Okanogan County's Spring Rainbows

This north-central Washington county has it all for trout anglers: waters with big trout and waters with lots of trout, catch-and-release fisheries and those for bait. The only thing missing is crowded conditions.

By Doug Rose

North-central Washington's Okanogan County is best known among Evergreen State sportsmen for its premier mule deer hunting. A bit less well known is that the state's largest county is also host to some of the region's most productive and diverse still-water trout fishing.

A network of lakes punctuates this blend of grasslands, timbered foothills and mountains, and nearly all of them support prolific trout fisheries in the Okanogan Highlands. This is especially true during late spring, when rising water temperatures stimulate hatchery rainbows and trophy-sized holdover trout alike to feed.

"The biggest fish I have seen was 11 pounds," said Ron Norton, long-time proprietor of the Rainbow Resort on Spectacle Lake. "It was a 5-year-old fish. I know that because the Department of Game gave me the tags; I was the one who planted it."

In addition to Spectacle Lake, Okanogan County's Conconully Reservoir and Conconully, Pearrygin and Wannacut lakes have for decades dependably turned out chunky rainbows for local anglers. Now, anglers from outside central Washington have begun to tap many of the county's other still-waters, including Omak, Bonaparte and Chopaka lakes.

Here's a look at Okanogan trout fishing for 2003.

Photo by Brad Jackson

U.S. Highway 97, which roughly parallels the Okanogan River, is the county's main north-south artery. From the lowlands along the river, the terrain climbs gradually in either direction. As you head west, there are grasslands, punctuated with pockets of trees near watercourses, but within a few miles, the grade sharpens and the first actual pine forests appear. Not surprisingly, the lower elevation lakes closest to the Okanogan River are usually the first to turn on in the spring.

"During the spring most of the fish are in the 10- to 12-inch range," said Dick Caryl of Cascade Outfitters in Omak (509-826-4148). "It is pretty much a Power Bait type of focus on most of these lakes then."

Conconully Lake and Conconully Reservoir, both of which are virtually within the city limits of the community of the same name, are arguably the most popular early in the season, especially with families looking for a rainbow trout dinner. "In addition to Power Bait," Caryl said, "a few fishermen still use eggs and marshmallows or night crawlers. Probably the most effective anglers are trollers, though, with metered, leaded line and leech patterns and black or chartreuse Woolly Buggers."

Conconully Lake and reservoir both have traditional opening dates and close at the end of October. In addition to Conconully State Park (509-826-7408), 450-acre Conconully Lake is the site of Conconully Lake Resort (509-826-0813).

Trolling Okanogan

Early-season trout fishermen take plenty of rainbows from the bank or docks in Okanogan County, but anglers in boats or float tubes enjoy the highest success rates. Trolling is the favorite technique of veteran anglers.


Pulling a series of spinner blades known as "gang trolls" or "pop gear" ahead of bait or a lure is quite traditional. The flash of revolving spinner blades on trolls such as Doc Sheltons and Ford Fenders attracts the trout, then the fish hone in on small terminal offerings such as Dick Nites, Needlefish, Flatfish, Kwikfish, streamer flies or night crawlers.


In more recent times, trollers have shown a desire to abandon pop gear, which can be bulky and impede the battle of a trout, and now fish straight monofilament without blades and add small keel-type sinkers when necessary. Others have taken to using downriggers, a much more expensive and high-tech method that allows anglers to pull small, lightweight spinners and other lures at exact depths. -- Doug Rose


Located just a few miles north of Conconully, Spectacle Lake vies with the Conconully twins as an early-season attraction. This 314-acre lake opens on March 1 and runs through July, although the ice may remain until the second week of the season.

"They begin catching fish as soon as the ice clears," said Ron Norton of the Rainbow Resort (509-223-3700). Power Bait, as always, is the bait of choice among bank fishers, followed by the salmon eggs. Norton says that Wedding Rings and Flatfish are popular with anglers in boats. "Size F-3 and F-4 Flatfish in frog finish are popular," Norton said. "A lot of guys troll flies. They use green or black Careys, along with black Woolly Buggers."

Wannacut Lake is one of the region's deeper lakes, with depths to over 150 feet, and its coldwater temperature helps the lake stay productive further into the summer than other low-elevation lakes.

"Other lakes in the Sinlahekin Valley, such as Blue and Fish lakes, can also be good during the early season," Caryl said. Blue Lake opens on the traditional late April opener, but it is managed as a selective fishery with only electric motors allowed.

At the Sinlahekin Valley's headwaters, Chopaka Lake is perhaps the most beloved fly-fishing-only lake east of the Cascades. Winter lingers at Chopaka's 3,200-foot elevation, but its late-spring blizzards of Callibaetis mayflies are as popular with dry-fly anglers as they are with the lake's 10- to 18-inch rainbows.

Located in the upper Methow Valley near Winthrop, Pearrygin, Patterson, and the Twin lakes also typically turn on a little later than the Okanogan Valley lakes, but they can be productive early if the winter is mild, as is common after El Niño events like last year's.

At Pearrygin Lake, anglers can base at Derry's Pearrygin Resort (509-996-2322), which offers cabins and RV sites, or Pearrygin State Park (509-996-2370). In addition to g

ood numbers of recently planted 10-inch hatchery rainbows, Pearrygin has one of the county's better populations of 2-plus-pound carryover fish.

Also near Winthrop, 160-acre Patterson Lake appeals to anglers who like a more intimate setting.

At the opposite end of the Methow Valley, the Pateros area's Alta Lake receives large numbers of hatchery fish, and Alta Lake State Park (509-923-2473) and private resorts on the lake are beehives of activity in April and May.

While there are fewer productive public trout lakes in the eastern half of the Okanogan County, most of its largest fish have historically hailed from the right bank of the river. Omak Lake has yielded two state-record Lahontan cutthroat trout in recent years, and Bonaparte Lake has turned out 20-plus-pound mackinaw (lake trout). Most of the fish are considerably smaller in these lakes, of course, as they are on other east side lakes such as Ell, Round, Crawfish and Long. However, a handful of foothill lakes in the eastern part of the county are the homes of Eastern brook trout, which many anglers believe are the best-tasting trout.

Omak Lake lies entirely within the Colville Indian Reservation (509-634-8845), and anglers must obtain a tribal fishing permit, available in various Omak-area businesses. Originally barren of trout as a result of high alkalinity, the lake was planted with Lahontan cutthroats from Nevada in the 1970s, and by the early 1990s they had grown and spread throughout the 3,200-acre lake. Dan Beardslee's 18-plus-pound record Lahontan was taken trolling a Ross Swimmer Tail spoon. However, in recent years, catch-and-release regulations have been in effect on Omak Lake through May, and fly anglers are now the most common during spring. "They mostly use Type II full sinking lines," Caryl said.

Although it is open year 'round, Bonaparte Lake's setting at 3,500 feet in the Okanogan National Forest results in a substantial ice cover in most years. However, the lake's mackinaw, like other char, tend to feed aggressively right after ice-out, so angler need to keep a close eye on conditions. In addition to the lake trout, Bonaparte also contains rainbows and kokanee. "Bonaparte is productive and an under-fished lake," Caryl said. There is a Forest Service campground on the lake, as well as Bonaparte Lake Resort (509-486-2828).

Finally, Okanogan County trout anglers can enhance their chances of hooking a truly large trout - and of enjoying solitude in a beautiful setting - on one of the county's "pay-for-play" lakes. "I manage a few private waters," said Caryl. "We've seen some 30-inch fish on them, and I've been told that they are the nicest lakes the people have seen."

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