Crane Prairie, Deschutes Headwaters, Oregon

Deschutes Headwaters
The Crane Prairie country has been a place of enjoyment, refreshment, and family pleasure for thousands of years. The Deschutes River has its modest beginning here. Its history in this headwater area is much different from that of the lower river. The lower Deschutes has spent a million years wearing a 1,200-foot-deep groove into ancient lava flows. But here, the earth has re-created itself in more recent times, and the upper river has often adapted to a changing landscape. Today, it meanders through gentle country and resembles a spring creek in a mountain meadow more than the big, brawling canyon-bound river of its lower reaches. [For the MAP for the Crane Prairie, Deschutes Headwaters, click here.]

. . .In the twentieth century, the landscape changed again, but this time it was man, not nature, who interrupted the course of the river. In 1922, a dam across the Deschutes flooded the Crane Prairie. Although the dam was built to store water for irrigation, an unintended consequence was that it created one of the most productive stillwater trout fisheries in the U.S.

Most fly anglers release all the trout here It should be remembered, however, that Crane Prairie teemed with big fish long before it became a lake. Furthermore, much of today's catch are wild trout directly descended from the original inhabitants. Rainbow trout and whitefish are the primary indigenous species still present. Stocked rainbows are added, but the majority of the catch is wild and spawns in the Deschutes between Crane Prairie and its source at Little Lava Lake. In addition to the rainbows, brook trout have been added from time to time. Although not native to the region, they reproduce naturally and most of them can be considered wild, if not native.

Above Wickiup Reservior

After leaving Crane Prairie, the Deschutes is free-flowing for four miles, then enters Wickiup Reservoir, another impoundment created by a dam on the Deschutes. Brown trout and landlocked coho salmon are present in this lake. Like Crane Prairie's brook trout, Wickiup's browns are not native, but natural reproduction is common and most fish qualify as wild. And big! Ten - to fifteen-pound browns are present in good numbers, and even bigger fish swim in the lake.

From Wickiup, to Crane Prairie, to the modest beginnings of the Deschutes, this region has provided a rich habitat for wild fish for millennia. Man is a recent arrival who has enjoyed himself here for countless generations. If we take care of it and teach the anglers of the future to do the same, Crane Prairie and the headwaters of the Deschutes will delight people for many more generations.


Why does Crane Prairie grow such large fish? The answer lies in the situation and structure of the lake. First, it is in a sunny place; the east slope of the Cascades is high and mountainous but still gets abundant sunshine for much of the year, making for a long growing season. Second, the lake is shallow, so the sunlight that falls on it penetrates the entire lake and stimulates plant growth everywhere. However, Crane Prairie would be poor trout habitat if not for the third factor: substantial inflows of cool water from several sources. Without the input of cold water (some from rivers and creeks, some from springs) Crane Prairie's shallow depth would make the lake too hot to support trout. Fourth, the lake has a high pH, a factor known to encourage aquatic growth. Last, the snags and downed timber left in the lake create habitat for aquatic insects and hiding places for fish.

Crane Prairie supports trophy-sized game fish of several species: rainbow trout, brook trout, mountain whitefish, and largemouth bass.

Canoes can be used on Crane Prairie, but watch for wind!

Rainbow Trout

Rainbows are the primary target of Crane Prairie's fly anglers. Although the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) stocks 200,000 five-inch fingerlings a year, more than 50% of the catch comes from naturally spawning fish.

Most of these spawn in the Deschutes River above Crane Prairie, and ODFW has counted over 600 redds in the eight-mile stretch of river. Fortunately, this water is closed in the spring and fall to protect spawning trout.

Regardless of their origin, all rainbows grow big and fat in a short time on Crane Prairie's abundant forage. Fish of five pounds are commonplace. Many are at least seven pounds, and some are even bigger. While trout over ten pounds have not been uncommon in the past, recently the average size has declined so that fish over seven pounds are rare.

Terrible practice 
of harvesting nymphs to sell, depleting the fishes food supply. Brook Trout

Rainbows get most of the attention at Crane Prairie, but he lake also grows some very big brook trout. Obviously the brook trout are not indigenous to the area; however almost all of them qualify as "wild." They reproduce naturally in the lake and its tributaries, and the ODWF rarely stocks them. They are harder to catch than the rainbows, but some fly anglers actually target the brookies, I can't blame them. They're beautiful fish, especially in the fall, and it's not every lake that grows three- to five-pound brook trout.

Largemouth Bass

Bass are another non-native fish found in Crane Prairie. Unfortunately, these bass resulted from an illegal planting done sometime in the 1980s by unnamed pond scum. Like all other fish in this productive water, the largemouth grow big but, as with all fish in Crane Prairie, their size has gone down in recent years.

Other Species

Mountain whitefish are available in Crane Prairie. In fact, the Oregon state record whitefish came from here (is there no end to the large fish this lake can grow?) The whitefish are indigenous and self-propagating. They are seldom caught on fly tackle.

Fishing deep

Kokanee are stocked in the lake, though during high-water years they propagate naturally in the tributaries. In spring and summer, kokanee concentrate in the Quinn and Cultus channels because they have little tolerance for warm water. Most are caught early in the season by trollers, and it is rare for a fly angler to hook one.

Hatches and Other Food

Take a close look at Crane Prairie's standing snags in August. You'll find them thick with the shucks of damselfly nymphs. The lake is rich in these slender aquatic insects, and from May through July they are the meat and potatoes of every big trout's diet. [For the FLIES for the Crane Prairie, Deschutes Headwaters, click here.]

A raft allows easy access

Headwaters of the Deschutes River

As the Deschutes leaves Little Lava, springs and small creeks add to its flow, and by the time it arrives at Crane Prairie eight miles later you could grant that it might someday grow up to be a river.

Both brook trout and rainbows come up from Crane Prairie, but they are smaller than the fish you'll find in the lake. The exception is spring and fall, when rainbows and brooks, respectively, enter the stream to spawn. Fortunately, the only season for this stretch of the Deschutes runs only from June 1 through August 31.

When the Deschutes escapes from Crane Prairie Dam, the waters of five other rivers and creeks have been added to it. There is no longer any confusion about whether it is a creek or a river. Broad and deep, it tumbles down a series of steep drops, then passes under the bridge on road 42. The bridge is the dividing point: upstream the river is steep and not fishable; downstream it is quiet and offers excellent fishing.

It is late summer when this part of the Deschutes comes into its own. Big brown trout move up from Wickiup Reservoir preparatory to fall spawning. They can be caught on flies, and big streamers are the best tactic. Enjoy the fishing while you can: it's over at the end of August since this section has the same season as the stretch above Crane Prairie - June 1 through August 31.

Wickiup Reservoir

For centuries, Indians hunted and fished at the site of Wickiup Reservoir. Their temporary shelters, called "wickiups," gave the area its name. In 1947 a dam was completed across the Deschutes River, and the area was flooded. At full pool, Wickiup Reservoir covers 15 square miles and is one of the largest bodies of water in Oregon. Wickiup doesn't remain at full pool very long, though. Throughout the summer and fall, water flows out through irrigation pipes, and by the end of the fishing season the lake will have shrunk back to reveal wide expanses of grass and mud and many stumps. Drawn-down reservoirs are not a pretty sight and Wickiup is no exception.

Osprey with dinner

. . . With the exception of the north end of the reservoir (near Sheep Springs) fly fishers stay away from Wickiup in droves. In fact, the times I've fished the main body of the lake, my companions and I have been the only ones fly fishing . . .There's no reason for this, however. Wickiups brown trout can be found anywhere, but places where the wind or current gather baitfish are most likely, especially if there are places for the browns to hide. The face of the dam in spring, the water near Goose Island, and the deep water near the Deschutes channel are good places to look.

Brown trout aren't Wickiup's only quarry for fly anglers. Landlocked coho salmon can provide excellent sport on fly tackle. Streamers (silver body, green wing) and bright patterns make the best flies. A few rainbow and brook trout are also available...

It's often said at Crane Prairie that all the big fish are caught between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., with a brief bite near sunrise. There is enough truth to this that many accept it without question. However, it is important to understand both the reasons behind this truism and the exceptions to it.

Long casts improve your chances of spooking fish

When the sun first peeks over the ridgeline, a moderate breeze is created and the water turns from flat calm to riffled. As long as the breeze continues, the fishing can be excellent. On many days, however, this only lasts about half an hour, then the water goes flat calm until around 10:00 when the wind usually picks up again. This is the situation most summer days, when the lake has its highest fishing pressure. But if the day starts cloudy and breezy and stays that way - as often it does in spring and late fall - fish can start hitting at sunrise and keep going all day.

Crane Prairie, Deschutes Headwaters

I have to admit, though, that I have rarely had good fishing for large trout after 5:00 p.m. And I have no idea why. It seems like the big trout go home to watch the evening news and turn the food over to the youngsters. You can have wonderful fishing for 10 - to 15 -inch rainbows in the evening, but big fish are rare.

The exception to this is near dark. In Oregon, you can legally fish up to one hour after sunset. ~ Scott Richmond

For a MAP of the Crane Prairie, Dechutes Headwaters, click here.
For the FLIES for the Crane Prairie, Deschutes Headwaters, click here.
To ORDER Crane Prairie, Deschutes Headwaters direct from the publisher, click HERE.

Credits: From Crane Prairie, Dechutes Headwaters, part of the River Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

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