By Dick Mason
La Grande angler Doug Bragg was not prepared for what he was about to encounter at Anthony Lake.
No fisherman at the 7,000-foot-elevation lake would be.
Trout fishing from a 12-foot fiberglass boat in the middle of Anthony Lake, Bragg felt something tug his line and suspected he was in trouble.
"It felt like a ton of bricks,'' he said.
Such a fish was bad news for Bragg, whose tackle, considering the situation, was as fragile as crumbly mortar. The angler had a 6.5-pound fish on his line, one far too heavy for his 4-pound test line. Bragg knew that if he wasn't careful, the fish would snap his line.
He patiently settled in for a long fight.
Four times Bragg reeled the fish in near his boat. And four times the trout changed course and pulled away.
All the while Bragg and his fishing partner, Bruce Roach of Ironton, Ohio, had an eye on the sky, watching a summer thunderstorm blow in. All the other anglers had left the lake.
"We were the only fools fishing out there,'' Bragg said.
Finally, 45 minutes after the trout struck, Bragg had it close enough that he could reel it in to his boat. The trout pulled so hard, though, that Bragg's pole took on a U shape.
"I thought he was going to break the rod,'' Bragg said.
The fish fought so hard that one side of Bragg's boat was being pulled down, allowing water to splash in.
"I was afraid that he was going to swamp the boat,'' Bragg said.
While reeling the trout out of the water, Bragg suddenly realized that his small net posed a big problem. Only the trout's head fit when Roach knelt to net the fish. The quick-thinking Roach, though, managed to flip the 26-inch fish into the boat.
Roach had saved the day and an uncommon trophy.
A spontaneous celebration was in order.
"We were high-fiving when it came in. Bruce and I were going crazy,'' Bragg said.
Roach and Bragg later drove away from Anthony Lake just as the lightning storm was hitting.
Records are not kept for Anthony Lake, but if they were, Bragg's fish would be high up the scale.
"Two old-timers who have been fishing there for years said it was the biggest fish they've ever seen taken from the lake,'' Bragg said.
The fish was taken to the La Grande Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife office, where it was weighed and measured.
"It's a noteworthy fish,'' said ODFW Biologist Nadine Craft.
She said it is unusual to land such a big fish from a high mountain lake. High elevation lakes like Anthony normally don't produce large fish for two reasons:
High altitude lakes have a shorter growing season because they are covered by snow and ice much longer and have colder water. Fish thus have less opportunity to feed on plankton and insects.
Most high altitude lakes are fed by streams that flow over granite, which contains limited organic matter. Mountain lake water is less fertile and has less plankton growth, said Bruce Eddy, the ODFW's acting Northeast Region manager.
Anthony Lake is regularly stocked with 8- to 10-inch-long rainbow trout. Sometimes, however, Northeast Oregon lakes are stocked with trophy trout that weigh about a pound. Records, though, indicate that no trophy trout have recently been put into Anthony Lake.
Craft believes that the trout Bragg landed was about 5 years old and raised in a hatchery. She suspects it was a hatchery fish because its dorsal fin is worn.
Most fish planted in Anthony Lake live only about a year, said ODFW Biologist Jeff Zakel. This makes Bragg's fish all the more remarkable. The hearty fish, however, had more than luck on its side.
"It had good genes,'' Zakel said.
Bragg was not the first angler who tangled with the fish. One of its gills had 10-pound test line wrapped around it with weights attached. The fish had earlier broken line more than twice as strong as Bragg's line.
No weights were attached to Bragg's line. Bragg, who caught the fish with a worm, does not put weights on his line, which allows his bait to move more.
"I have found that trout like to have their food moving rather than being stationary on the bottom of a lake,'' Bragg said.
His steelhead-sized rainbow trout is now being mounted by a Baker City taxidermist.
A senior loan officer for American Lending Corporation, Bragg is no stranger to landing big fish. He once reeled in a 90-pound salmon on an Alaskan river. Landing the salmon was not nearly as thrilling for Bragg, however, since he was on a charter fishing boat with a guide, and caught the fish quickly while using heavier tackle.
"It was like pulling it in with a cable,'' Bragg said. "I didn't have the adventure of light tackle. It's much more exciting to use light tackle.''
Bragg's trout is steelhead sized, for most steelhead in Northeast Oregon weigh 5 to 9 pounds. Steelhead are rainbow trout that migrate to the ocean. Ironically, Bragg has never caught a steelhead.
For Bragg, landing his trout at Anthony Lake will not take a back seat to catching a steelhead.
"Without a doubt this was the most exciting experience I've had in fishing,'' Bragg said.