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Luke Ovgard advocates for a natural fishery very close to his heart: the Klamath Basin

It's probably selfish of me to complain about the wettest April in Portland history and one of the wettest in Oregon's history — especially in light of the perennial drought that's plagued us for much of my adult life. OK, it's definitely selfish of me.

Still, the constant barometric upheaval, unrelenting flow of chilled precipitation and clarity-destroying windstorms absolutely killed the trout fishing this spring.

In the very short term, it's beneficial for all affected fishes, including the popular redband trout that usually capture my every spare moment in May. But it's also beneficial for all three endemic suckers in the upper Klamath Basin and the salmon populations downstream. Long-term, much less so.

Unlike snowpack, rainfall is a short-lived benefit to the watershed. It can wash out built-up bacteria, algae and reduce parasite loads, but as temperatures heat up and the rains slow or stop entirely, we'll find ourselves in the same position we've seen every summer in recent years and be forced to watch the slow death of what is still, despite efforts to keep it in this position, the best wild native rainbow trout fishery on Earth.

COURTESY PHOTO: LUKE OVGARD - The author had to work harder to catch a fish this May than ever before, but in the eleventh hour, he managed to land nine about this size.


It wasn't until Monday, May 30, that I finally caught a big redband. It was the slowest May I've had in the lake since I began fishing it as a kid. In a normal year, I'll catch 25-50 big fish each May. If not for a last-minute trip with my friends Tim Cleland (Redband Becoming Guide Service) and Nick Mitchell where I landed nine fish in an afternoon, I would've been skunked in the month of May for the first time in my entire life.

It was a chilling look at what the future of the Klamath Basin trout fishery could be in the very near future if we don't rapidly curtail habitat degradation upstream.


Though it was released almost a year ago, I just watched the "Killing the Klamath" documentary for the first time, a few weeks before it was nominated for two Emmy Awards.

It was hard for me to watch because I'd seen exactly what was shown through my own eyes: the slow decline of my favorite fishery on Earth. As a lifelong advocate for the basin and someone obsessed with fishing its waters, I care deeply about this place.

When I tell people this, they automatically assume it's just for the trout. Don't get me wrong, trout are my favorite fish here. Like most local anglers, I spend more time fishing for trout (everywhere) and perch (Rocky Point and a few other places) and crappie (Topsy) than anything else, but it's safe to say I'm probably one of the only people who also routinely fishes for our endemic blue chubs, slender and marbled sculpins, as well as the native tui chubs.

With the exception of the Klamath Lake sculpin, I've caught every fish found in Klamath County (careful to quickly release those protected fishes caught incidentally), and I appreciate the breadth of diversity here.

I feel privileged every time I hook into a pre-spawn buck dark and fat en route to spawning grounds in the Sprague River or Sevenmile Creek or Wood River or Crystal Creek. I marvel at shortnose suckers grazing on algae-coated rocks in their pristine spring habitats or see the brilliant blue of a Lost River sucker in the Williamson River while drifting jigs or streamers for trout.

And despite their diminutive size, I still love grabbing a headlamp and catching sculpins at the margins of the lake.

Nonetheless, I am terrified of the day when our native fish are gone. Suckers might not have the sporting appeal of trout. Though I find them uniquely charismatic.

They are not traditionally beautiful and struggle to gain the following I think they deserve, but they are dying out rapidly, and they are an integral part of the ecosystem. They keep algae at bay, clean the water and provide food for trout, eagles, otters and historically, people. When suckers go, water quality will decline even further, and it's only a matter of time before trout populations collapse.

COURTESY PHOTO: LUKE OVGARD - Local guide Tim Cleland (rear) motors in the boat for the author and videographer Nick Mitchell (front), who is working on a documentary of his own centered in the Klamath Basin.


So much of the narrative in my lifetime has been one of polarized, opposing sides. Farmers and ranchers on one side and Native Americans on the other. It's time for this to stop. Despite differences, everyone will benefit from a healthier Klamath.

The Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin tribes are not alone in their victimization by United States policy and past actions. There is no denying the mistreatment and genocide of tribes across the country.

However, past sins are not an excuse for continued marginalization. Society has evolved and can continue to do so. We can respect the legacy of the people who were here first without completely eliminating agriculture.

A healthy Klamath Basin is a healthy Klamath Falls, a healthy Klamath County and a healthy public at large. We do not have to choose between agriculture and ecology. At least, not yet. Water availability is its own discussion, but we have no control over the rainfall. We absolutely have control over habitat loss.

It's time to buy back and rewild river- and streamfront land where possible then open it to regulated public use. Create new wetlands. Limit erosion. Rebuild banks to increase flow speed. According to the documentary and countless supporting sources, the first step is to keep cattle out of the water with fences and begin to replant shoreline vegetation to keep the banks from eroding further and allow streamside vegetation to capture the fertilizer and cattle waste currently bleeding into the rivers en masse.

Many ranchers have already taken these steps, including a close friend and successful rancher in the area who has already fencing his properties on Lost River where waterfowl benefit just as much as fish from the natural, healthy habitat untrampled by hooves.

Fencing is a solution neither prohibitively expensive nor overwhelmingly complex. Cattle ranching can persist even as we restore the Klamath and its tributaries to its former glory. This isn't controversial; it's common sense.

For similar stories, read the author's book, "Fishing Across America" which is available for preorder now at Sign up for every single CaughtOvgard column at HYPERLINK "" Read more for free at; Contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Thank you for your continued support of local journalism.

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