LAKE RUFUS WOODS, Wash. (AP) -- If you see beauty in a sumo wrestler, you'll adore reeling in the rainbows from Lake Rufus Woods.
Like pigs at the trough, hatchery-raised sterile rainbows have learned to hang out near commercial fishery net pens and gulp the feed that drops through the nets past their captive brethren.
Columbia River Fish Farms started with a pilot project in 1991 and expanded in 1994 with two net-pen operations about 16 miles down the Columbia River reservoir from Grand Coulee Dam.
It's no coincidence that on Feb. 23, 1998, Robert Halverson of Republic, Wash., was fishing near the net pens when he caught the 25.45-pound lunker that became Washington's grotesquely fat rainbow record.
That record was topped last month with a 25.72-pound rainbow caught in the same area by Dick Hill of Twisp, Wash.
The Colville Tribe has contracted with the commercial fish farmers to release 5,000-10,000 of the sterile rainbows into Rufus Woods each year. Many of the fish congregate within a mile or so of the net-pen feed lots, where they are particularly vulnerable to PowerBait, nightcrawlers and blade baits fished off the bottom.
Winter tends to be prime time.
The feeding tapers in winter to 15 percent of what the fish farmers put out during spring and fall because the fish simply don't eat as much in the cold weather, said Ed Schallenberger of Columbia River Fish Farms.
The dearth of feed might be a boon to fishing success by giving the trout a little more reason to venture from under the nets to feed.
But anglers fishing from the north shore last week said the fishing can be good on some days any month of the year.
''You can tell when somebody's new to fishing here because they'll keep the first five-pounder they catch,'' one angler said. ''We break those little one's off.''
''Most of the fishermen are no problem to our operation,'' Schallenberger said, noting that there's a parking area provided just downstream from the lower net pens.
''About 5 percent of the fishermen are a pain in the butt,'' he added.
''There's a few guys who'll tie up to our system and walk around the cages. We don't mind anglers if they stay clear of our gear and don't fish out of the ponds and keep their gear out of our anchor lines and nets.''
Chumming for trout is illegal in Washington, but Schallenberger said some anglers have enough gall to ask to buy fish feed.
''These fish are smart,'' he said. ''I can show you some 15 to 20 pounders with leaders sticking out of their mouths. Sometimes they follow us in our boat.''
Schallenberger said his workers occasionally release rainbows into the lake downstream from the net pens in addition to the thousands of fish purchased by the Colville Tribe for release into Rufus Woods in May or sometimes in October.
The trout weigh about 2 pounds when released, said Joe Peone, tribal fish and wildlife manager.
''They get around the pens and put on weight quickly,'' he said. The released fish don't end up in the fishery for about a year. By that time, they're running more than 4 pounds.
''These are sterile triploid rainbow trout or steelhead originating from Trout Lodge (near Ephrata),'' said Jerry Marco, Colville Tribe biologist. ''All the growth goes into tissue, not into trying to reproduce.''
''These fish tend to be short and stocky, so when they get large, they get round,'' Schallenberger said.
Another triploid characteristic is fat around the viscera.
''The record fish had 4 to 5 pounds of fat in its cavity,'' said Curt Vail, the state biologist who verified Halverson's fish for the records.
The trout are fat and oily, choice for putting on a barbecue, although care is required when cooking.
One angler said he put a tray under a 10 pounder he was barbecuing last summer to catch the drippings. When the tray sprung a leak, the pool of grease dripped into the hot coals and created an inferno.
''Flames were shooting six feet high out of my barbecue,'' he said. ''I nearly burned down my deck.''
Various fishing techniques are used, but the most productive probably is fishing PowerBait off the bottom from a sinker.
Some anglers troll with flies behind leaded line.
Crankbaits will work during winter.
Gordon Steinmetz, a fishing guide out of Coulee City, prefers vertical fishing with blade baits.
''I go downriver from the pens, nose the bow upstream into the current and hold it there with the trolling motor,'' he said.
Boat access isn't exactly convenient, with only two developed public boat ramps. One is at Seatons Grove just downstream from Grand Coulee Dam near Elmer City and one is 50 miles downstream at the other end of Lake Rufus Woods in Bridgeport State Park.
One unimproved dirt launch for small boats is available between the two Columbia Fish Farm net pen operations six miles west of the Colville Indian Agency and just downstream from Coyote Creek.
Trout limits on Rufus Woods are restrictive -- only two a day compared with five a day upstream on Lake Roosevelt.
''That's why you don't want to waste time with a 5-pounder,'' one angler said.
A Washington State fishing license is required for fishing on Rufus Woods unless the fishing is done from the shore on the north side. In that case, a fishing permit from the Colville Tribe is needed. The tribal permits are available from license dealers in the Grand Coulee and Nespelem areas.
Tribal permits cost $7.50 a day, $18 for three days, $25 for seven days and $35 a season.
''See Bernie over there?'' said one of a half dozen anglers fishing near the net pens last week. ''He comes here nearly every day.
''Come to think about it, so do I, that's how I know. We're addicted to big rainbows.''
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