By Joe Doucette
Eastern Region Conservation Educator
For the past couple of years, fishing at Wildhorse Reservoir has been the best it has been in almost two decades. Creel surveys in 2019 showed that more than 35% of trout caught that year were 19 inches or better and approximately 65% of trout caught were 17 inches or better. The average size going from 14.9 inches in 2016 to 18.1 in December 2019!
“The 2012 to 2015 drought had a devastating effect on Wildhorse Reservoir,” says NDOW fisheries biologist Chris Drake. “At the end of the four-year drought the reservoir was at 10,000-acre feet going into the fall of 2015, which is approximately 14% of its capacity and things looked grim.”
According to Drake, drought mitigation efforts during 2012-2015 resulted in reduced to no stocking, emergency/special regulation of lifting of limits of all trout species in 2013 and continued with lifting limits on all remaining game fish (catfish, wipers, bass, trout and yellow perch) through 2015.
In the fall of 2015, limited stocking began with 10,000 excess trout stocked in the hopes that winter would bring much needed moisture to the area. The gamble paid off as the snowpack was well over 100% in the basin and the lake started filling in the spring of 2016. By spring of 2017, it reached capacity and started spilling.
Since 2016, rebuilding efforts has resulted in a minimum of 73,000 catchable size trout, 60,000 fingerling/sub-catchable size trout and 11,000 fingerling channel catfish stocked each year.
As they say, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Along with the benefits of improved habitat conditions to the trout species (rainbow, bowcutt, brown, tiger trout), the yellow perch are exhibiting robust population growth the last three years with good fishing reported for yellow perch the last two years and an average size of 10 inches for harvestable perch.
“During the drought years (and leading up to them), low water conditions meant poor spawning habitat for perch” Drake explained. “That combined with predation by wipers stocked for biological control of perch and other species (LahontanTui chub), kept the perch fishery suppressed.”
Predation on yellow perch young-of-the-year minnows (YOY) has greatly benefitted the smallmouth bass, channel catfish and piscivorous trout species (bowcutt/cuttbow spp., tiger, brown and some larger rainbow trout) to achieve the larger size harvested by anglers over the past couple of years.
That being said, yellow perch have the potential to reproduce to numbers where they limit the available resources to both themselves and other gamefish species if left unchecked. Management of this species will continue to be the challenge for fishery managers trying to please both the perch anglers and those who prefer the larger, harder to catch game species.
According to Drake the improved spawning habitat, combined with the improved prey base, benefited the smallmouth bass spawn as well and both numbers and size of the harvest of smallmouth has improved over the past couple of years.
An overlooked part of the Wildhorse fishery is the tailwater below the dam. When the reservoir spills, reservoir sized fish are added to the East Fork of the Owyhee river below Wildhorse. It’s not uncommon to catch 15 to 20-inch trout along with smallmouth bass and wipers in the first ½ mile below the dam. Further down the stream a wild rainbow trout fishery has developed from the rainbows that were introduced from the reservoir.
What does this all this mean for Wildhorse anglers for 2021? “Fishing should only improve in 2021,” says Drake. “Even if water levels drop, which we hope they won’t, the stage is set for great fishing through the year. Water management by downstream users and Mother Nature will determine how the fishing is in the following years.”
With two average or above average winters in a row, Wildhorse Reservoir was full and spilling by the spring of 2017.
Boise, ID angler Micah Lauer with a quality rainbow he caught at Wildhorse Reservoir at the end of the drought.
Reno angler Wesley Ong with a nice wiper (striped bass x white bass hybrid) that he caught at Wildhorse. Wiper numbers are down, but NDOW hopes to stock more in the next couple of years.
Kassidy Arbillaga, of Elko, shows off this beautiful trout she caught in the tailwater below Wildhorse Dam in the spring of 2020. Reservoir sized fish can be found in the first half mile below the dam while smaller wild rainbows are found farther downstream.
How to fish it
Most popular fishing styles and presentations work at Wildhorse. The usual plastic grubs, crank baits and minnow type lures are effective for bass as well as flies that imitate crawfish, leeches and minnows. For trout, bait anglers will have success using worms or cheese type prepared baits. Fly fishermen will have success with wooly buggers, balanced leeches, damselfly nymphs and most callibaetis nymphs and emergers. During the spring and the fall, midges make up a large percentage of the trout’s diet and chironomid patterns under an indicator are very effective. Both shore and boat anglers should see success, though during the heat of the summer, boaters have an advantage. Yellow perch anglers should target coves and areas with vegetation and fish small rubber grubs or use worms under a bobber. Trout and perch are popular species targeted through the ice in January and February. Worms are the most popular bait for both species at that time with trout being found in shallower water (eight to 10 feet) and perch being fished for right off the bottom in 20 to 30 feet of water.
Limits for fish are: 5 trout, 1 black bass, 1 white bass hybrid (wiper) and 5 channel catfish. Currently there is no limit on yellow perch. Minimum size for black bass and white bass hybrids is 15 inches. However, no black bass may be kept between March 1 and June 30 when catch and release fishing only is allowed for black bass.
How to get there
Getting to Wildhorse is very easy. It lies 65 miles north of the town of Elko on SR 225. No matter which part of the state you come from, eventually get on I-80 and take exit 301. Head north on SR 225 and an hour later the road skirts the northeast side of the lake. You can exit into Wildhorse SRA to the west of the road where the campground is open year-round on a first come, first served basis with showers and bathrooms available to registered campers. A well maintained boat launch and dock are available during the warmer times of the year for a small fee.