Washington State has one of the most diverse fisheries in the country. Even so, the majority of fishing pressure is on just a handful of popular gamefish species. Walleye, bass, trout and panfish steal the show throughout most of the year, especially in the Columbia Basin.
The Columbia Basin touts some of the finest fishing around and thousands of anglers flock to the area to experience world class fishing. Yet, it amazes me how few anglers know of the bounty that swims beneath their boats.
Walleye and bass might be the most popular fish in eastern Washington but they are definitely not the most abundant. There is a huge biomass of lake whitefish that is almost entirely ignored by anglers.
These salmon relatives grow up to 7 pounds and average 3-4 pounds. On light tackle they put up a formidable fight and form huge schools that can provide fast action all day.
Fishing for lake whitefish has a huge following in the Great Lakes region and it’s only a matter of time before it catches on in Washington State. So read on and you’ll learn everything you need to know to take advantage of this amazing opportunity.
Where to find lake whitefish in Washington
Lake whitefish are primarily native to the Great Lakes region in the midwest and Canada. However, in the late 1800s, lake whitefish were introduced into Lake Pend Oreille in Idaho and Flathead Lake in Montana. It didn’t take long for these salmon relatives to migrate through connected waterways into eastern Washington.
These fish now flourish in the upper Columbia River system and in many large reservoirs connected via irrigation canals. There are a handful of lakes and reservoirs in eastern Washington where large established lake whitefish populations provide easy access for anglers.
Here are the best lakes to catch lake whitefish in Washington State.
- Roosevelt Lake (including the lower Spokane arm)
- Banks Lake
- Potholes Reservoir
- Soda Lake
- Billy Clapp Lake
- Moses Lake
- Rufus Woods Reservoir
- Scooteney Reservoir
Throughout most of the year lake whitefish occupy deeper water where they suspend near the bottom in large schools. Finding them requires a good fish finder. Spend some time cruising over deep pockets with an eye on your graph and you’ll find them pretty quick in depths ranging from 50 to 110 feet.
Things get a little easier for both boat and bank anglers in the winter when lake whitefish spawn. They start moving toward shallow water inlets and congregate just off shore within reach of shoreline anglers. Boaters can easily anchor over a school of fish as they stage for spawning and catch them all day.
On lakes that form ice by late January, you can expect to catch whitefish in slightly deeper water near the spawning areas.
Banks Lake is a great place to catch lake whitefish for the first time. Like clock work, whitefish pack into the northern most point of the lake across from North Dam Park in mid-December. Look for the red buoys if you’re fishing from a boat or fish anywhere along the rip-rap bank from shore. The WDFW put out a great video showcasing this spot. Amazingly, it is still not crowded with anglers.
On other lakes and reservoirs, focus your efforts near inlets during winter months. Try the Lind Coulee and Frenchman Hills Wasteway inlets on Potholes. On Billy Clapp, head north towards Summer Falls.
Wherever you decide to fish, ask the locals for information before you head out.
There is nothing complicated about gearing up for lake whitefish. Just about any rod and reel combo will work. However, if you want to enjoy the power of these fish during a fight, go with a light spinning setup with 4 to 8 pound test line.
For those of you looking to haul in meat with efficiency, step it up to a medium weight spinning rod and 10 pound test. Although, using heavy gear doesn’t mean you can horse these fish in. They have small, soft mouths and hooks tear out if you use too much pressure.
As for fishing line, use monofilament or braid. Keep in mind that these fish tend to hold in deep water near the bottom. They are also exceptionally soft bitters which means sensitivity is key in detecting strikes. Mono will work in the winter when they move shallow, but for deep summer whitefish opt for braid.
Our favorite year round setup for lake whitefish is a 6’ or 6’ 6” medium-light spinning rod and reel spooled with 10 pound braid and 4 feet of 6 pound test fluorocarbon leader. This combo lets you experience the fight while still having enough backbone to hoist them up from the depths.
Lures and bait
Lure and bait selection is also easy. Lake whitefish have small heads and mouths which indicates that they feed on small invertebrates, insects and minnows. The key when choosing a lure or bait is to scale down the size. Any small jigging spoon will be effective. A few of our favorites include the Swedish Pimple, Northland Forage Minnow and Acme Rattle Master.
We have not found color to be a major factor in order to consistently hook these fish. Just keep a small selection of colors handy and you are good to go.
A plain lure is sufficient in tricking lake whitefish to bite but many anglers, including us, like to tip jigging spoons with a single red egg. It seems to give them added encouragement when investigating the lure.
You can also use small weighted nymph or scud fly patterns with a split shot or two when the fish seem finicky.
Fishing with bait is a highly effective method for catching lake whitefish as well. Again, scale down the size of your bait to accommodate their small mouths. Eggs, wax worms, small pieces of nightcrawler and even cocktail shrimp from the grocery store will work. Use a size 8 or 10 hook and leave the hook point slightly exposed to ensure better hook ups. Use a 1/4 or 3/8 ounce weight to get deep in the summer or try a small tungsten jig with bait in the winter.
You’ll almost always be vertically jigging for lake whitefish when fishing from a boat. Mainly because they are most often in 30 feet of water or more and you need to use a fish finder to get on top of them.
It’s important to jig your lure or bait as close to the bottom as possible and work it slowly. Use subtle movements to grab their attention. Lake whitefish are not aggressive biters so as soon as you feel even the slightest tick, gently set the hook.
Shore anglers can use slip bobbers or sliding sinker rigs to suspend their bait at the right depths. You can also cast small jigs and spoons tipped with bait and slowly work them back to shore along the bottom.
It’s really that simple. Once you locate the fish, you’ll almost certainly catch them. Just remember to fish slow and watch your rod tip carefully to detect soft bites.
Best time of year to catch lake whitefish
Lake whitefish have a habit of schooling during most of the year. Because of that tendency, finding them with a boat is just a matter of using a quality fish finder. Regardless of the time of year, whitefish prefer to stick close to the bottom.
The majority of anglers tend to agree that winter is the best time to fish for lake whitefish in Washington State. They tend to form concentrated schools in relatively shallow water within casting distance of shore.
In our opinion, if you can only choose one time of year to target lake whitefish, make it mid-December through January. Not only is the fishing action packed, whitefish meat tastes better when caught in frigid water.
Bring a good jacket and portable heater if you have one because it will be cold. Always wear your life jacket while in a boat and use a cold water immersion suit if fishing from a kayak.
For those of you who prefer fair weather fishing, spring, summer and fall can also provide excellent lake whitefish action. Again, use a fish finder to locate large schools suspended near the bottom in mid-lake basins.
Check out this WDFW video on summertime whitefish tactics and locations.
Washington’s season, limits and license
Fishing for lake whitefish is a year-round opportunity on most of the lakes we mentioned in this article. There are no minimum size restrictions and you are allowed to keep up to 15 fish a day. Most lake whitefish average 3 to 4 pounds with a few pushing 6 pounds or more so you’ll have plenty of tasty meat. The current state record is 6.18 pounds caught in Rufus Woods Reservoir and bigger fish are still out there.
A freshwater fishing license is all you need to target these fish and you can buy one on the WDFW website or in person at an authorized license dealer, including Walmart and sporting goods stores.
Always consult the fishing regulations for the area you intend to fish for specific angling rules. You can also find emergency fishing closures on the WDFW website.
Do lake whitefish taste good
Not all fish make for fine dining but lake whitefish are often praised as some of the best eating freshwater fish. Lake whitefish have moderately firm, flaky meat that is mild in taste and similar to salmon.
The meat is at its prime during winter when the flesh is firmer and fattier than other times of the year. Regardless of when you catch whitefish, we have found that the flavor and nutrition degrades after a couple days. Eat it fresh if you can. To get the best taste from the meat, put the fish on ice immediately and bleed it.
Lake whitefish is excellent baked, fried, smoked or canned. It’s loaded with healthy omega-3 fatty acids which keeps the meat moist and flavorful. Our favorite way to cook up winter time lake whitefish is in the smoker.
Be sure to check the Department of Health fish consumption advisories before fishing. Generally, lake whitefish are considered a safe and healthy choice for eating without restrictions. Find more information on that here.