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Davis Lake Rises From the Ashes

Courtesy of the Fish Sniffer

I used to really love fishing Davis Lake. It’s close to my home in Reno. I could leave my house and be on an uncrowded lake forested in Ponderosa Pines in about an hour. It used to have a lot of really nice rainbow trout in it.

In the spring we would catch all the bullhead catfish we wanted, or we’d catch them until we ran out of bait. I never even experienced the true halcyon days of the lake. I never fished it in the 80s and 90s when robust rainbows in the 3-6 pound range were an every-day event. In those days rainbows to 8 pounds with full fins and orange meat were a real possibility. Davis Lake was truly a blue ribbon trout fishery on the national scale.

Fish Sniffer Field Editor Mike McNeilly pulled these dandy rainbows out of Lake Davis during a recent outing.
Fish Sniffer Field Editor Mike McNeilly pulled these dandy rainbows out of Lake Davis during a recent outing.

I first started fishing the lake in the early 2000s. It was in the era between the all-out wars on pike when the California Department of Fish and Wildlife dumped Rotenone in the lake to remove the toothy and invasive predators.

Even after the first unsuccessful treatment of the jungle plant based piscicide, the lake was a real jewel of a fishery. In 2006 I recall catching a whole lot of rainbows in the 3 pound range.

However, the initial treatment in 1997 did not remove all the pike. By 2007 it became apparent that electro fishing and gillnetting would be bandages for the amputation the lake would really need. Of course, there were a lot of naysayers that didn’t think the state should undergo yet another expensive treatment of the lake. Those people were on the wrong side of history.

If you have ever fished in a lake where northern pike are the only gamefish because they have eaten everything else, the experience leaves a lot to be desired. They also were blind to the threat to the Sacramento/ San Joaquin River delta. Had pike ever established there, we may really have seen the extirpation of our endemic salmon and steelhead. I for one applaud the California Department of Fish and Wildlife for their hard work and resolution in eradicating northern pike.

Fast forward to about 2010 or so. This is why you should keep a journal, because I can’t remember the exact dates. The lake has been deemed pike free, and the state is trying like hell to turn Davis Lake back into the blue ribbon fishery it once was.

We had some good fishing up there; catching a lot of spunky rainbows to about 2 pounds and 18 inches or thereabouts. It was fun stuff, but something was definitely missing. There were no brutes in the mix. The fish, although healthy, just didn’t have the same Davis Lake panache I was used to seeing.

I lost interest in Davis Lake after that summer. It was an also-ran kind of deal. I’d hear of guys up there ice fishing catching a bunch of fish in the 2-3 pound range, but that was seemingly about as big as they were getting. I

n the fall of 2016 things started to change. I began hearing about some real slabs being caught; a lot of 3-5 pound fish. It was even rumored that rainbows to 6 pounds were showing in the catch. Could it be?

This spring the rumors continued to persist. I have no idea if the tumultuous and extremely wet winter of 2016-2017 allowed for any ice fishing, but I do know for a fact that some big rainbows were caught this spring.

There was also something very different in the way locals were talking about Davis Lake. In the years after the poisoning of the pike, guys seemed to overhype the lake. “Yeah, it’s awesome. We caught a bunch of fish up there.”

I’d reply, “Any size?” The answer would always be the same, “Nah, not really. A lot of 14-16 inch fish… nice fish.” They seemed almost too eager to dispense with the good news.

Of course, my Spidey Senses were tingling. Beware of fishermen bearing gifts or something like that. However, this spring things really changed. I’d hear tale of so and so catching some really nice rainbows somewhere, and nobody seemed to want to divulge the location.

I’d also hear the story of old what’s his nose catching a 5 pound rainbow from the lake, and my mind would automatically go into skeptical and critical fisherman mode. I’m quick to doubt until someone I trust dishes the real dirt. Eventually, the big fish news was verified, and I had to make a trip.

This beautiful Lake Davis rainbow jumped all over a small gold Kastmaster.
This beautiful Lake Davis rainbow jumped all over a small gold Kastmaster.

I think I missed the hottest action of the spring, but I was able to mop up a few of the crumbs on a recent fishing adventure. I didn’t head out with super high hopes. I’ve become jaded and callused from a lifetime of fishing disappointment.

It’s easier to be pleasantly surprised than let down hard. The driftboat needed to get wet. It never left my driveway this winter with all the rain on the coast and blown out rivers.

The leadcore rods were loaded up, and my favorite selection of Davis Lake tiny trout lures were gathered. Davis Lake’s rainbows are notoriously “buggy fish” making a living off of eating mayflies, damselflies, snails and probably scuds (the latter is deduced from their orange meat.)

What they don’t really eat are minnows. This was explained to me by a professor acquaintance of mine from UNR. Therefore, don’t bring the Rapalas, but they definitely like little tiny Dick Nite spoons and Needlefish. For years the hot lure at Davis has been a Red Headed Wee Dick Nite. Allow me to translate: the smallest size Dick Nite spoon with a red butt or head and a gold body.

In the last paragraph, I referred to the fish as crumbs. In actuality, the fish were more like biscuits than crumbs. They were big brawling 21-22” rainbows in the 3.5-4 pound range. They cut bright orange like an ocean salmon.

Their fins were as full as a Smith River steelhead’s. They fought like bucking broncos. I didn’t light them up. It was a slow and steady grind with each fish being a nice pay day.

The satisfaction each of those healthy and mature fish brought, along with the knowledge that the next one could be twice as large, caused me to ponder and reflect. “It’s really back. This is the lake I remember. This is the way it should be.”

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