Spring fun amid the sage - The Olympian

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Spring fun amid the sage - The Olympian
Apr 15th 2012, 07:13

As my son and I geared up to go fishing, a quartet of horseback riders trotted by aboard their steeds. A couple, sporting binoculars, drove by, perhaps looking for the western meadowlark that flew by moments before. Farther down the road, a multi-generation family prepared lunch at their campsite.

In the first few moments of our visit, I got a good taste of just some of what Quincy Lakes Wildlife Area has to offer.

The 15,266-acre Quincy Lakes area is one of 13 units that make up the state Department of Fish and Wildlife's Columbia Basin Wildlife Area. The Quincy Lakes area stretches from just west of state Route 281 to the banks of the Columbia River, from Crescent Bar down the Columbia River to the Old Vantage Highway.

The area's unique topography was created by ancient glacial floodwaters carving through even older lava flows. The resulting exposed layers of basalt create 800-foot cliffs that tower over the Columbia, as well as mesas, stair-stepped benches, box canyons and potholes filled with water.

When we visited earlier this month, the green of spring had yet to spread across the high desert shrub-steppe. But that didn't seem to deter any of the folks taking advantage of the trails, solitude and fishing that the area has to offer.


Quincy Lake appeals to a broad spectrum of anglers. At the west end of the lake, several groups had set up camp on the shore, camp chairs and rod holders marking their favored fishing spots. Not far from us, a lone angler stood atop a large rock jutting into the water, casting lures in hopes of hooking a trout. On the water, a pair of anglers used a canoe to fish the lake's far side, while I watched a trio of people land a fish from a drift boat. At the end of the road, a host of cars marked another popular spot for bait anglers.

If trout are not your interest, consider Evergreen Lake, home to largemouth and smallmouth bass.

"The lake's long shoreline offers lots of bass-holding water, from steep basalt walls that have broken rock piles at their base to some shallow bays surrounded by weed lines and brush," Dave Graybill, an outdoors journalist and central Washington native wrote about the area's largest lake. "There are enough likely looking hiding places for bass to keep an angler busy all day."

Not only does the area's geology make it worth visiting, it also is the reason that the fishing can be so good.

"There are a lot of minerals and nutrients in the water that make them very productive," said Chad Jackson, district fish biologist for the state. "It goes all the way from the basic algae to the zooplankton to the bugs. There's just more nutrients in the water for more productivity."

The first couple of months after the March 1 opening of many of the lakes are the prime time, Jackson said.

"We get pretty warm temperatures, so the water heats up quicker. That shuts down the trout when the water gets too warm," he said.


Whether the fishing is slow, or birding is your prime interest, the wildlife area is a worthy destination.

As we fished, my son and I watched a cormorant swallow a fish it had caught mid-lake. Mallards squawked as they wheeled overhead, looking for a place to land. A variety of gulls screeched as they drifted on the breeze.

Tacoma birders Rob and Natalie McNair-Huff included the wildlife area in their book "Birding Washington." They wrote about seeing great egrets along the shore of Stan Coffin Lake. The area is a major stopover for migrating waterfowl, making it a good fall birding destination, Rob McNair-Huff said.

Raptors, shorebirds, songbirds, upland birds, wading birds and waterfowl all make the area their home at some point during the year.


In addition to its warmer springtime temperatures, the wildlife area is popular because of the diversity of recreational opportunities it offers.

"It's definitely a multiuse area," said Greg Fitzgerald, manager of the area for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. "There's a lot of things that make it so popular."

A network of unmaintained paths offers plenty of hiking. One of the best treks is the 2.5-mile trip into the Ancient Lakes area. At the end of the hike is a series of small lakes, one of which is fed by a waterfall. The multi-tiered falls drops about 100 feet from the top of a basalt cliff. The best access to this portion of the wildlife area is at the end of Ancient Lakes Road Northwest.

Starting from the same trailhead, people walking to Dusty Lake can enjoy a plethora of wildflowers, according to Art Kruckenberg in "Best Wildflower Hikes: Washington." During the blooming season, one can see purple sage, balsamroot, wild onion and elderberry.

Fitzgerald said he likes to hike to some of the smaller lakes west of Evergreen Reservoir.

"There are several tiny seep lakes that tend to sit in these natural corrals. There's nice fishing in them, they're quiet little places with cliffs and wildflowers," Fitzgerald said.

Walking the trails also exposes visitors to the area's remarkable geology, including the channel scablands, basalt outcroppings and unique formations like pillow lava.

For those who prefer to ride – mountain bikes or horses – the Babcock Bench overlooking the Columbia River has about eight miles of roads. There are another six or seven miles of trails near Burke Lake.

Frenchman Coulee, at the south end of the area off the old Vantage Highway, is really popular with rock climbers, Fitzgerald said.

"The rocks warm up, so it's a nice place to go climbing early in the spring before more popular places warm up," he said.

There are about 660 routes identified in the guidebook "Frenchman Coulee" by Marlene Ford and Jim Yoder. Many are well-established routes heading up the basalt columns.

Fitzgerald said one of his favorite locations within the wildlife area is a place called Suicide Cliffs. While the cliff earned its moniker for tragic reasons, it sits right above the river on the Babock Bench, above Crescent Bar.

"If you take your spotting scope, you can see elk and bighorn sheep on the other side of the river," Fitzgerald said. "It's classic channel scabland and has great views of the whole river in that stretch."

Jeffrey P. Mayor: 253-597-8640

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