You don't come to Summer Lake, Oregon, in March for the weather. This is the country where, according to local legend, Northwest explorer John C. Fremont was nearly stranded in the mountains overlooking the windswept basin and its namesake water body. Nonetheless, my companions couldn't resist pointing out during a recent trip to the Lake in the Dunes, just outside Summer Lake, that they had enjoyed T-shirt weather the previous year on the same weekend. Thankfully, we weren't there for the weather, which proved a mix of gusting winds, freezing temperatures and blowing snow, usually all at once, during the course of our weekend stay at the sportsmen's ranch that lies about two hours southeast of Bend.
The area around Summer Lake represents the far northwest reach of the Great Basin, a place of twisted trees and crumbling rock. Save the occasional alfalfa field, there isn't much that grows out here besides sage and bitterbrush. It's a place where the inhospitable terrain and unrelenting weather have sent would-be pioneers packing for more than a century. Even our host, ranch owner and Bend realtor, Steve Scott, couldn't help but curse Mother Nature as large snowflakes drifted seemingly sideways outside our window. But it's also a place of austere beauty where snow-dusted ridges and peaks conjure up thoughts of remote western Wyoming. It's a place where the loudest sound is often the sound of your own footsteps - depending, of course, on the relative wind speed.
We had come from Bend for the final weekend of pheasant hunting season, which extends to the end of March at private game preserves like Lake in the Dunes. However, hunting is just part of the attraction of the ranch, which Scott purchased some 30 years ago and has since improved somewhat obsessively, adding a series of small man-made lakes around the nearly 500-acre property. The lakes are fed by several on-site wells that provide a steady replenishing flow. Each year Scott and his son, Russell, stock the ponds with several thousand mature rainbows that average about 20 inches and grow quickly into torpedo-shaped predators. The result for anglers is a fishing experience that can't be found many places in the wild, at least not with any predictability.
Scott, a Vietnam veteran and former special forces soldiers who grew up hunting and fishing around Central Oregon, has made many of the improvements himself. From irrigation to excavation projects, Lake in the Dunes is a product of his ingenuity and indefatigability. What started as a personal retreat for Scott and a few of his hunting and fishing buddies has evolved into a full-time business for Russell, who spends most of the year at the ranch tending to guests' needs, which include guided hunting excursions around the property and the occasional netting of a oversized rainbow trout plucked from the ponds that sit just a stone's throw away from the guest cabin.
Lake in the Dunes is booked well in advance most weekends through the springs and summer when guests are able to rely on slightly better weather than our group experienced, as well as the promise of dry fly fishing to wall-mount worthy trout in the patchwork of small ponds. By way of contrast, it was so cold during our stay that the thought of actually immersing ourselves in the water - waders or not - was enough to keep most of our group huddled on the banks while casting to trout that lurked beneath water, but only rarely rose to the surface. Instead, we teased the willing fish that we could find to woolly buggers and other traditional streamer patterns, while also hooking a fair number of trout on mayfly nymphs that may or may not have born a strong resemblance to the pellets that these hatchery trout are fed for most of their lives. Steve Scott took the biggest fish of the weekend, one of the largest he's landed in 30 odd years of fishing at Lake in the Dunes, on a Kokanee candy pattern that is designed for targeting the landlocked salmon prevalent in places like Lake Billy Chinook and East Lake. For the record, there are no salmon, landlocked or otherwise, at Lake in the Dunes. But that's when local knowledge comes into play - granted that Scott didn't tell us about his secret fly and until after he had landed two tippet-busting hatchery hogs on it.
Still, it's nice to have the benefit of the Scotts' expertise and we took full advantage. Russ kept our group of part-time hunters (I hadn't shot at a pheasant in over a decade before the trip) on task and ready. While it took a few minutes to blast the rust off, we did manage to bag more than a dozen birds between our two groups. Another bonus of a guided hunt: our host dressed the birds for us and stored the meat until we were loading up for the return trip. Best of all, though, was the fact that our hosts provided the dogs for our hunt, a pair of German shorthairs that worked the fields with abandon and rooted out birds that had hunkered down stubbornly in the swirling wind. For those interested in shooting, but not necessarily killing, there is a new sporting clays course at the ranch where hot shots like ourselves are quickly humbled by an array of different target presentations. Targets are sent whistling out toward the horizon with the push of a button and we quickly ran through five boxes of shells while watching most of the clay targets fall to the ground unmolested by our lead shot.
While guests have the option of returning home to Bend, or wherever, at the end of the day, I'd recommend that anyone looking at a trip to Lake in the Dunes consider renting the ranch's cabin. It's the same one that Scott built for himself and his buddies more than a decade ago. The cabin has a bunk bed on the lower level and two more standard beds in the loft. The cabin has a shower with hot water, a full kitchen complete with coffee maker and a comfortable sitting area with a television and a somewhat comprehensive library of John Wayne films, in case you didn't get enough shooting during the daylight hours.
Lake in the Dunes