The drought in our region is beyond a glass half empty scenario; it’s better described as down to the last few drops.
The water level at Ochoco Reservoir has dropped below the outlet works, which means water can’t be released and the fish that remain aren’t going anywhere unless they get caught by anglers who are willing to hike down the steep shorelines.
However, Bowman Dam’s outlet works are still submerged and as Prineville Reservoir drops, fish are being pulled out of the reservoir and deposited downstream in the Crooked River.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a fish die-off,” said Tim Porter, Deschutes Watershed Assistant Fish Biologist. “Obviously with lower water levels, there is less habitat and you do expect to see some mortality in the population, but you don’t expect to see a complete die off. There will still be fish.”
There certainly won’t be as many fish.
Hatchery trucks can’t get near the water in either reservoir to plant more fish because the boat ramps are high and dry.
The fish that remain in these shrunken reservoirs are crammed into less space with less-than-ideal habitat.
“Over time, as the reservoirs have aged, they’ve kind of silted in on the bottom. So as the reservoirs get lower, you are now over more fine silt substrate. That’s not the preferred habitat for all fish species,” Porter said. “Another situation you run into to is the macroinvertebrates. They are base of the food pyramid for the fish.”
Jesse Bowles has been fishing in Prineville Reservoir all his life.
He remembers when the dam was built, and the reservoir first began filling in the early 1960s.
Now retired, he fishes an average of 3 days a week and frequently brings his children and grandchildren fishing.
“This is the lowest I’ve ever seen it. It’s a major impact on everything in the region from agriculture to the wildlife. The fish themselves are just as confused and shocked as we are. They are bundled up. Their habits are changing. They have less water, of course, and their feed is being limited also.”
Back in the day, a ball of Velveeta cheese sprinkled with garlic powder presented on the bottom was the ticket for catching fish in these reservoirs.
Nowadays, Bowles fishes brightly colored Powerbait suspended 3 to 5 feet above the bottom so the fish can find it in the silty water.
“They are nice size fish here. They’ll average 20 inches. We’ve caught several fish in here that were 30 inches and over.”
Bowles has a 2-rod license.
He fishes one rod close to shore: the other farther out with different flavors of bait.
He lets the fish show him which presentation they prefer.
“I’ve already lost a 24-inch fish today, out of the net embarrassingly, but I’m looking forward to the next one and I’m sure it’s going to happen today.”
“You always like to have good water levels, but this is nature. This is what we get. This is what we deal with, plan accordingly and deal with the conditions,” Porter said. “We would like to see fuller reservoirs so we can keep more fish in here. Not only in the reservoir but there’s also downstream impacts. We have salmon and steelhead reintroduction programs. We’d like to put more water downstream for overwinter rearing downstream for rearing salmon, steelhead and red side rainbow trout.”
Jesse Bowles treasures these fishing holes so much; he buys rounds for the fish.
“We call it buying a round for the house. We’ll just add a little water to the lake.”
Bowles also cleans up trash he finds along the shore, and with water levels falling, there’s always more trash being revealed.
“We hope it fills. We hope to get more precipitation throughout this winter. Get more snowpack in the mountains upstream. We just hope for more snow, more rain. We just hope for good conditions for runoff so we can fill the reservoir. That’ll be good for the streams upstream from here. As long as they have good runoff, they’ll have suitable conditions to grow fish populations.”
“All fishing is great. It’s the catching that varies.”