Photo by Terry Wiest
Lake Washington is like a big, bright diamond that reveals its shiny facets to those willing to work a little for their fish. Angle Lake, hard next to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, is more like a gem where you can fish under the airplanes and take a break to barbecue your catch. Then there’s Green Lake, a precious stone set in the Emerald City that serves as its urban outdoors retreat.
All of these fishing destinations ringing Seattle offer excellent trout fishing. Here’s how to capitalize on the urban bounty.
Lake Washington, lying in a deep, narrow trough gouged by the Vashon ice sheet millions of years ago, is now home to 28 resident and anadromous fish species, including a surprisingly large population of resident cutthroat trout. As recently as 1978, cutthroats were not even listed in the lake’s top 12 fish species. New studies reveal that cutts have replaced the northern pike minnow as the lake’s predominant big-dog predator.
How big is the dog on the porch? A few years back, one angler landed a 14.9-pounder, Washington’s biggest coastal cutthroat trout in the last 40 years. Fish that size are rare, but both rainbow and cutthroat trout run in the 3- to 6-pound range. Not bad for a lake once thought to be dying from pollution and now surrounded by more than a million people!
A map of Seattle shows how Lake Washington dominates. From Kenmore in the north to Renton at the southern edge, the lake spans 18 miles, covers 18,000 surface acres and is crossed by two floating bridges carrying tens of thousands of vehicles daily to and from Microsoft. Along with numerous smaller feeder creeks, its two major tributaries, Sammamish and Cedar Rivers, at the north and south ends, respectively, dump both water and trout into the lake.
Fishery studies indicate that trout enter the lake as 2-year-olds, hang in the shallows during cool-water times, then during the summer months move into either deeper water or back into the tributaries. As fish grow larger, their preferences for location and food change — which dictate where and how successful fishers score.
Lake Washington trout, particularly cutthroat, reveal a decided dietary preference for omega-3 oils, which they get from chomping sockeye fry and sockeye pre-smolts. Their other preferred baitfish are longfin smelt and three-spine sticklebacks, also in abundance throughout the lake.
Once cutthroats grow longer than about 15.75 inches, 98 percent of their diet is fish, according to stomach sampling data. And they eat farther away from shore, most often in deeper water. Given this information, certain catching tactics leap to mind.
A good rule here is the old saw that “Seventy percent of any body of water is fishless, so focus on that other 30 percent.” Productive trout locations include the north and south sides of both floating bridges, Juanita Point in the north, the mouth of the Cedar in the south and both ends of Mercer Island. Baitfish also orient on underwater points, so check out Dabney, Evergreen and Groat points. Two good references are DeLorme Washington Atlas and Gazetteer and the Lake Washington/Banks Lake map published by the Fish-n-Map Company (FishnMap.com).
These areas produce by providing food for the hungry trout. Algae and aquatic vegetation cover the bridge floats of Interstate 90 and State Road 520, beginning the food chain that often ends with trout. The Cedar River spews out an astounding number of sockeye fry each spring. Marauding cutthroats turn the annual event into a shallow-water feast.
Underwater points like Groat and Dabney, attract forage fish, which in turn attract cutthroat.
Knowing where the fish are and what they eat makes the last part of the puzzle easier to solve. Most anglers troll in 30 to 110 feet. Downriggers, allowing lighter running lines and leaders, have generally replaced lead weights. The lake’s extreme water clarity, as much as 30 feet under prime conditions, calls for long fluorocarbon leaders. Lures of choice range from Panther Martins to Rapalas and herring. Use a fish finder to locate bait balls, then fish under those balls to put your lure in front of the trout attacking the bait from below.
Longtime guide Curt Welch, who owns Special Moments Guide Service (SpecialMomentsGuideService.com) generally agrees that deep trolling is the way to catch Lake Washington trout, with one notable exception. When sockeye fry exit the Cedar in May, Welch fishes a fry imitation on a long line in about 4 to 10 feet off the river mouth.
Boat access is excellent, with concrete ramps located at each end of the lake and at several spots along the east and west sides.
Technically, Angle Lake is located in Sea-Tac, but why quibble when it produces good-sized trout consistently, all year ‘round? Access is easy from Angle Lake Park, 19408 International Boulevard, just south and east of Sea-Tac Airport. This 102-acre lake offers rainbow trout as well as kokanee (landlocked sockeye salmon) and warm-water species.
In March, the hatchery truck drops off 10,000 catchable-sized trout. In April, it comes back to add some triploid rainbows weighing more than a pound at release.
At more than 50 feet deep, the lake offers enough food and hiding spots for these planters to grow. Catch reports indicate many 3- to 5-pound trout swim this water, even though it gets regular fishing pressure.
A great spot for a family fishing adventure is Angle Lake Park (http://cityofseatac.com/park/anglelak.htm). Small boats are easily launched from the single-lane concrete ramp. There’s ample dock space as well as a wheelchair accessible fishing pier. On the lake, the 8-mph no-wake limit keeps the speed freaks away.
After a few hours of fishing under even the best conditions, youngsters can get antsy cooped up in a boat. Angle Lake Park offers playground equipment, a barbecue area, picnic shelters, swimming beach with lifeguards and grassy recreation area. After burgers and chips, or a fish fry, the family can pile back in the bo
at for some evening fishing. Heck, if you like watching airplanes take off and land while you fish, Angle Lake is your nirvana. The park closes at dusk, so plan your hours accordingly.
Unlike at Lake Washington, all fishing methods score well here. Trollers use small Flatfish in green or black, and green or red wedding-ring spinners. When fishing spinners, some people tip the hook with a bit of worm. If the usual trolled lures don’t trick the fish into biting, drop anchor and try still-fishing with night crawlers or PowerBait.
Shore-bound anglers can toss lures, drop PowerBait to the bottom, or suspend bait under a bobber. The latter method works best in March when planted trout are still in the upper 6 feet of the water column, and through April, until May drives the trout down into cooler water. You must include any bait-caught trout in the state in your daily bag limit, whether or not you actually keep the fish.
Fly-fishers here use float tubes, and others use pontoon boats to get away from the fishing pier. Fancy flies aren’t needed to catch fish here. In small sizes, chironomid patterns like the venerable TDC or the newer Ice Cream Cone will work throughout the year. Vary the depth according to water temperature and fish activity.
If trout are taking chironomids as they emerge, try dangling a TDC on 14 to 18 inches of leader tied to the shank of the floating dry fly. This rig gives an angler two chances to hook up. Trolling a small black, green or brown Woolly Bugger is another method almost guaranteed to put fish on your line.
The lake is ringed with private docks that, like the bridge floats, generate fish food. Tie a green Carey Special on a sink-tip line, cast toward a dock, let it sink a bit, then slowly retrieve the fly in foot-long strips.
If the trout simply won’t cooperate, you can save the day by switching focus to the bass, yellow perch or crappie that also live in Angle Lake. A small white marabou jig fished with a light spinning rod should do the trick. Slowly work around the lake, casting into and around all the docks until you find schools of fish.
Green Lake is Seattle’s recreational jewel. At 255 acres, it’s big enough to handle all the fishing pressure plus provide some water where the trout can hide until they reach decent size. You won’t catch an 8-pound trout here, but you stand a fair chance of landing several 14- to 16-inch rainbows and browns, with an occasional 3-pounder to wow other fishers.
The lake, surrounded by a 2.8-mile path for walking, biking, running and rollerblading, is Seattle’s unofficial running capital. On any given day, 8,000 people come to Green Lake. On sunny Seattle weekends, it seems the whole city comes to people-watch, walk dogs, throw Frisbees and view the sunset. Bird watchers along the shores of Green Lake have totaled 167 species from soaring bald eagles to twittering songbirds. Local fly-fishing clubs teach fly-casting on the lawn. Then students practice their newly learned skills on a full spectrum of real fish — rainbow and brown trout, largemouth and rock bass, channel catfish, yellow perch, carp and tiger muskies.
Scraped out by the same Vashon ice sheet that excavated Lake Washington, Green Lake is relatively shallow. Over the years, that has created some water-quality problems, though the City of Seattle has recognized the importance of caring for this gem and taken steps to cure it.
During the busy spring and summer months, the city operates a boat-rental facility from the northwest side of the lake by Evans Pool. Numerous parking areas and street parking let anglers carry float tubes, pontoon boats or small car-toppers to the water. But there is no boat ramp on the lake.
The first rainbows are planted around mid-March, when the hatchery trucks begin arriving. They continue deliveries until 20,000 of the five-to-the-pound fish are stocked. Just to add some weight to the stringer, the Department of Fish and Wildlife tosses in several hundred triploid trout. Those that survive the first few days rapidly gain weight in the lake’s nutrient-rich water.
Green Lake also receives special fish plants. Two years ago, the Washington Farm Bureau, a state senator, and Troutlodge got together to release 6,000 surplus 12- to 16-inch rainbows, right in front of evening news TV cameras. That should give you an idea of the attention this enclave gets from time to time.
Once word gets out of new fish in the lake, bank-fishers appear on the south and west shores. Still-fishing with a heavy slip sinker and a floating bait, like marshmallows or PowerBait, is very popular. Some anglers use a chunk of night crawler topped with marshmallow to suspend the bait off the bottom.
Green Lake regulars pack a lunch, bring a bucket to sit on, stake out their spots and enjoy all the scenery while waiting for fish to bite.
Trolling isn’t as popular here as on other lakes. Anglers who do troll from their own boat or a rented one, favor small Dick Nite spoons, Triple Teasers and Rooster Tails. Flatfish in F3, F4 and F5 sizes, trolled on a long line with no weight, are popular. With no lead on the line, even a medium-sized fish makes for a sporting battle
Casting lures from shore, or one of the many fishing piers or public docks, results in many fish caught. A small Rooster Tail cast along the shoreline and retrieved just outside the first weedline will take fish.
Kastmasters are popular for those who want to fish further out from shore. The red-and-white Daredevle works for trout and has attracted more than a few tiger muskies that got away after bending out the hook.
Green Lake is evolving into an after-work destination for fly-fishing locals who need to wet a line but haven’t the time or gas money to get out of town. Wader-clad, float-tubing fly-fishers probing weedbeds and lily pads in search of trout, juxtaposed with the thousands of runners, walkers, skaters and bikers streaming past, show this lake is vital to Seattle’s outdoor culture.
Green Lake has substantial chironomid hatches in April and May, and hatchery trout quickly adapt to them. A TDC or Ice Cream Cone on a floating line under a strike indicator is one way to go. For more active fishing, use black or green Woolly Buggers on sink-tip lines.
If the fish are hitting emergers, try casting a dark, soft-hackle fly as close to the rise ring as possible, then slowly strip line. After taking an emerger, trout will often circle, looking for more food, and see your fly.
Anglers come here for more than trout. Largemouth bass ranging up to 3 pounds are wily and difficult to catch. Common carp to 20 pounds are prized by spin- and fly-fishers. Bank-fishers typically cast a dough-ball concoction and let it sit on the bottom. Fly-fishers favor black or white Woolly Worms in the shallow bay around Duck Island and along the west shore.
Toothy tiger muskies have broken the hearts of more than one angler. A night-
fishing fly-angler reported that a tiger bit through his 40-pound-test shock tippet.
Seattle’s top three trout lakes offer amazingly good angling year ‘round, no matter what your fishing persuasion. Deep-water, big-boat trollers love Lake Washington for the prospect of hooking big double-digit cutthroat. Family fishers favor Angle Lake with its many recreational opportunities. Urban fishers flock to Green Lake for its own brand of trouting amidst city scenery. l
Find more about Washington-Oregon fishing and hunting at: WOgameandfish.com