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Martis Lake

Past her prime but still a good dog to kick around

Despite its somewhat austere shoreline of gravel and sagebrush, Martis is a flyfisher's dream. The lake is a veritable soup of insects, scuds, snails and baitfish: perfect for growing big trout fast. A strict zero kill, catch and release policy insures that the trout can grow to trophy size and naturally replenish the lake with wild fish. The feeder streams are closed to any kind of fishing to protect the spawners and fingerlings. A quiet lakeside campground and close proximity to the amenities of Truckee and Lake Tahoe make Martis an ideal destination.

The incredibly rich waters of Martis qualified it as the first lake inducted into the California Wild Trout system. The Department of Fish & Game poisoned the lake of all the fish and planted it with threatened Lahontan Cutthroat. The Cutts grew rapidly and provided excellent fishing for a couple of years. The lake was destined to be a rearing ground for trophy Cutthroat, but nature isn't quite that easy to manipulate!

Unknown to DF&G personnel, brown trout eggs, hidden in the gravel of Martis Creek, survived the poisoning of the lake and hatched. These little browns quickly grew to trout large enough to feed on the Cutthroat. At the same time, an illegal planting of green sunfish was made in Martis and the resulting boom in baitfish provided perfect fare for the browns. By the mid-eighties, Martis was nationally known as a trophy brown trout fishery.

DF&G gave up on the Cutthroat project and began planting the lake with various types of rainbows, including sterile "English Ladys" that can grow to double digit figures. In the early nineties in the midst of a prolonged drought, the fishery crashed and most of the browns were lost. Today, the fishery has rebuilt itself and harbors a dense population of fat rainbows and cutthroat. Unfortunately any number of non-game fish including goldfish, suckers, dace, have found their way into the system to compete for your fly.

Early in the season (the lake opens the last Saturday in April), Martis is typically fished with small gray midge imitations. As soon as the water temperatures break fifty degrees, the famous Martis blood midges begin to hatch. These insects thrive in most of the West's alkaline lakes and they become the hatch to watch for in lakes with a population of perch or sunfish. The perch are deadly predators on callibaetis and siphlonurus mayfly nymphs and reduce the dry fly fishing dramatically.

The blood midge larvae live deep within the mud of the bottom of the lake, safe from predation by the voracious baitfish. The bright red midge larvae are filled with hemoglobin, the same stuff that makes our blood red. This hemoglobin has a tremendous affinity for oxygen and allows the larvae to live in the severely hypoxic environment at the bottom of the lakes. Protected in this nutrient rich and predator free environment, the midge larvae population can exceed 3,000 insects per meter.

The blood midge can hatch any time of any day throughout the season, but can be anticipated in greatest numbers when the sun is below the horizon or hidden behind clouds. The best way to fish the midge is as either an ascending pupae or as the emerging adult in the surface film. The best pupae pattern is a #14 brassie slowly drawn towards the surface on long light tippet.

The emerger pattern is deadly and much more fun to fish than the brassie because the grab is a visual experience. The number one fly at Martis is the aptly named Martis Midge tied on a #14 hook. This fly resembles the adult midge pulling out of a pupal sheath at the surface. The Martis Midge's bright deer hair post makes it easy to see, the parachute hackle floats it in the film, and the subsurface orange dubbing and wisp of Crystal Flash imitate the pupae. Dress the leader, the deer hair and the hackle with fly floatant and cast it toward the rings of a rising fish and hold on!

Even though the callibaetis population is hammered by the sunfish, these speckled winged mayflies still occur in very fishable numbers. A pheasant tail nymph "mooched" above the weed beds does a credible job imitating the callibaetis nymph. A quigley cripple mayfly in gray does a great job imitating the emerger and usually outfishes any of the specific dun imitations. In the afternoon, be prepared to toss a rusty colored CDC biot spinner to imitate the egg-laying females.

Another Martis Lake standby is the sunfish imitation. Truly huge trout are taken every year on green wooly buggers wooly buggers and matukas. Fish these streamers near the margins of weed beds where big trout are stalking the errant sunfish that might leave the refuge of the aquatic vegetation.

As with most of the Northern Sierra lakes, damsel flies are an important hatch that peaks around the Fourth of July weekend. Fish the nymph imitation on a floating line with a very slow retrieve, stopping frequently to allow the fly to sink. Most of the takes occur during the drop, so pay strict attention to the movement of your leader. It is all to easy to get distracted by the numerous gliders, ospreys, bald eagles or pelicans.

Adult damsels are often overlooked by even experienced anglers. Trout occasionally take the egg-laying adults as they dap their abdomens into the water, but many more are taken just as they are drying their wings after emergence.

The damsel nymphs crawl out onto weeds and the shoreline to hatch into adults. The newly emerged adults, called tenerals, take twenty minutes before they harden and take flight. While drying, they lack much structural integrity and even a slight breath of wind can cause them to lose their footing and fall into the water. Trout are well aware of this and eagerly anticipate teneral falls.

In the fall, Martis is pretty much a streamer proposition. Again, be sure to try the baitfish patters, but don't fail to experiment. These fish have spent all summer looking at fraudulent flies and have become quite suspicious of anything that doesn't look perfect. Often they will fall for something they've never seen before, such as a pink-headed bugger with lime green legs.

Time has shown us that the Martis fishery and its surrounding environment are fragile. Massive land development and well-fertilized golf courses now surround the creeks feeding Martis and the lake has become over run with nutrients and choked by invasive weeds. By mid June of most years a float tube or pram is required to get past the shoreline vegetation. Algae blooms, once a rarity are common. Don't drive over soft or mushy terrain and don't let your dog harass the baby geese and sandpipers. Do treat your fish with respect. Play it quickly and fully revive it by swishing it to and fro, forcing oxygenated water through its gills, before you release it.

Please fill out an angler survey card before leaving the lake--there are several survey stations at the lake--so Fish & Game can better manage the resource. Thanks and enjoy.

Check the Sierra Nevada Hatch Chart for complete Martis bug information. For more in-depth information regarding fishing Martis and its surrounding waters, get a copy of Sierra Trout Guide, by Ralph Cutter, from Amato Publications (or call 530-470-0284).