How to catch lake whitefish at Banks Lake this winter
Lake whitefish could be an untapped gold mine around the eastern Washington angling scene, and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife surveys in 2022 reveal a successful fishery along with some other surprising discoveries
Originally published by Northwest Sportsman Magazine
Mention lake whitefish to any local angler, and you’ll likely get a “deer in the headlights” stare, but that is evolving with many fishers starting to take notice of this abundant species in eastern Washington waterways.
“Lake whitefish go pretty much unnoticed in eastern Washington by most anglers, but you’ll find a devoted group of folks who have really good success at places like Banks Lake,” says Marc Petersen, a WDFW biologist. “Their biomass and abundance are much higher than other species, and that’s one reason why we promote their harvest. We are likely expecting another great winter at Banks Lake too.”
During the winter, Banks Lake — a large, 27-mile-long reservoir that stretches along Highway 155 between Coulee City on the south end and Electric City on the north end — offers about 91 miles of accessible shoreline, mainly on the eastern side, and excellent fishing opportunities.
To find out more about lake whitefish in Banks Lake, WDFW began conducting creel surveys last January, work that will be completed by the end of this month.
“In our surveys, generally we’ve had a very successful fishery this summer and the highest recorded harvest to date,” Petersen says. “We should know more details sometime later in 2023. I think folks will be quite surprised with what we’ve discovered so far in our surveys.”
While winter is an ideal time to target lake whitefish, Petersen notes, you’ll still need to learn their seasonal habits and what to catch them on.
For starters, areas where the fish tend to hang out differ by season. Common winter locations are the northernmost points of the lake across from North Dam Park and by the dike at the Coulee City Marina. From a boat try off the red buoys or anywhere along the riprap.
The Devils Punch Bowl, a bay between the big Steamboat Rock peninsula and Coulee Boulevard on the northeast side of the lake, is a known producer in the summer.
There are plenty of WDFW water access locations — 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 a sharp eye out for underwater hazards like boulders and rocks in the south end of the lake and near islands.
From December to January, lake whitefish will move into shallower waters and reservoir inlets to spawn, usually around cobbled, sandy flat areas. The fish like to school in those areas, making them catchable for bank anglers.
If ice forms, anglers will head to deeper water. Although Banks doesn’t get iced over during most winters, when it does, the fishing can be productive.
Keep in mind lakes can be dangerous when freezing, thawing, and refreezing occurs. While ice safety can never be assured, do not go out onto a frozen lake unless the ice is at least four inches thick. As much as nine inches may be needed to safely support snowmobiles or other vehicles.
In other parts of the country, it’s not uncommon for people to book guided fishing trips to catch lake whitefish. They’re a prized fish and have a huge following in the Great Lakes region, as well as the midwestern area of the United States and Canada.
Lake whitefish history
Not much is known about how lake whitefish came to Washington waterways, but it is likely the nonnative fish were first brought to nearby states during the late 1800s.
One theory is they were first 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 early settlers.
“They quickly adapted to Washington waters and eventually got locked in once the dams were built,” says Danny Garrett, a WDFW biologist. “They now flourish in the upper Columbia River and large lakes and reservoirs, allowing anglers easy access to a great fighting fish.”
You might be surprised to learn lake whitefish are from the same family as salmon, trout, char, and grayling. They are deep bodied and laterally compressed, and they have an adipose fin with a forked tail, which indicates they’re very fast swimmers. The average size of lake whitefish in Banks is 18 to 24 inches with some larger ones up to 31 inches. They are known to live 15 to 20 years.
“A lot of anglers don’t realize what a fight they put up when hooked,” Petersen says. “It amazes me that more anglers aren’t taking advantage of fishing for lake whitefish, and I think over time it will catch on.”
What to use and how to catch them
On light tackle lake whitefish put up a decent tussle when hooked and since they tend to congregate in large schools, the bite can remain productive all day long.
A lightweight six-foot rod with a spinning reel — the same type of gear you’d use for trout or small gamefish — works the best. A sensitive-tipped rod will make it easier to detect their very light bite.
Lake whitefish have a very small head and mouth, so you should use a bait or lure resembling their diet, which includes snails, clams, small fish, and fish eggs.
“Most of the time I like to use cocktail shrimp — the seafood market variety — and will break them in half because it’s better to use a smaller piece,” Petersen tips. “I’ll thread the shrimp on the hook leaving just the tip exposed because the bite is very subtle.”
Popular lure choices include a Dick Nite spoon, Mepps spinner, Cicada Blade Bait, Mack’s Sonic Baitfish, and a Reef Runner Cicada. Another bait to try is maggots. Be sure to tip your hook with a single red salmon egg.
From the bank, use an oval slip sinker on four- to eight-pound-test main line tied to a barrel swivel with a foot-and-a-half fluorocarbon leader tied to a size eight or 10 hook. Jigging spoons or a cocktail shrimp can be effective when suspended at the proper depth or cast and slowly retrieve small jigs and spoons just off the bottom.
“During winter, I will vertically jig a tiny spoon like a forage minnow or Swedish Pimple, and in the summertime I’ll stay mainly with bait shrimp,” Petersen says.
You can use the two-pole endorsement at Banks, which gives you the added opportunity to catch fish faster. The daily limit is 15 lake whitefish and there is no minimum size limit here. A freshwater fishing license is required for those aged 15 and older.
You can catch lake whitefish virtually year-round at Banks Lake, but there is a lull 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 huge schools located in the deepest sections of the reservoir.
Banks is also home to black crappie, bluegill, burbot, common carp, kokanee, largemouth and smallmouth bass, rainbow trout, walleye, and yellow perch. You can find many outdoor activities at or near the lake, such as camping, hiking, mountain biking, boating, kayaking, canoeing, golfing, and plenty more. There are numerous hotels, stores, restaurants, tackle shops, campgrounds, RV sites and other necessary amenities too.
Go outside the Bank for possible opportunities
Other lake whitefish fisheries include Lake Roosevelt, a vast impoundment stretching more than 150 miles from Grand Coulee Dam into Canada.
“We recently did our annual gillnetting survey at Roosevelt Lake, and a good chunk of the catch was dominated by lake whitefish,” Garrett says. “While we haven’t done a specific study on lake whitefish, their biomass in Roosevelt is equal to Banks Lake, if not larger, given to how much we catch and given the size of Roosevelt versus Banks.”
Garrett says Roosevelt goes under the radar when it comes to lake whitefish and remains largely unnoticed by anglers targeting more popular species like walleye and rainbow trout.
“If I were someone who wanted to look for lake whitefish in Roosevelt, I’d try areas near a tributary mouth at spawning time,” Garrett says. “Places like at the mouth of the Colville River and Kettle River might be good starting points. I’d try the same techniques you use at Banks Lake to catch them. We’ve sampled a fish out of Lake Roosevelt that was 9.5 pounds.”
The current state record for a lake whitefish stands at 7.5 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 additional eastside waterways.
Lake whitefish can also be found in Roosevelt’s lower Spokane River Arm; Soda, Billy Clapp, and Moses Lakes; and Potholes, Rufus Woods, and Scooteney Reservoirs.
“We are literally sitting on the tip of an iceberg when it comes to lake whitefish fishing in Eastern Washington,” Garrett says. “These fish are one of the most underutilized fish and their abundance is a lot higher than many other fish species.”
Lake whitefish taste great and have moderately firm, flaky meat like salmon and are packed with omega-3 fatty acids.
“Lake whitefish have a high oil and fat content and when processed correctly are a great-eating fish,” Petersen says. “They’re known to be very bony, but people in the Midwest and Canada smoke them or use them in a fish fry.”
For ways to cook and prepare lake whitefish, go to the Great Lakes fish recipes, Michigan Fish Producers Association recipes or go to YouTube for Andrew Zimmern’s Whitefish Shore Lunch. WDFW’s YouTube feed also has videos on chasing lake whitefish on Banks Lake in the winter and summer.
(This story was written by Mark Yuasa, who is a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Communications Manager and a longtime local fishing and outdoor writer. You can find it published in the December issue of Northwest Sportsman Magazine.)