The intense heat zapped the fish and we had not encountered a strike for a couple hours. Discouraged we headed for camp. Not more than an hour later the wind picked up. A chop moved across the water, and soon we were back out there trolling and casting through the algae bloom we'd just left. We nailed fish until dark and all because of the wind.

Pay close attention to factors such as wind, rain and even clouds. On hot summer days, such natural weather changes can impact the temperature or conditions of a lake, turning the fish on. Wind puts a chop on the water, and moving water creates convection currents, often cooling sections of a lake. Winds also move algae blooms around a lake, forming productive pockets to fish through.

Rain and overcast days can have a positive effect on your fishing success, too. If the algae is not too thick, rain and clouds can suppress its development. Rain also helps cool the water, as does cloud cover if heavy enough.

If, however, it's been overly hot or it's a bit late in the season and the algae is almost too thick to fish through, rain and clouds can be detrimental to your success. On rainy or overcast days, much of the algae on a lake dies. In an effort to stay alive the algae eats up great quantities of oxygen, often shutting down fish activity.

When a lake nears 70 degrees, the action really slacks off. Many anglers draw the line at this point and quit fishing. Though you can still hook fish, if you are strictly catching and releasing, it's difficult to revive your catch in such warm waters, resulting in unnecessary mortalities.

Years ago, Butch and I learned this lesson the hard way while fishing Thompson Reservoir. After landing and successfully reviving -- or so we thought -- a trio of nice trout, we looked behind us to see their silver bellies floating on the surface. Though we pumped the fish and they swam from our hands under their own power, they didn't have enough oxygen to sustain life in the heated waters. Gathering the fish, we headed for camp. Now we are more careful, paying strict attention to water temperatures when catching and releasing.

If you find yourself without a boat, don't worry. Since algae moves with the wind and is carried by currents within a given body of water, you can often wade to good fishing. Where weeds grow near shore, algae often hangs up. Within this microenvironment, tiny chubs, shad, leeches and other food gathers. Big rainbows will seek out such honey-holes and you'd be surprised how many of these places you can access by wading. Remember, the air is hot this time of year and wading can be done in the comfort of swimming trunks rather than cumbersome chest waders.

Belly boat anglers also have great success, being able to move freely over land and through water to reach prime fishing locations. Whatever mode of fishing you have access to, there are places for you to fish come late summer.

Tackle for Fishing the Bloom Though weeds can work to your advantage in summer fly fishing, they can also be a hindrance. Since you are fishing smack in the thick of the weeds -- or in the case of Crane Prairie, among a plethora of snags -- once hooked, fish don't have to move far before getting tangled. A good leader is a must, with 17-pound tapering down to eight-pound test being an ideal choice. The eight-pound tippet usually suffices, but if you break off too many fish, go heavier.

Given the fact you are pulling patterns through heavy algae surrounded by tall weeds, line visibility is of little concern. We've comfortably used 10 and 12-pound tippet and routinely hooked big fish.

Personally, I believe it's more important to go heavy on the gear, hooking and landing fish, than it is to hook a big one and risk breaking it off on light line. We owe it to the fish to retrieve that fly from its mouth.

However you choose to go about it, late season high-lake fly fishing can yield fast-action. Given you've done your background work, know the conditions of the water you intend to fish and are familiar with the stages of algae development, you can find yourself latching into lunkers while many anglers think the season is finished.

Don't let that suspended algae get you down. It could well be one of the best kept secrets for late season success.

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