Little Payette Lake’s Trophy Trout – and Smallmouth Wanna-Bees
Little Payette Lake is a natural lake of 400 acres that was dammed in the 40s or 50s to increase its size to 1400 acres. As you might expect, in the spring it’s full, drawing down to roughly it’s original size in the fall. The original lake area is quite deep, while the rest is shallow with lots of dead trees.
By Peter Fischer
In the 70s and early 80s the lake was overrun with trash fish – suckers, squawfish and reside shiners. In fact, even the kokanee were stunted, running 6 ¼ inches in 1979. When Idaho Fish and Game gillnet catches, consisting of 90% trash fish, became the norm, it was time to come up with a new management plan for the lake.
The lake was poisoned in October of 1987, removing most of the fish population. It was then replanted with two types of trout: kamloops and pennask trout. The kamloops were selected to provide for quality trout fishing as quickly as possible, as they are bred for rapid growth. They grow to three to six pounds and are a real thrill to catch. Unfortunately, their life span is two years, and they don’t reproduce well.
The pennask, on the other hand, is a trout strain from Pennask Lake in British Columbia. Fish and Game had a five-year contract with the Canadian Government to plant these fingerlings and it was the first time that this strain had been allowed out of Canada. These fish are perfect for Little Payette over the long run. They are totally wild, never having had their habits modified by hatchery raising. As a result, they spawn in the spring, feed on zooplankton and live five to six years. They spawn after their third or fourth year, and grow up to five pounds. They also tend to survive well in cold, sterile water – which is exactly what the deep Little Payette provides.
One of the best things about this fish is its ability to process lactic acid. This is a chemical that is created in muscle tissue when the muscle is exerted, and it causes the muscle to tire. Because pennask create less lactic acid, they fight like a fish half-again its size and it takes them much longer to tire.
Fish and Game hopes the Little Payette will become a breeding ground for the pennask and that these fish can be transplanted to other Idaho lakes.
The poisoning of the lake didn’t eliminate all the trash fish. Kokanee eggs also survived the poisoning, and kokanee have a tendency to overpopulate.
A study was done on the shallow areas of the lake and it was found that the water gets warm enough to support a population of smallmouth bass. And this is at over 5,000-feet elevation! So, 2,000 smallmouths were planted over a three-year period in the late 80s. The idea was for the smallmouth juveniles to feed on the juvenile redside shiners and squawfish to keep them from overpopulating again. Because of the long winter at that altitude, the smallmouth must reach at least four to five inches in length in order to survive. To help supplement the plantings of the past, volunteer fisherfolk caught 120 smallmouths in Hells Canyon Reservoir in May of this year and moved them to the Little Payette. This project was a joint effort between the Central Idaho Reed Gillespie Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Central Idaho Bassmasters and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game (IDFG). Anglers have reported catching smallmouth up to five pounds.
There is an ever-growing group of diehard Little Payette aficionados. Regulars come from as far away as Riggins and Grangeville to the north, and Boise to the south. The fishing is rather technical, and Don Anderson of the McCall Fish and Game office recommends having plenty of flies along when trying this lake. I’ve found black and brown leeches produce the best result, fished deep, both trolling slowly and stripping.
The goal here is big fish, but fewer fish. If you want to catch loads of planters, go to Brundage or Lost Valley Reservoirs.
The Fish and Game Rules for this lake are standard for trophy waters – it’s legal to keep two fish over 20 inches, fishing with a single, barbless hook only. No bait is allowed. Interestingly, the people who fish the lake often have become so emotionally attached to it that they have been known to become a bit upset if any fish are taken from the lake ("harvested"). You can harvest 25 kokanee, however. The fishing season opens on Memorial Day weekend and closes on Little Payette Lake November 30.
There is one boat ramp on the lake, and motors are allowed, in fact the lake is used for waterskiing tournaments each summer. Note that Idaho Fish and Game Department is not in control of boating regulations on the lake. In the future, motorboat restrictions may be in effect entailing limitations on size of motors, speed limits, perhaps banning motors all together except for trolling motors, and such.
There aren’t any developed campgrounds on the lake, but Ponderosa State Park is only a few miles away. If you need more civilized accommodations, McCall is only 4-5 miles away.
If you go: be prepared for some great Idaho fishing!
Idaho State Parks
Ponderosa State Park -- Main Payette Lake
Smallmouth Bass: Identification & Description
Luhr Jensen – Techniques for Kokanee
Hagerman – Idaho State Fish Hatchery
Idaho’s Fish Hatcheries
Ted Trueblood Chapter of Trout Unlimited
Idaho Bass Anglers Sportsman Society
Idaho Department of Fish and Game News Release; May 28, 1999
Copyright ©1999 Peter Fischer