LAKE BILLY CHINOOK, Ore. — The section of water just downstream of where the Deschutes River flows into Lake Billy Chinook is a special place to me.
Not just because of the natural beauty — the stark, rugged cliff walls and abundant wildlife — but because that is where, two years ago, I landed a 9-pound bull trout.
John Garrison, owner of Garrison’s Guide Service in Sunriver, was there when I caught that fish. He didn’t remember the fish being that big and suggested I was exaggerating.
The 9-pound trout aside, we headed back to the Deschutes Arm of Lake Billy recently week to chase more bulls. This time around I was less interested in catching big fish and more interested in catching lots of fish.
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Bulletin photographer and avid angler Ryan Brennecke joined Garrison and me on the trip north from Bend. It was 9 a.m. as we drove down the steep hill to Cove Palisades State Park, and we counted a dozen or so trucks and trailers parked near the boat ramp. Most of those boats were no doubt owned by anglers headed to the Metolius Arm for bull trout.
While the Metolius Arm contains the highest population of bull trout of the three river arms of Lake Billy Chinook, the Deschutes Arm holds its fair share and offers anglers a chance to land rainbow and brown trout as well.
Garrison said he had been having luck on the Deschutes Arm over the last few weeks, averaging about 12 fish per day by still-fishing with herring as bait.
“But for more bang for the buck, use worms with a smaller hook for browns and rainbows,” Garrison said.
We parked at the day-use area on the Deschutes Arm, counting just three other trailers. Another advantage of fishing the Deschutes Arm is the lack of crowds that are often found along the Metolius Arm.
After a boat ride of just a couple of miles, we had the prime fishing spot pretty much to ourselves — the place where I had landed that memorable bull trout in 2011.
The only other anglers we saw were a father and daughter fishing from a jet ski. Normally, anglers detest jet skis, as their thrashing scares the fish. But this time the jet skiers were just like us, floating along peacefully and hoping for a bite.
At midmorning, the sun finally rose over the steep canyon wall as we sat in the boat near the confluence of the Deschutes River and Lake Billy Chinook, just downstream from the boundary where anglers are restricted to flies and lures.
A muskrat busied itself in the water near the shore as hawks soared overhead in the hazy sky.
Garrison anchored his 24-foot pontoon and had the medium-weight spinning rods rigged with 8- to 10-pound test line. We stuck chunks of herring on our hooks and cast out.
Within 20 minutes we had each landed a bull trout. The fishing was hot all morning, but it tapered off by about 11:30 a.m. When we left at 1:30 p.m., we had caught and released 12 fish among the three of us, ranging in length from 16 to 18 inches. They were all bull trout, save for one rainbow and one brown.
One bull trout I reeled to the boat had a lure stuck in its mouth, a gift left behind by some unlucky angler. (Casting with lures toward shore is another popular technique to fish for bulls on Lake Billy Chinook.)
Anglers are allowed to keep one bull trout longer than 24 inches per day on Lake Billy. All bull trout not kept in the daily trout catch limit of five must be immediately released unharmed.
Bull trout are typically characterized by their aggressive feeding on kokanee and by their coloring — olive green to bronze backs, with spots of pale yellow, orange or salmon-colored.
Federally listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1998, bull trout are continuing to thrive in Lake Billy Chinook, one of the few bodies of water in the country where they can be legally caught. Anglers love to fish for the unique, hard-fighting fish.
Garrison said good bull trout fishing should last through the end of April, before the water warms significantly and the fish go down deep.
“You can still catch fish,” Garrison said. “You might get more bass in the summer. Bull trout fishing then picks up again in September and October.”
Some anglers do not bother keeping track of how many fish they catch. But Garrison always seems to make a competitive game out of it — and he always seems to beat me. He told me we needed to bring Brennecke on our trip last week so somebody besides himself would catch some fish.
But I had the last laugh, landing five bull trout and winning the day.
“I don’t think you’ve ever outfished me,” Garrison said. “The headline on your article should be, ‘I finally learned how to fish.’ ”
I reminded him that I did land that 9-pounder two years ago.
He scoffed at me, adding in mock contempt: “It was 6 pounds.”