Size doesn’t matter at annual fish camp

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Kevin Sawyer didn’t weigh the Kamloops he caught a couple weeks ago on Lake Pend Oreille where he, friends and family have been chasing the big rainbows since mid-October. Most of the fish, including this one, were photographed and released. Courtesy photo

When the wind that blasts from Bayview north across Lake Pend Oreille mixes with the throb blowing west from the Clark Fork River, and the swirl rushing southeast from the Purcell Trench, the water becomes a washing machine.

Kevin Sawyer has a name for it.

“All those wind directions, the waves kind of hay stack into each other,” Sawyer said.

He calls it “stacking.”

“It creates a havoc for boaters,” Sawyer said.

Below the surface though, where the lake’s big rainbows, or Kamloops, lurk, the environment is akin to a smorgasbord, as food fish, the 3- to 5-inch kokanee that Kamloops prefer to eat, bunch and get tossed around and beat up, making them easier than normal pickings for the hungrier than normal rainbows.

Sawyer, who grew up in the Selle Valley and has spent 60-plus years fishing for the lake’s Kamloops, often looks for stacking when he looks to fish.

This fall, he and his family, and fishing pal Rich Lindsey, spent the better part of a month chasing the king fish of Lake Pend Oreille.

He found the swirling, bouncing, slamming stacking effect more than once and he and his fellow anglers took advantage.

In all, the group caught 64 Kamloops, averaging eight fish per day and ranging from 15 fish on one day, to one fish, just the other day.

The annual “fish camp” is what Sawyer cuts out of his calendar every October to November, sometime between general elk season and the whitetail rut.

Those three weeks are reserved for Kamloops.

It’s been this way for a while.

“It’s the best time to fish,” Sawyer said.

In the annals of anglers, Sawyer is among the few, and getting fewer, whose heritage is a scrapbook of outdoor activities, all of them hearkening back to his childhood growing up with a father who chased Kamloops with a quiet vehemence. His success is on the wall — three 25-pound plus Kamloops — and in the embroidered patches on a fishing jacket. The patches were bestowed by a cultured club of Kamloops chasers called the Lake Pend Oreille Idaho Club.

“They (the club) present the fishermen with an embroidered patch for a 25-pound rainbow,” Sawyer said. “It’s very coveted in that group to have that patch on a jacket.”

His dad’s biggest Kamloops was 31 pounds. Sawyer has his own fish on the wall, but he no longer subscribes to the wall-hanger mentality.

“I look at them and they don’t mean anything to me,” he said.

When he caught what appears a monster Kamloops a couple weeks ago on a steely day on the lake, he hoisted the fish for a photo, 10 seconds, 20 seconds, then put it back.

“It’s not good to keep them out of the water very long,” he said.

He put the fish head first into the swell alongside the boat, pulled it back and forth against the wake to get water over its gills, held its tail until the fish s-curved, kicked loose and disappeared under the lake’s gray surface.

“I didn’t put it on a scale,” Sawyer said. “It matters not to me what it weighed.”

He knew from experience that the fish may have been the biggest one caught this year, or in many years. When his dad caught the 31-pounder in 1969, it was the biggest fish caught in more than 18 years on the lake, he said.

It was a dream fish, the size every angler longs to maybe just once, get into the boat. A trophy. A certified wall-hanger.

“I don’t need another one,” he said.

Over the years Sawyer has caught and lost so many fish, in so many ways, that his respect for the lake’s big meat-eaters is stronger than his desire to keep the line burners known for their ability to make fishing reels scream.

“I’ve had them break line, break knots, break snaps, straighten hooks and split rings, I’ve had them snap plastic lures in half,” he said. “They are just brutal.”

But keep them he does.

The small ones.

He eats them.

Putting meat in a pan is also part of Sawyer’s outdoor experience that his daughters have inherited.

Amy, a Sandpoint photographer, said fishing Kamloops on the lake with her dad was part of her upbringing.

“It’s just something we always did,” she said.

A couple weeks ago during fish camp, which entails meeting at the Hope boat launch at 6:30 in the morning, and motoring often on a dark lake, she caught an 18-pound rainbow and her sister, Becky, caught a 12-pounder. In all, they caught nine Kamloops that autumn day.

“We don’t do a lot of extravagant vacations,” Amy said.

Together, they do fish camp.

But the season is just about over. Once the snow flies steadily, and the air temperature stays below freezing, and any fish that are kept freeze to the deck, and coffee from a thermos is poured onto a reel to thaw it out, so a fish can be reeled in, Sawyer calls time.

“We’re getting to where we’re about done,” he said.

Frozen engines and gear don’t mix well with freezing spray.

“That lake is unforgiving,” he said.

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