Bank on Banks Lake to cash in on a rousing lake whitefish fishery
Abundant lake whitefish are relatively easy to catch virtually year-round in many eastern Washington locations
Salmon and trout garner the sport fishing spotlight in Washington, but there are many fish species that deserve the same recognition.
A good example is the plentiful population of lake whitefish found in eastern Washington waterways including Banks Lake, an expansive 27-mile reservoir stretching along Highway 155 between Coulee City to the south and Electric City on the north end.
“Lake whitefish are probably one of the most underutilized and widely ignored fish in eastern Washington,” said Marc Petersen, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) District Biologist. “Many anglers don’t realize what a good fight they put-up when hooked. In other parts of the country, it’s not uncommon for people to book guided fishing trips to catch them. Their biomass and abundance are much higher than other species, and that’s one good reason why we promote their harvest.”
Origin of lake whitefish
Lake whitefish are primarily native to the Great Lakes region, and in the northern and midwestern parts of the United States as well as Canada.
Not much is known about their origination to Washington waters, but it is likely the non-native fish were first brought to nearby states around the late 1800s.
“We know they were introduced into Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho and Flathead Lake in Montana, and from there they spread naturally through connected waterways or were moved around by settlers,” said Danny Garrett, a WDFW District Biologist.
“They quickly adapted to Washington waters and eventually got locked in once the dams were built,” Garrett said. “They now flourish in the upper Columbia and large lakes and reservoirs allowing anglers easy access to a great fighting fish.”
Some might be surprised to learn lake whitefish are from the same family as salmon, trout, char, and grayling.
They are deep bodied, laterally compressed and have an adipose fin with a fork tail, which indicates they’re very fast swimmers. Lake whitefish have been known to live 15 to 20 years.
Easy accessibility to the fishery
In the wintertime, Banks Lake is one of the more popular locations to target lake whitefish and has many miles of accessible shoreline. This makes fishing from the shore relatively easy. The eastern shoreline has numerous places since the west side is less developed.
“Winter is an excellent time to target lake whitefish, and while abundant you still need to learn their habits and what to catch them on,” Petersen said. “Look for them around the northern most points across from North Dam Park, and along the dyke at the Coulee City Marina. From a boat try around the red buoys or anywhere along the rip-rap.”
WDFW water access areas are located at Ankeny Road North and South; Barker Canyon; Million Dollar Mile North and South; and Osborn Bay Lake as well as Steamboat Rock State Park. Keep an eye out along the south end and islands for underwater hazards such as boulders and rocks.
From December to January, they’ll move into shallower waters and reservoir inlets to spawn usually along cobbled, sandy flat areas. The fish congregate in those areas making them very accessible to bank anglers. Later in the winter if ice forms, they’re targeted in deeper water. Most winter periods it doesn’t ice over, but when it does, fishing can be excellent.
Keep in mind lakes can be dangerous when freezing, thawing, and re-freezing occurs. While ice safety can never be assured, do not go out onto a frozen lake unless the ice is at least 4-inches thick. As much as nine inches may be needed to safely support snowmobiles or other vehicles. For details, go to WDFW webpage on ice fishing.
And while you can catch lake whitefish virtually year-round, a lull occurs during fall and spring as fish transition to their winter and summer habitats.
In summer the action sees a second peak as fish congregate in large schools around the deepest sections of the reservoir.
The average size of a Banks Lake fish is 18 to 24 inches along with some confirmed to be even larger.
The current state record for a lake whitefish stands at 7.50 pounds and was caught on Feb. 19, 2021 by Jacob White at Cox Lake in Franklin County, but there’s no doubt larger ones are lurking in the water.
“We’ve sampled a fish out of Lake Roosevelt that was 9 ½ pounds,” Garrett said. “If you want to get a state record size fish then spend time in Roosevelt, which has a robust fishery that largely goes unnoticed by anglers targeting more popular species like rainbow trout and walleye.”
What to use, where to go and more
On light tackle lake whitefish put up a great tussle when hooked and they tend to stay in huge schools that offer fast and furious action throughout the day.
A lightweight six-foot rod with a spinning reel, similar to a trout fishing set-up, works best.
Lake whitefish have a very small head and mouth so even as adults, anglers should use bait or lure that mimics what they eat like snails, clams, small fish, and fish eggs.
“The choices of bait or lure to use include flies, spoons, spinners and baits like maggots and shrimp,” Petersen said. “During winter, I may vertically jig a tiny spoon like a forage minnow or Swedish pimple, and during summer I’ll stick to bait shrimp.”
Other popular lure choices are a Dick Nite spoon, Mepps spinner, Cicada Blade Bait, Mack’s Sonic Baitfish, and a Reef Runner Cicada. Be sure to tip your hook with a single red salmon egg.
For bait add a cocktail shrimp — the seafood market variety — on the bottom with a slip sinker approximately a foot above the shrimp. Place the whole shrimp to cover the hook as these fish are hook sensitive and will spit the hook if they feel something “fishy.”
Bank anglers should use an oval slip sinker on 4- to 8-pound test main line tied to a barrel swivel with a foot-and-a-half fluorocarbon leader tied to a size 8 or 10 hook. Jigging spoons or a deli shrimp can be effective to get it suspended at the proper depth or cast and slowly retrieve small jigs and spoons or other lures just off the bottom.
At Banks Lake, anglers can take advantage of the two-pole endorsement, which gives you the added opportunity to catch more fish. The daily limit is 15 lake whitefish with no minimum size limit at Banks Lake and a freshwater fishing license is required. For more information, go to the WDFW fishing license page.
Other species that inhabit the lake are black crappie, bluegill, burbot, common carp, kokanee, largemouth and smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, walleye, and yellow perch.
Lake whitefish are great tasting and have moderately firm, flaky meat, similar to salmon and are packed with omega-3 fatty acids and other beneficial nutrients.
“Lake whitefish have a high oil and fat content and when processed correctly are a great eating fish,” Petersen said. “They’re known to be very bony but people in the Midwest and Canada smoke them or use them in a fish fry.”
The area surrounding Banks Lake has something for everyone making it the ideal family vacation destination, which includes hiking, mountain biking, camping, kayaking, and canoeing, golfing and more. There are numerous nearby hotels, stores, restaurants, tackle shops, campgrounds, RV sites and other necessary amenities.
You can also find lake whitefish in Roosevelt Lake (including the lower Spokane arm), Potholes Reservoir, Soda Lake, Billy Clapp Lake, Moses Lake, Rufus Woods Reservoir and Scooteney Reservoir.
“It amazes me that more anglers aren’t taking advantage of fishing for lake whitefish and I think over time it will catch on,” Petersen said.