Washington and Oregon offer plenty of great fishing waters, and most anglers have their favorite spots to cast for trophies. But with temperatures warming up and the school year winding down, this is the perfect time to focus on a different kind of destination: the best locations for a family fishing trip. The goal this month is to find waters where your kids can actually catch fish, and perhaps enjoy some fun diversions along the way. Here are a few places where you can make some memories.
Where’s a fishing family to go?
Oregon and Washington are awash in freshwater family fishing options that include species ranging from bluegills to brown trout, wallhanger walleyes to super-sized smallmouths.
Oregon offers 1,300 destinations, Washington more than 2,500 — staggering pools of possibilities for families who just want an outdoor alternative to video games, or a few fish for the campfire skillet. Banks Lake in north-central Washington and Fern Ridge Reservoir in Oregon’s south Willamette Basin are two of a half dozen lakes that have all the ingredients for great family fishing adventures. Let’s take a closer look at those destinations as well as other great family fishing options.
Covering almost 28,000 acres, Banks Lake is a 4-mile wide, 27-mile long reservoir complex of open-water, cliff-walled coves, bouldered bays and rock islands. It features miles of shore fishing, public boat launches and one of the most diverse state parks in Washington. Open year-round, Banks is a favorite with serious bass and walleye tournament anglers. It is also popular as a laid-back place to watch bobbers bob with bluegill bites. Banks is located in a cliff edged coulee south of Electric City in north-central Washington.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife reported there is solid trout fishing April through October for several hundred thousand rainbows raised and released from lake net pens, plus big largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleyes, kokanee salmon, yellow perch, bluegills, black crappies, channel catfish, carp and burbot.
The surrounding Banks Lake Recreation Area, WDFW and state park lands provide miles of fishable shoreline for boatless anglers. For fishermen with trailerable boats the big lake is a wide-open opportunity. Boaters can pick from a half-dozen public and private ramps along the lakeshore, some with camping. Trout bite best April through June, then again September through November. And the bass and panfish action just gets better as the summer gets older. Walleyes are hot in March and still biting in October.
Anchoring this family destination is Steamboat Rock State Park, a 3,522-acre complex at midlake. Huge campgrounds, including sites accessible only from boats, and 34 miles of hiking and horse trails are available. Book a fishing guide at Big Wally’s on Banks southern end or go north to full-service Coulee Playland Resort and rent a boat, camp, and stock up on groceries and tackle.
Along the Way
For an interesting side trip, head a few miles northeast to see the nightly laser light and music show at iconic Grand Coulee Dam.
Sun Lakes-Dry Falls is a 4,243-acre state park in the center of the state, with half a dozen trout lakes ranging from freezer-filling put-and-take fisheries to one of the state’s most challenging trophy trout fly-fishing lakes. These lakes have something for all levels of fishing expertise from salmon-egg dunking beginners to fly purists.
Sun Lakes is cradled in a broad coulee beneath black basalt cliffs along SR 17, about 17 miles north of Soap Lake. Dramatic geologic sculptures are remnants of the cataclysmic Lake Missoula ice-age floods that re-routed the Columbia River. These lakes are the pooled remain of a prehistoric waterfall 10 times larger than Niagara.
Lake sizes vary from 15-acre Perch to 536-acre Blue. All are heavily stocked by WDFW with rainbow, brown and tiger trout. After catching enough planter trout on marshmallows and worms for the skillet, head over to Dry Falls, a challenging 99-acre pool at the north end of the chain. A float-tube friendly lake, Dry Falls is managed as a “quality” fishery.
Largest in the chain are Park and Blue lakes. Both are heavily stocked and include lots of bank, dock and small boat options. Included are camping sites, cabins, a marina, cafe, general store and trails.
Or select from two private resorts. Laurent’s Sun Village is on a neck of land between Park and Blue, not far from Blue Lake Resort. Both offer camping, cabins, rental boats, lawn sports, basic groceries, tackle, bait and ramps. Horseback trail riding can be arranged.
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Additional attractions include 15 miles of state park trails, paddle boarding and a 9-hole golf course. Check out caves three miles south at Lenore Lake Caves that were used by prehistoric hunters. The sweeping view from the overlook at Dry Falls Visitor Center looks straight into the history of this sun-drenched trout fishery.
Fishing families will find accommodations ranging from upscale fully-furnished cottages to RV and primitive tent sites. Fishing is as simple as sinking a worm or finessing some of the biggest bass and walleyes in the state. Largemouths are 2 to 9 pounds, smallmouths up to 7 pounds and walleyes pushing 17 pounds. Throw in a net-pen program that releases thousands of catchable rainbows, add a swelling panfish population and you’ve got a top-end family fishery.
The heart is 43-square mile Potholes Reservoir (also known as O’Sullivan Reservoir) south of Moses Lake on SR 262. Below the reservoir are dozens of lakes, some pond-size others covering more than 100 acres, cradled in a mostly treeless land managed by state and federal agencies. Most are comfortably fished from the bank for rainbow and brown trout. You’ll also find largemouth and smallmouth bass, walleyes, crappies, perch, bluegills and channel catfish.
Shift to the reservoir and boat the open lake or poke into the maze of sand dunes. Cast and troll for bass, walleye, and rainbows or dock fish for perch, bluegills, catfish and trout. MarDon Resort has everything a fishing family needs from rental boats to tackle cottages to playgrounds.
Stake out a primitive camp in the seep lakes, at the developed sites in Potholes State Park, boat-camp in the remote dunes or use the convenience of MarDon Resort’s tent and RV sites, furnished cottages and cabins, rental boats, ramp, fishing dock, bass and walleye guides, groceries,, restaurant, tackle, moorage, fuel and family fishing events.
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Non-fishing diversions include an 18-hole golf course and pool at nearby O’Sullivan Sportsman Resort, winery tours, jet skiing, Columbia Basin National Wildlife Refuge bird and wildlife watching, canoe trails, rock climbing and hiking, off-road motorcycle and dune buggy romps in 3,000-acre Moses Lake Sand Dunes and a Surf ‘n Slide Water Park in Moses Lake.
Henry Hagg Lake
West of Portland, Henry Hagg Lake is 1,100 acres of family fishing opportunities just a short drive from Oregon’s population center.
The lake supports schools of scrappy panfish and planted trout to record-size smallmouths. Largemouth and smallmouth bass, crappies, bluegills and perch travel the shoreline shallows within casting range of bank-fishermen. Hint: Suspend a worm under a bobber and drop it into submerged trees.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife notes that Henry Hagg Lake is a great destination for beginners but that it also is popular among more experienced anglers, as state record smallmouth (8 pounds, 1.76 ounces) and brown bullhead catfish (3 pounds, 7 ounces) have been caught here.
Use a small boat to access all of the lake’s promising spots. Ramps are on both sides of the lake, and a concessionaire has rentals. Ample bank-fishing is available in good areas. Tanner Creek Arm is particularly good for summer bullheads and panfish. Catfish are great for youngsters to target as they feed along the bottom in coves and arms. Fishing for them is as simple as dropping a nightcrawler to the bottom and holding on to the rod. You might also hit a native cutthroat trout, but more likely an ODFW stocked rainbow. Upwards of 140,000 rainbows are planted annually. Public fishing piers are on the northwest side and at Elk Point on the south. The best fishing, at least the most peaceful, is on the north half of the lake in a “no wake” zone.
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Scoggins Valley Park features shelters, rental boas, picnic areas and lots of fishing stops along 13 miles of lakeside trail. Winery tours, four golf courses and the historic downtown dominate the non-fishing attractions in Forest Grove. Tillamook State Forest is laced with trails for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding.
Fern Ridge Reservoir
While predictable afternoon northerlies transform this 9,000-acre lake into a wind-blown center for windsurfers and sailboaters, Fern Ridge is also a sleeper for largemouths, bluegills, crappies, brown bullhead catfish and cutthroat trout.
The biggest lake in the Willamette Valley, Fern Ridge is 12 miles west of Eugene on SR 126 on Long Tom River. Leave the open water to the wind-fanatics and follow ODFW’s recommendation to concentrate on protected coves at Amazon Creek, Coyote Creek and a number of other smaller tributary streams that provide super habitat for bass, bluegills, bullhead catfish and crappies. Largemouths are the glory fish, but panfish, especially bluegills and crappies, are the bread and butter of family fishing.
Fern Ridge crappies are often more than a foot long. Crappies are aggressive school fish perfect for kids, especially in May and June when they move into brushy shorelines. Bass anglers head for the deeper creek channels with logs, stumps and woody vegetation or try the slough areas around Coyote Creek and along the southern edge of the reservoir off Highway 126. The rock along the face of the dam can be productive in late summer when water levels are low. Bluegills are the best friend of eager young anglers, and there’s a lot of them. Target weedy shorelines with bobber and worm or fly combos. A sleeper ‘gill producer is immediately below the dam in Kirk Pond.
Four boat ramps and canoes and light boats can be carried in at the Long Tom River Nature Trail parking area. Expect decent bank fishing along the dam, and there is a fishing dock at Perkins Peninsula Park.
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ODFW’s adjacent Fern Ridge Wildlife Area is managed for 250 species of birds, making it a great birding destination. The lake’s Richardson Park and Campground is the closest public campground to the Eugene area and often full.
This 60-mile-long Snake River reservoir dividing Oregon and Idaho is a long way from just about everywhere, which might explain the schools of big yellow perch, crappies, smallmouth bass, bluegills and seven varieties of catfish, including channel cats in the 10- to 20-pound range.
This is not a weekend jaunt with the family, but a great place for a multi-day family fishing trip to remember.
Brownlee is the Wild West of sport-fishing, with miles of public shoreline and no commercial facilities, period. It’s a perfect destination for trailerable boats, but produces well for bank fishermen, too. Protected coves provide sheltered boat camps, or choose from a handful of developed sites with drinking water. Of the seven boat ramps that service the 60 miles of lake, five are within a few miles of each other at the upper end of the lake either side of Farewell Bend State Park, which concentrates much of the light fishing pressure.
Despite seasonal drawdowns Brownlee is a rich lake with lots of crayfish to grow big gamefish. Bluegills reach 8 inches, foot-long crappies and 10-inch perch are not uncommon. Excellent population of panfish to provide young rods with quick action.
There are a few largemouths, but smallmouth are the dominant fishery. A 12-inch minimum keeps the average size up. Smallies are caught March into November, but the best action is in May and June when water temperatures nudge into the mid-50s and the bronzebacks are swarming shallows.
ODFW recommends concentrating on bays at the mouths of some of the major tributaries. The Powder River Arm is especially attractive for all species. Catfish tend to be more abundant in the upper third of the reservoir, while bass fishing is good on either shore between Morgan and Conner Creeks.
If you need food, gear or fuel pick it up in Baker City or Richland before you get to the remote reservoir. Bring light tackle.
Along the Way
For a change of pace, continue north to Hells Canyon Dam for a look into America’s deepest gorge and one of the most dramatic wild and scenic rivers in the West.