Washington Fishing Planner, Part One
From freshwater to saltwater, the frigid Columbia Basin to westside lakes, here are top bets for the first six months of the year. The second part of this series will appear in the February issue of Northwest Sportsman Magazine.
Originally published in Northwest Sportsman Magazine
Let’s kick off the New Year right!
Whether you’re making a resolution to get out on the water more in 2023 or possibly trying out a new fishery, we’ve got you covered on the places to go that are not only attainable but could create lifelong memories.
In this first of a two-part series, we’ll cover the top fishing choices and other fun activities from January through June. Next issue: the rest of the year.
Lake Roosevelt, a 77,684-acre impoundment of the upper Columbia River, is worth the long drive to catch large-sized kokanee. The peak kokanee fishing time is January through April, and most average in the 13- to 17-inch range, with some weighing three to five pounds. The current state record came from Lake Roosevelt and was a 6.25-pounder caught by Clarence F. Rief on June 26, 2003. These are wild kokanee that have thrived due to an abundant biomass of daphnia and other zooplankton that boosts their growth rates and fills out their bodies with tasty reddish, orange-fleshed meat.
Anglers can find kokanee in the lower third of the reservoir, from Grand Coulee Dam to above the Sanpoil River Arm at Clark Point. To access the fishing grounds, head to the boat launch at Keller. Good kokanee locations include Hanson Harbor; below the Spring Canyon boat ramp; Swawilla Basin on the north side of the lake; off a landmark known as Camel Bluff along the southern shore; the “Cliffs” area; and the Pipe Pile Hole, where a stack of pipes is visible along the shoreline. Just across from Keller and downstream of the Sanpoil, China Bluff and Moonbeam Bay are popular trolling spots, as is just inside the Sanpoil Arm.
Since the kokanee’s food source is usually in the upper water column, you can troll (1.3 to 1.5 mph, but no faster than 1.7 mph) down 10 to 15 feet and often no deeper than 25 feet.
Side planer boards get your lines away from the boat (100 to 150 feet) and avoid spooking the fish. Downriggers work if you don’t have or want to use planers. The top lure is a Kokabow Fishing Spinner. Make sure to add a kernel or two of white shoe peg corn (never use yellow corn) on the hooks of the spinner or hoochie. Then add your favorite scent. Leader length should be 12 to 20 inches. A Rapala Flicker Shad or Berkley crankbait also work well.
If you’re looking for a trophy-size rainbow trout and possibly seeking a new state record, then head to Northcentral Washington’s Rufus Woods Reservoir, located on the Upper Columbia between Chief Joseph and Grand Coulee Dams. This popular winter fishery is where the long-standing Washington state sport-fishing record for a rainbow trout occurred, a 29.60-pound fish caught by Norm Woods on Nov. 11, 2002. An interesting fact is the state record for rainbow trout was broken four times at Rufus Woods, and three happened in February and the other during the last week of January.
While the hype is on big fish, it’s also about the quantity and quality of rainbow trout averaging two to six pounds, with some in the high teens. The Colville Confederated Tribes in cooperation with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) produce about 14 million pounds annually. These trout are known as triploids, and they don’t reproduce and thus don’t jeopardize native fish stocks. The reason why these get so large is they’re hyper focused on gorging off the ample feed — daphnia and other zooplankton — found along this vast 51-mile stretch between the towns of Bridgeport and Coulee Dam. The fish tend to stay in the area because they’re attracted to the hatchery pellet food source that discharges from commercial net pens.
This is a bank- and boat-accessible fishery. The best shoreline area on the north side is located on reservation land near the net pens and requires a tribal permit to fish. An annual permit to fish or use facilities on the reservation is $80. To buy a permit, visit colville.nagfa.net/online or colvilletribes.com. A map of Rufus Woods can be found at www.cct-fnw.com/program-1.
The boat launches closest to the net pens are located at Tim’s Ranch and Coyote Creek. Another nearby boat ramp is Seaton’s Grove below Grand Coulee Dam, an 8-mile boat ride to the upper net pen. The lower net pen is about 33 miles above Chief Joseph Dam, and the middle net pen is closest to the mouth of Nespelem Creek, where a flat is located. You’ll see many fly and bank anglers in this area.
From a boat troll a Rapala, Yakima Bait Mag Lip, Flicker Shad, Wiggle Wart, FlatFish or Kwikfish in bright orange or fire tiger. You can also surface troll a Wedding Ring with a nightcrawler or a large Woolly Bugger fly behind a Wiggle Fin action disc.
Bank anglers should use Berkley PowerBait or a similar dough bait. Be sure to use a heavier slip sinker to keep it on the bottom, depending on currents, along with a heavy leader.
Sekiu/Pillar Point in the western Strait of Juan de Fuca has become a focal point for winter Chinook, also known as blackmouth, and is scheduled to be open from March 1 through April 30. Make sure to book your trip on the front end of the season rather than later because Marine Area 5, as these waters are also known, could close sooner if the preseason projected catch is exceeded.
Sekiu is known for producing larger-sized fish in late winter and early spring, Chinook ranging from five to 13 pounds, with a few hitting 15 to 20-plus pounds. The key to success is locating baitfish. Start off at the “Caves” located around the corner of the breakwater from the resort docks, and head toward Eagle Bay. Other places are the green buoy off Slip Point, Mussolini Rock, the Coal Mine and Slide areas, or further east to Cod Fish Bay and Pillar Point. Troll with downriggers using a rotating flasher with a whole or cut-plug herring, plugs, spoons, Needlefish, or a variety of plastic squids. Others will drift or motor mooch with herring or use jigs like a Point Wilson Dart, Crippled Herring, Dungeness Stinger, or Buzz Bomb.
There’s a buzz in the air when April rolls for around anglers, and that excitement is centered around opening weekend of the statewide lowland lakes trout season on April 22–23. This is a time when thousands of anglers converge on hundreds of lakes stocked with millions of trout! Several years ago, WDFW came up with a cost-effective way to produce larger catchable-sized trout in hatcheries, which has been a hit according to angler surveys taken from previous openers. The standardized catchable-size trout is 10 to 12 inches compared to eight inches in previous years.
For those looking to catch a fish worth a prize, be sure to participate in the annual WDFW Statewide Trout Derby from April 22 through Oct. 31 at selected lakes. And be sure to keep tabs on WDFW’s website , where sometime in early spring you’ll find the statewide stocking plan.
Also occurring this month, WDFW and state, federal and tribal fishery managers will meet April 2–7 to set the salmon fishing for the 2023–24 season!
The door to lingcod fishing swings wide open during a six-week season that begins May 1 in the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Sekiu to Port Angeles (Marine Areas 5 and 6), San Juan Islands (Marine Area 7), and most of Puget Sound (Marine Areas 8–1, 8–2, 9, 10, 11 and 13).
Last season saw exceptionally good fishing throughout May. Much of this is tied to improved management of Puget Sound lingcod stocks since the 1980s, when populations began to increase. The lingcod daily limit is one per angler and the minimum size limit is 26 inches and maximum size is 36 inches. This slot limit is one reason why lingcod have rebounded and includes releasing oversized females.
Look for these bottom dwellers around structure like rockpiles, reefs, ledges, and marina breakwaters.
Live flounders work the best to catch lingcod, so be sure to stop off along a sandy-bottomed area and hook some to use for bait. Make sure to have a livewell or aerator on the boat to keep your flounder spunky; a large bucket filled with seawater will even do the job. To catch flounder, attach a one- to three-ounce weight to a short leader and hook on your fishing rod.
For bait, use a small chunk of a Berkley PowerBait Grub, Sandworm, or a herring strip. Bounce it off the bottom until you feel a vibration or tug on the line. Outside of a live flounder you can also use four- to six-inch soft plastic squid jigs or grubs in root beer, purple, green, glow or dark motor oil color. Metal-style jigs commonly used for salmon also work. Keep in mind that barbless hooks are required for all species in Marine Areas five to 13, including for lingcod and other bottomfish.
In Puget Sound, look for lingcod on Possession Bar off Scatchet Head; around Blakely Rock and Restoration Point; off Point Evans near the Tacoma Narrows Bridges or Toliva Shoal off Steilacoom; Itsami Ledge off Henderson Inlet’s north end; near Utsalady Bay or Double Bluff, Deception Pass, Burrows Island, Smith Island and Lopez Pass to the north; artificial reefs south of Richmond Beach, north of the Edmonds Marina and southeast of Alki Point; throughout the San Juan Islands and Bellingham Bay; and the breakwaters at Elliott Bay, Shilshole and Edmonds Marinas.
We’ll have to wait until salmon seasons are set in April to know exactly when the central Puget Sound (Marine Area 10) coho fishery will open — typically, early, or mid-June — but this has become a very popular close-to-home fishing destination. These resident coho aren’t big like their migrating fall cousins and average 2 to 4 pounds, but action can at times be fast and furious.
This fishery usually sputters out of the gate and takes about one or two weeks for the action to build. Hit the deep-water shipping lanes between Jefferson Head and the Kingston-Apple Tree Point area; the rip currents around the Edmonds oil dock to Richmond Beach; West Point south of Shilshole Bay; and the east side of Bainbridge Island.
Keep a fast troll with a Silver Horde Coho Killer or Kingfisher spoon or plastic squid with a herring strip about 28 inches behind a flasher. Mooching also catches its fair share of coho, and most use a smaller cut-plug herring with a tight spin.
(Mark Yuasa is a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife communications manager and longtime local fishing and outdoor writer. You can find it published in the January issue of Northwest Sportsman Magazine.)