American Fly Fishing

By Mike Benbow

Omak Lake is the kind of place you dream about during winter.
   The reason is simple. On every trip, the lake offers a shot at catching a big fish. It’s the kind of place that leads anglers who’ve heard or read about it to idle through the cold months vowing that the coming season will finally be the one when they check it out. Those who’ve been there plan trips back.
   Omak Lake, the largest saline lake in Washington, at 3,244 acres, is stocked with Lahontan cutthroat trout from Pyramid Lake in Nevada. There, the record Lahontan weighed in at 41 pounds. Several of Washington’s alkaline lakes, which most trout can’t tolerate, hold the Lahontan strain, including Grimes and Lenore. But Omak Lake, which was first stocked with Lahontans in 1968, holds the Washington state record at a little over 18 pounds.
   The lake, which eons ago was a channel of the Columbia River, is several miles long and very deep. It’s located about 8 miles south of the town of Omak, on the Colville Indian Reservation, so tribal permits are required. You can buy permits at a number of sporting goods stores, as well as the Omak WalMart. They’re available for a day, three days, a week, or a year, and prices are reasonable.
   Most of the fish in Omak Lake average 3 pounds or so, but 8- to 10-pounders are not unusual. While it has big fish, Omak Lake doesn’t have big crowds. Don’t be surprised to have the lake nearly to yourself or even all to yourself, especially early in the season.
   The lake often has a lot of wind. It’s best fished with a boat and motor, as opposed to a pontoon boat or float tube. Inflatables will work, but you need to keep an eye out for what’s happening on the water. You want to make sure the wind blows you to your vehicle, not away from it. A motor also allows you to explore the long lake. If you don’t have a boat, you may just want to fish from shore, windy day or not. Lots of people do. The lake is open year-round, but shore fishing is best from February through May, when the fish are either in the shallows, fruitlessly looking for a place to spawn on the lake, which has no outlet, or along the shoreline, looking for food. Shore fishing can also work well from late September to mid-November, when the water cools and the fish are trying to bulk up for winter.
   Omak Lake has sculpin and redside shiners, a major reason the cutthroat get so big. So you don’t need a hatch to catch fish. Streamer patterns are very effective. Sometimes a simple white or olive Woolly Bugger or a white rabbit-strip leech pattern are all you need.
   Because the lake is deep, even in many spots close to shore, a full-sinking line can be effective to pull fish out of the drop-offs even if you’re not in a boat. During a hatch, try an intermediate line for nymphs or even a floating line if the fish are near the surface. Dry lines, a strike indicator, and a long leader are good for fishing Chironomids, including Blood Worms, which are effective for much of the year. 
   Because Omak Lake is managed as a trophy fishery, anglers must abide by special regulations: only flies and artificial lures with barbless hooks are allowed; the limit is three fish, only one of which can be 18 inches or longer. And there’s a catch-and-release period from March 1 to May 31, when fish are thinking about spawning. Lahontans tend to live longer than other cutthroat, so careful handling and quick release can pay dividends in terms of larger fish.
   While the fish can get large in Omak, which will keep you coming back, I would be remiss to not mention that small ones are disappointing for people who haven’t fished for Lahontans before. Lahontan cutthroat aren’t fast runners and rarely jump. What they mostly do is stay down and slug it out, so the smaller fish are unimpressive. That could be the reason Omak attracts so few anglers, but I don’t think so. I just think more people need to check out this well-managed fishery.


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