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Michael Wright: Small bass are still worth the trouble

Jun. 8—There was one truck in the parking lot and a couple of one-person boats working the western shoreline of Fan Lake on Thursday, but otherwise, the place was empty. It was sunny and calm, the water glassy, the only sounds coming from the birds. The sort of quiet morning that makes you forget you're within a short drive of Washington's second-largest city.

I'd brought a float tube, but I didn't bother with it. The combination of a late start and looming afternoon responsibilities meant there wasn't much time. Plus, there were fish dimpling the surface close to the boat ramp and enough space for casting a fly rod.

At first, I tied on a damselfly nymph. Nothing ate it. So I went looking for my stash of deer hair poppers, the sort of big, ugly flies that are the reason warmwater fly-fishing is such a fun change of pace.

The flies involve some sort of tail behind a cork-shaped mass of hair that ensures the fly floats and moves water. Tying them makes an obscene mess — the hair is lashed to the hook in big clumps, and then trimmed, leaving behind an uncountable number of miniscule pieces of hair that always show up later in surprising places.

Fishing with poppers is the polar opposite of trying to feed a fussy rainbow trout. Land them with a big splash, wait a few seconds, then start pulling them in by hand with short, abrupt strips. Eventually, assuming things go well, a bass or bluegill or crappie will get angry enough to eat.

It didn't take long on Thursday. A few casts in, a bass lurking in a weedbed in the shade on the right side of the boat ramp inhaled the fly but spat the hook before I could do anything about it.

No matter. Another fish turned up a few casts later, and the hook actually stayed in its mouth. The largemouth put a respectable bend in the fiberglass rod, but it wasn't big — at best, a couple of inches longer than the width of my hand, and skinny.

On the other side of the ramp, a palm-sized pumpkinseed sunfish took the fly, its kaleidoscopic colors dazzling once it was in hand. Later on, a half-dozen smaller fish followed the fly all the way to the ramp, trying and failing to eat it.

Fan Lake is small. It's nestled in the woods a few miles off the highway to Newport, part of the Little Spokane River drainage. Chris Donley, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife's eastern region fish program manager, said the lake was likely historically home for salmon, back before dam construction ruined their annual journey upstream.

WDFW stocks rainbow trout in the lake, but the bass and pumpkinseed are likely the result of illegal introductions. Getting rid of them is an expensive and laborious undertaking, however, so they've largely been left alone in recent years.

Donley said the lake isn't terribly productive, and it's known to offer mediocre fishing. Big fish are few and far between. Other lakes in the region kick out monstrous bass and limits of keeper crappie, which may explain why I was nearly alone Thursday morning.

But the fish are there, and they're good enough for me. Small bass and sunfish are all the excuse I need to burn a morning casting a big, ugly fly.