Lexi Han and her grandparents beam over a nice catch of yellow perch. They and rainbow trout are perhaps the two most widely species pursued through the ice. (Photo courtesy of Northwest Sportsman Magazine)

Solid ice advice


The ice fishing season provides a productive platform for fishing winter away in the northern tier of Eastern Washington.

No matter how cold it gets, there’s something about venturing out onto an ice-covered lake that melts the heart of many anglers in the wintertime.

Much to the surprise of many, the east side of Washington can be a winter angling haven and is often overlooked for its epic ice fishing opportunities — if you know where to go and follow key safety measures.

While the main fish species to target are rainbow trout and yellow perch, there’s a good chance to catch others like burbot, cutthroat trout, brown trout, crappie, bass, walleye, and bluegill.

Now that we’ve covered what types of fish are lurking beneath the ice, let’s review the most important factors when preparing to go ice fishing.

“My first piece of advice is to use common sense,” said Randy Osborne, WDFW biologist based in Spokane.

Safety measures top the list, as do making good decisions and having a well-thought-out plan that you share with someone at home before you head to a lake.

There are no guarantees a lake will freeze during a given winter, but usually the first freezing temperatures occur in December, leading to more favorable conditions by January or February. Often the first areas to see lakes freeze over are in Northeast Washington and high-elevation waters in the northern Cascades and Okanogan.

Osborne advises that before you even step foot on a frozen lake, make sure the ice is a minimum of four to eight inches thick. Ice is very hard to read by simply looking over the lake’s landscape, and its thickness can vary from place to place, as it never forms uniformly. If you can’t confirm ice thickness, don’t venture out onto the lake. Avoid areas covered with snow, slush, and ice that were thawed and then refroze. Newly formed ice tends to be stronger than old ice.

Test the ice as you carefully head out on a lake and keep an eye out for patches of open water or discolored ice, which could be an indication of varying ice thickness. Also, keep your holes in the ice around eight or so inches in diameter.

“Larger holes could be dangerous for those who come out later and don’t know the holes are there, especially if they skim over with thin ice and get snowed on, making them invisible,” Osborne said. “Every time I go out on the ice, I wear a life vest. Many sporting goods stores sell ice-gripping devices that can be used to grip the ice outside any holes in case you break through. Any such tools are handy and highly recommended.”

It is wise to never go alone when ice fishing, but once on the lake with other anglers, spread out to avoid placing too much weight on one area of the ice-covered lake. Always create a rescue plan just in case someone should fall through the ice.

Some vital safety tools include an ice pick and steel spikes connected to a strong cord just in case a companion falls in — the spikes can be driven into the ice to offer stability for them to pull themselves out.

Ice fishing is not just the purview of, er, grumpy old guys — anybody can get in on the act, as long as they’re well bundled and conditions are safe enough. A young Max Valenta tries his luck at Bonaparte Lake in a past season. (Photo courtesy of Northwest Sportsman Magazine)

Bring along a floating rope for throwing in case someone has fallen into the water. The length of rope should be long, as ice near the edge of a hole can be fragile and continue to break off.

Other essential gear and tools are a sled to carry your gear; an auger or chainsaw to measure the ice and to make multiple holes as you work your way out to the location you plan to fish; a spud bar to determine the thickness of ice without having to drill multiple holes; ice cleats to prevent slipping on ice; and a five-gallon bucket with a seat cushion, a low-profile lightweight chair or a small padded cushion to rest your knees on and to keep them dry.

Have good warm layers of clothing, as it’s easier to take a layer off than to be without enough clothes and wear a proper pair of waterproof boots to stay nice and warm. Having a spare set of clothes and large bath towel in your vehicle can be a lifesaver just in case you do get wet, as hypothermia can set in much faster than you think.

El Niño might make for tough sledding in some areas of the Northwest this winter, but it’s almost guaranteed that fishable ice will form at Washington lakes on the higher eastern slopes of the northern Cascades, up in the Okanogan Highlands and in the northeastern corner of the state. (Photo courtesy of Northwest Sportsman Magazine)

Fishing gear and events

An ice fishing rod and reel is much different than your normal seven- or eight-foot trout rod setup, which would be difficult to use to fish through a small hole in the ice.

A short one-piece, light to medium-light, fast-action fishing rod measuring 24 to 30 inches and outfitted with a spinning reel is the best choice for ice fishing. There are many fishing lines to use, including some geared toward ice fishing, but monofilament or fluorocarbon in a six- to 12-pound test will do the job. Sensitivity is important because the “bite” can be very subtle, as fish are lethargic in cold water and will lightly nip at your presentation.

Traditional offerings include moldable dough baits, worms, salmon eggs, meal and wax worms or maggots, corn and marshmallows attached to a small egg-style hook and a sliding sinker. A bobber or float is optional but not necessary.

Others prefer to use 1/8-ounce jigs, or a small, brightly colored spoon or spinner tipped with a piece of worm or maggot. Bring along a liquid or gel bait attractant to add to your bait or lure/jig.

A portable spiked, spring rod holder — or a fixed, stationary rod holder — is another piece of gear worth having and will often detect subtle bites. A rod holder will also allow you to keep your hands in your warm pockets.

Some anglers get high tech and bring along their portable fish finder or underwater camera. Other essentials include hand warmers, a pair of waterproof gloves, face covering and warm hat, sunglasses for those rare sunny days, snacks, a hot drink in a thermos, and a backup charger for your electronics — cold weather tends to drain things like your cell phone a lot faster.

Just like any other fishery, if you don’t have success in one location, try relocating to a spot 25 to 50 feet away. This could be the difference in finding a school of fish or not.

For the past 19 years, Sidley Lake in Okanogan County has been a popular winter destination, thanks to the Northwest Ice Fishing Festival, which this year is Jan. 13. In 2023, nearly 100 anglers turned out and the largest trout weighed in was 6.5 pounds. For more info, go to Okanogan Country website.

Also in the Okanogan Highlands, Bonaparte Lake Resort east of Tonasket is hosting an ice fishing derby on Jan. 27. For details, call 509–486–2828 or go to Bonaparte Lake Resort on Facebook.

Many eastside lakes provide good ice fishing in the winter and yellow perch are among the top fish species to catch. (Photo courtesy of Eric Braaten)

Where to go

There are many decent ice fishing locations, and some less popular lakes are sometimes even better producers than the more well-known ones. The key is to do a little homework before heading out the door.

The small- to medium-sized lakes in the Okanogan Highlands — an elevated mountainous plateau east of the Okanogan River near the Canadian border — tend to freeze over much faster than others to the south and central parts of the state, but there are ice fisheries north of Spokane, in the Columbia Basin and not far outside Leavenworth to consider too.

Sidley Lake (Okanogan County) — Located a mile south of the Canadian border near the town of Oroville, this lake covers 109 acres and its high elevation — 3,675 feet — and freezing temperatures usually leaves a lid of ice from 18 to 20 inches thick. Trout are the main species to target.

Bonaparte Lake (Okanogan County) — This 151-acre lake sitting at an elevation of 3,556 feet has evolved into a popular ice fishery for rainbow, eastern, brook, tiger, and a few lake trout. Kokanee are fair game too. The lake has a U.S. Forest Service campground and private resort, and the ice usually is thick enough — 5 ½ inches out to 60 feet of water as of Dec. 26 — to fish on by early January.

Patterson Lake (Okanogan County) — This 143-acre lake in the Methow Valley near Sun Mountain Lodge can be found 8 miles west of the idyllic town of Winthrop. It has an abundant yellow perch in the nine- to 12-inch range, as well as trout and kokanee. Sitting at 2,380 feet above sea level, it is one of the earlier lakes to freeze over. It has ample shoreline access, which allows anglers to spread out. The best period is January through February. There are cozy lakeside cabin rentals and lodging in Winthrop. Other outdoor activities in the area include cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snowmobiling. Note that several units of the state wildlife area in the valley are closed to public access this winter to protect wintering deer.

Curlew Lake (Ferry County) — This 870-acre lake sits at an elevation of 2,354 feet and the state park access on it is located nine miles north of Republic. The popularity of this remote fishery has increased, with anglers targeting rainbow trout and a yellow perch population that has become very abundant. Ice as thick as two feet isn’t uncommon here in colder months. The southern portion near the state park is shallow and tends to freeze earlier than the north end. There are resorts on the lake and nearby accommodations.

Eloika Lake (Spokane County) — This 629-acre lake situated at 1,909 feet can be found seven miles north of Chattaroy off Highway US-2 and is an ideal choice for yellow perch, largemouth bass, crappie, and an occasional brown trout. There is a nine-inch minimum size and 10-fish limit on black crappie. Catching yellow perch through the ice involves targeting schools of fish in deeper water.

Big smile on the face of this happy youth after catching a nice fish through the ice at Eloika Lake in Spokane County. (Photo courtesy of Jesse Huenergardt)

Bead Lake (Pend Oreille County) — Perched at an elevation of 2,833 feet, this 718-acre lake is a place where anglers can target burbot and lake trout through the ice. It is located eight miles north of Newport on the national forest ground. WDFW doesn’t stock this year-round lake, but it does contain self-reproducing populations of kokanee, lake trout and burbot. Call the Forest Service’s Newport Ranger District office (509–447–7300) for more information and access to the lake in the wintertime.

Moses Lake (Grant County) — This reservoir located right off I-90 is a three-hour drive from Seattle and hour and a half from Spokane and Tri-Cities. The main catches are yellow perch, trout, and occasional walleye. Ice development on Moses’s 6,815 acres (which sit at an elevation of 1,050 feet) is inconsistent, but when temperatures dip below freezing, the hot spot is Blue Heron Park. The window for ice fishing can be brief.

Banks Lake (Grant/Adams counties) — This 26,888-acre lake sitting at an elevation of 1,574 feet tends to freeze over by January and provide a good ice fishery. It has become popular for its lake whitefish fishery, but also has a mixed bag that includes rainbow trout and walleye.

Fish Lake (Chelan County) — Located 16 miles from the small Bavarian community of Leavenworth on Highway US-2, this lake is a popular ice fishing spot for yellow perch and planted trout, which feed on red shiners. Ice coverage on the 1,850-foot-elevation, 513-acre lake can be iffy, but during extreme cold there can be multiple layers of ice you’ll need to drill through to hit the water. The best period is January. Access is on the southwest side near Cove Resort. There’s limited access on the north and south shores from the two Forest Service roads.

More ice fishing possibilities

Davis (Okanogan County) is 4 miles southeast of Winthrop and is good for trout. Roses (Chelan County) near Lake Chelan is worth a try for trout and yellow perch. Hatch (Stevens County) is 5.4 miles southeast of Colville, and consistent for trout and yellow perch. Williams (Stevens County) is 14.5 miles north of Colville, and decent for trout and yellow perch. Fourth of July (Adams-Lincoln County) generates large trout along the lake’s southern end in 15 to 25 feet of water.

Palmer (Okanogan County) near Loomis is decent for yellow perch. Rat (Okanogan County), located five miles north of Brewster, is fair for trout. Potholes Reservoir (Grant County) freezes over some winters and offers yellow perch, walleye, crappie, bluegill and trout, and its Lind Coulee Arm is a popular spot to ice fish. Leader (Okanogan County) has a diverse fish population that includes yellow perch and trout.

Horseshoe (Spokane County, but not the one associated with the Rustler’s Gulch property) and Upper Twin (Lincoln County) are used by a few people to fish for yellow perch and a few rainbow trout. Diamond (Pend Oreille County) and Sacheen (Pend Oreille County) have a nice mix of yellow perch, crappie (mainly Diamond) and some rainbow trout. Dog (Yakima County) located east of White Pass along the north side of Highway 12 sits at an elevation of 4,207 feet and is easily accessible for rainbow trout.

Some lakes have selective-gear rules, specific size limits and/or reduced daily bag limits, so before heading out, check for regulations and other pertinent information on WDFW’s website.

(Editor’s note: Mark Yuasa is a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife communications manager and longtime local fishing and outdoor writer.)



The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is dedicated to preserving, protecting and perpetuating the state’s fish and wildlife resources.