September 29, 2010
A number of things have changed at this Colville Reservation lake. Among them: Cutthroat trout catch rates that have gone through the roof!
Author Dave Graybill found fantastic fishing and more than enough elbow room at Omak Lake last summer. Photo by Eileen Graybill
by Dave Graybill
When I buy my annual fishing permit to the Colville Reservation, I call it my membership to a private preserve. I get all the benefits that I expect when I fish a private, pay-to-play lake, including nearly guaranteed action for big fish and easy access in a typically scenic setting. Above all, when I pay a fee to fish a private lake, I expect to see few other anglers. When I fish Omak Lake, I get all of those benefits for only $35 a year!
When I talked with Jerry Marco, fisheries biologist with the Colville Tribe, we chuckled about how few anglers ever take advantage of what we both know to be true about Omak Lake. There's great fishing for Lahontan cutthroat that average over 2 pounds, and if you see more than two boats on the lake, hey, that's a busy day here. Voluntary creel census gathered by the tribe indicated that in an average year, they could expect about 600 fishing hours dedicated to the lake. That's it - 600 hours.
It's not unusual to spot bald or golden eagles flying around or watching you fish from the pines along the shore. Deer and coyotes are no surprise, and one day I spotted six different black bears while trolling inside a couple of bays at Omak Lake. Fishing here leaves you with the same impression that fishing at remote lakes in Canada or Alaska will. The difference is that the city of Omak is just 8 miles away.
When the tribe first opened the lake to the public in 1975, it created a stir. It had been planted with pure Lahontan cutthroat stock from the famed Pyramid Lake in Nevada. Pyramid has produced Lahontan cutthroat to 40 pounds. Billed as a new trophy fishery, angler hours set an all-time record that year at over 10,000. Poor success and a disappointing average weight of just less than 5 pounds saw angler hours drop dramatically the following year to under 800. The grand experiment to sell licenses to hundreds of anglers had failed. This wasn't the first failure that the tribe had endured at Omak Lake.
As early as 1951, experimental plants of rainbow had been tried. They just didn't survive. Brook trout were stocked next. They suffered the same fate as the rainbow. Omak's alkaline levels were just too high. In 1968 they began their plants of Lahontan cutthroat, and they thrived in Omak Lake. The tribe has even had to reduce the number of cutts planted each year from 100,000 to 60,000 to avoid stunting. There is nothing to threaten these fish. Anglers certainly haven't been a factor so far.
I first tried Omak Lake myself in 1991. It was Fourth of July weekend, and my brother, my cousin and I wanted to have a fishing adventure over the long weekend. We were considering some lakes in Canada, but I suggested Omak Lake. Boy, were we surprised.
We were having such consistent action, in spite of storm fronts that would roll through and drench us; we decided to check our watches to see how long it took between fish landings. We averaged a fish every 11 minutes over the three days. I have had days when the action was even faster, but I have had a couple of slow days, too. That's fishing.
SETTING RECORDS In 1992 Dan Beardslee of Pateros, Wash., knowing that these fish preferred a water temperature of 50 degrees, attached a thermometer to his downrigger cable and "fished" for the depth that most consistently gave him this reading. He would always put his baits 10 feet below this thermocline, looking for big fish that would be hanging below the largest concentration of cutthroat.
In October of his first season fishing Omak Lake he landed a cutthroat weighing 14 pounds, .95 ounces, establishing a state record.
In 1993 Beardslee returned to Omak Lake on July 1, which was the first day of catch-and-keep fishing. He broke his own state record, moving the bar to 18 pounds, 4 ounces.
Beardslee's success may make it sound easy, but even he admits that it took a lot of trial and error to get Omak Lake dialed in. He made 15 trips to the lake before he landed the first record fish and tried a lot of different lures.
Anglers who would like to have the kind of "luck" Beardslee has had on Omak Lake should employ his basic approach: Find the thermocline. This layer of water between warm and cold water will be evident if you have a good depth finder. Fish tend to gather at this depth, and you will see a concentration. The thermo cline will vary throughout the year as the lake warms during summer and cools in fall and winter. Put your lure at or just below this depth for the best chance for bigger fish.
Use darting plugs and lures. Beardslee's first record fish was taken on a Luhr Jensen J-Plug, and the second on a Ross Swimmertail. Both of these lures have a wild, darting action that appeals to Omak Lake cutthroat. Another of Beardslee's favorites is a Needlefish. Although he hasn't caught a record on one, he has found it to be a lure the cutts can't resist.
Not many anglers take as technical of an approach to a fishery as Beardslee. Not many have as much experience and fishing savvy, but that shouldn't prevent even the casual angler from having an exceptional experience at Omak Lake.
|Your Colville Fishing Permit|
When the Colville Tribe opened Omak Lake to the public in 1975, it was treated as a trophy fishery. Anglers were required to buy a Colville Reservation fishing permit and pay an additional $20 for a special permit to fish the lake.
Nowadays there is so little fishing pressure at Omak Lake that the tribe has dropped the special fee, and fishing here is allowed when you buy an ordinary fishing permit.
Colville Reservation fishing permits can be purchased for one-, three- or seven-day durations, or annually. The one-day license fee is $7.50, three-day $18, seven-day, $25, and the annual permit is $35. The permi
ts can be purchased at many sporting goods stores, hardware stores and even gas stations in the region.
A directory of locations that sell the permits is in the Colville Reservation's Non-Member Sport Fishing Regulations. -- Dave Graybill
BACK TO OMAK I had been away from Omak Lake for at least six years and had only fished aboard other boats until a couple of years ago. I headed out in my 12-foot aluminum "Tin Bad," with no depth sounder, a clamp-on downrigger and a tackle box crammed with lures.
I remembered that I had caught my weight in cutthroat here on Super Dupers, but the first lure I saw when I opened my boxes was a Needlefish, so I tied it on. I had motored some distance out in the launch bay, at the end of the Old Mission Road, and after figuring out how the clamp-on rigger worked, I dropped the lure to forty-five feet, according to the counter. Whoops! Must've hit bottom. The rigger and rod were bouncing like crazy. Wrong. It was a fish.
I fished around the bay with the same lure, using my modified Braille system to find the depth (sometimes 35 feet, sometimes 30), and never had a reason to change my lure. I was catching a fish every 8 minutes. I caught a couple of small fish, but most were 16 to 19 inches; one was 23 inches.
Also, on this same trip, I ran out of the bay and down lake to try some of the other bays and pockets that had produced fish in the past. I did find some very nice fish in these narrow pockets and slots between islands and on the inside of some bays, but I want to caution anglers who explore these for the first time. Most of the shoreline of Omak Lake is made up of steep rock, and it gets deep quickly. However, there are some shelves of solid rock and these shoals can come up fast. Because Omak's water is extremely clear, you can see these rock uprisings from quite a distance on clear days with the light high overhead. Beware the overcast day, when there's low light over the horizon and anytime a breeze blows, as these tend to hide these shoals and other abrupt topographical changes under the surface. Approach shorelines carefully until you are familiar with the lake.
FLY-FISHING OMAK When I reached the southeastern end of the lake, I found what I had anticipated: A gradual shallow with some submerged weed beds that looked just right for fly-fishing. To confirm my suspicion, I spotted an angler in a pontoon boat landing a fish just as I arrived. I motored to within a courteous distance and learned that he had been fishing for about two hours and had hooked 20 and landed 13. Not bad.
Actually, fly anglers are no strangers to Omak Lake. In fact, I saw as many pontoon boats as fishing boats on my last two trips there. There's good reason. The warm, sunny temperatures in Okanogan County allow anglers here to enjoy damsel fly action clear into the end of September. The angler I mentioned earlier was taking his fish on damselfly nymphs.
Quality fly-fishing isn't limited to summer and fall here either. Darc Knobel of the Blue Dun Fly Shop in East Wenatchee has enjoyed fishing Omak Lake with a fly rod in the spring for years. He has found the good ol' Woolly Bugger to be highly effective, along with white leech patterns.
After visiting with the fly angler, I ran back up lake and tried my luck at an area we used to call The Wall, which is on the north shore. A couple of passes showed some success, but the allure of the action awaiting me in the launch bay was too much for me to ignore, and I headed back. The cutts were waiting for me and although my Needlefish was pretty bent and battered, they continued to hit it with relish until I called it quits.
When I next visited Omak Lake, I expected my luck with a Needlefish to continue. I was wrong. The cutts liked a Needlefish all right, they just wouldn't hit one the same size. The same lure one size larger did. I have also found that the same size plug that I fished a week earlier would be ignored, while the same plug in a different color worked fine. When I tried a drop-lead rig, nothing worked at all-until I tried a Swimmertail.
Experiment. Experiment. Experiment.
The frustrations I have experienced are minor compared to what I have gone through at other lakes. By and large the only disappointment I have had at Omak Lake is not catching some the 10- to 12-pound and (obviously) larger fish that Beardslee has taken. Cutthroat of this size are fairly common here.
ABOUT OMAK Omak Lake is no small pond. When you consider the size of the lake, the number of fish it takes to provide anglers with the kind of action that is typical here is amazing. The lake is eight miles long, a mile wide and 300 feet deep. There are 3,244 acres of water to explore.
The limit on cutthroat has always been restricted, but it has recently been increased from two fish per day to three. The minimum size is 14 inches. The lake is open year 'round, but there is a catch-and-release season that runs from March 1 to May 31, to protect spawning fish. Also, the north embayment (what I refer to as the launch bay) is closed to fishing during this same period. There are traps placed in this bay, and this is how the fish are taken for the tribal hatchery. In addition all islands on Omak Lake are closed to access from March 1 to May 31. Fishing here is restricted to artificial lures and flies with barbless hooks only, no bait. Fishing time is dawn till dark daily, and anglers are required to provide creel census information. There are boxes provided near the boat ramps for this purpose.
Anglers should also be aware that although the town of Omak is just 8 miles away, facilities at Omak Lake itself are spartan. There are pit toilets and picnic tables at the north embayment and pit toilets at Nichols Beach, at the very west end of the lake. There are also some limited amenities near the launching areas farther down the southeastern shore. Also, near the bottom end or southeastern shore of the lake there are areas that are restricted to tribal members only. They are posted, and anglers are encouraged to respect these areas.
Fishing at Omak is essentially non-existent during the March 1 to May 31 catch-and-release period, except for flyfishermen. They don't quit till November here. Boaters will continue to fish Omak Lake well into winter and so will shore anglers. The steep shore along the road to Nespelem is popular unless snow prevents access. Anglers cast large Blue Fox spinners or spoons and have good success during the cold months.
A very significant change in Omak Lake is the condition of the launch in the north embayment. The water has risen considerably in recent years and the launch that I used to use is about five feet under water. It is still possible to launch here, but the grade is shallow and only smaller boats should attempt to launch here now. I should also mention that this bay could freeze in January.
Due to the change in the lake's level, many anglers are now using other launch sites. One that has been used for years
is found at Nichols Beach, which is accessed from the road that leads to Nespelem, and farther east along this same road, anglers will find at least one other serviceable launch. Large boats (18 feet or more) should be launched with four-wheel-drive vehicles here, particularly if there has been rain or snow.
To reach the town of Omak from the west, anglers can take either I-90 or Highway 2 to Wenatchee and then head north on 97 for about 90 miles. An option in summer is Highway 20 and the North Cascades Pass to Winthrop. Continue on Highway 20 to Okanogan and then Omak on 97. From the east, take I-90 or head cross state on Highway 2 to Wilbur and then take Highway 174 through Bridgeport and Highway 97. Anglers can also take Highway 155 north through the Colville Reservation to reach Omak.
There are lots of ways to get to Omak Lake, but few anglers do. It remains a mystery as to why such a quality fishery remains to be ignored by most anglers. Everyone I have introduced to the lake is amazed at two things: the number and size of the fish that we catch, and that we are often the only boat fishing for as far as we can see.
Where else can you get pay-to-play-type fishing for $35 a year?
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