American Fly Fishing

Room to Explore
By David Paul Williams

Banks Lake, WA

It was the hottest day of the year. Sweat streamed down my back. Steam fogged my sunglasses as I scanned the water for carp. My skin crackled from the heat reflected off the coulee wall. I was thinking that a normal person would retreat to the truck, crank up the air conditioner, and return another day. But I had driven 200 miles to Banks Lake, and I was going to fish or melt trying.

Unlike me, the carp enjoyed the heat. They lazily cruised the shallows and dipped in and out of the tule stands, until one vacuumed up my Carp Woolly. Determined to rectify its mistake, that fish demonstrated how a powerful carp and 8-pound tippet are soon parted. It was an unbeatable introduction to one of the finest carp fisheries in Washington, in a dramatic
geologic setting.

Thousands of years ago, the Purcell Trench Lobe of the Cordilleran ice sheet, many hundreds of feet thick, ground into the Idaho panhandle where Lake Pend Oreille now sits. It dammed the entire Clark Fork River drainage to form 2,000-foot-deep glacial Lake Missoula. When the ice dam eventually burst, 500 cubic miles of water raced through what is now Idaho, then Washington, and on into Oregon. The 65-mile-per-hour torrent of debris-filled water, equal to 10 times the combined volume of every river in the world, scoured everything in its path.

Banks Lake, WA

The rock structure around Steamboat Rock has tons of fish-holding nooks, crannies, and holes where bass hide. Carry several different sinking lines so you can fish as deep as necessary to find fish (left). This heavy bass crushed a baitfish pattern. In Banks Lake, smaller fish make up a significant food base for smallies, so carry a variety of streamer-style flies and vary your retrieve speed until the fish tell you how they want it (top middle). The east side of Banks Lake has miles of shoreline where a few minutes of walking puts anglers in prime carp territory (middle). Wade fishing along the now-submerged Speedball Highway provides access to nearly every fish species in the lake (top right). The dorsal fin on a big smallmouth is beautiful, but mind those flesh-piercing spines (bottom right). PHOTOS BY DAVID PAUL WILLIAMS

Although it was once thought to have been a single event, geologists now believe the ice dam and flood pattern was repeated as many as 60 times. The floods left a canyon more than 50 miles long, 5 miles wide in places, and more than 800 feet deep. The first humans entered the canyon at least 11,000 years ago. Native American legends recall a time when the water-filled canyon was inhabited by terrible monsters and the canyon walls themselves ran red with the blood of warriors killed by those monsters. Centuries later, the canyon became a path for exploration.

Banks Lake, WA

One angler handles the poling duties while the other stands ready to deliver a quick, pinpoint cast to carp on a shallow Banks Lake flat. PHOTO BY STEVE MAEDER

Early explorers thought the coulee was the ancient riverbed where the Columbia River, now miles to the north, once ran. French Canadian trappers called the canyon Grand Coulee, from the French verb couler, meaning “to flow.” In the middle of the Great Depression, Congress approved building a power-generating dam on the Columbia at the spot where the ancient Columbia once flowed south. When completed, Grand Coulee Dam formed Roosevelt Lake and morphed into the key component of the Columbia Basin Project. The project included creating a giant waterstorage reservoir, filling it with Columbia River water, and flooding miles of farmland. Two more dams were built: Dry Falls Dam near Coulee City in 1949, and North Dam at Electric City in 1951—corks in a 27-mile-long bottle known as Banks Lake.

Easy Access Afloat or Afoot At full pool, Banks Lake covers about 27,000 acres, a daunting expanse that can be challenging for experienced lake anglers and intimidating for those new to the lake game. Help is available to demystify Banks. A Google search for “Banks Lake drawdown” brings up images taken after a drawdown in 2011, when Banks was more puddle than lake. They reveal the location of the Seattle, Lake Shore and Eastern Railway bed, and the Speedball Highway roadbed, along the east side of the lake. Both are fish magnets at varying times of the year. The Banks Lake/ Lake Washington map by Fish-n-Map Company, www. fishnmap.com, includes the Speedball Highway route plus tons of other fishing information. The images and map help break down the lake into manageable chunks.

Partway up the lake is Steamboat Rock, a landmark used by ancient travelers, then European settlers, and then military pilots. It’s a massive 800-foot-high basalt butte, a remnant of the plateau cut by the Missoula floods. The enormous rock is just one feature of sprawling Steamboat Rock State Park, which has 26 tent and 144 RV sites, flush toilets, green lawns, shade trees, and boat ramps. The park is part of a larger Steamboat Rock State Park Recreation Area that includes 44 primitive campsites at Jones Bay and 36 at Osborn Bay Lake. Both have vault toilets, but no water and plenty of dust in the summer.

Banks Lake, WA

This smallmouth bass was a pleasant surprise while the author was targeting carp in shallow water on a rocky shoreline flat on Banks Lake. Both species will hammer crayfish patterns. PHOTOS BY DAVID PAUL WILLIAMS

The lake has numerous boat ramps. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) operates two gravel launches just off US Highway 2 on the southeast shore. Ankeny #1 has camping and a vault toilet. Ankeny #2 has a toilet, but no camping. Neither has potable water. Six miles up the lake on the east shore is Million Dollar Mile South, a gravel launch with no amenities. Three miles farther is Million Dollar Mile North, with a gravel launch, large RV parking area, and toilet. The only launch on the west side is Barker Canyon. Down a steep gravel road, it has a toilet and a concrete ramp. All WDFW ramps require a Vehicle Access Pass or Discover Pass.

Coulee City Community Park, at the southern end of Banks Lake, has a concrete ramp and a large parking area; both get plenty of use when walleye anglers are in town. The associated campground has tent and RV sites, several bathrooms with coin-operated showers, picnic tables, and fire rings. The ramp is open all year; the campground operates April through October. Steamboat Rock State Park has two concrete ramps, one on the camping side, the other at Northrup Canyon. Both have bathrooms and both require a Discover Pass. Farther north, on the west side of State Route 155, is Osborn Bay Campground, which has a concrete ramp. The WDFW has a gravel launch site with parking for only a couple of boat trailers on the east side of SR 155, just before the highway crosses Osborn Bay Lake. Farther north is Coulee Playland Resort, with a concrete ramp, RV sites, bathrooms with showers, store, and current fishing information.

Launching a powerboat from one of the ramps allows anglers to probe remote coves, but powerboats are not necessary to effectively fish the lake. Float tubes or pontoons work well, as there are plenty of small coves and bays to explore. You can easily pull off the highway, pump up a boat, and be on the water. Wade-fishing is popular as well. The end of Road J Northeast, north of Coulee City, has miles of wadable shoreline where you can encounter carp, smallmouth bass, and an occasional largemouth bass. The flats along Million Dollar, the east side of the Devils Punch Bowl, and The Poplars (at the south end of the state park) offer excellent wade-fishing prospects. The lake’s bottom composition varies between broken basalt, gravel, and mud. Where the bottom is muddy, I do the football player thing and duct-tape my wading sandals to my feet.

Banks Lake, WA

Banks Lake is an outstanding carp fishery, with lots of shallow-water habitat for sight-fishing by boat or by wading.
PHOTO BY STEVE MAEDER

Fish-Filled Phenom Banks Lake fly anglers generally focus on smallmouth bass and carp, largely because these species are abundant and outstanding targets, but also because few anglers seem to be aware of other species in the lake. In the years I’ve fished Banks Lake, I’ve never seen another fly fisher target rainbow trout, walleyes, yellow perch, black crappies, lake whitefish, burbot, largemouth bass, bluegills, kokanee, or channel catfish.

Banks Lake is filled with carp feeding on extensive flats, cruising the edges of lava fingers jutting into the lake, and hanging in the many bays and coves. They are everywhere and can be caught any day from April to October, except when they gather to spawn. Warm spring weather can find the fish spawning in May. A cold year will delay the spawn until July. It’s easy to detect when carp are spawning: they swarm together and churn up the water in a boisterous display of mating behavior.

The hot summer months offer the best fishing conditions. The spring winds have died and the sunny, cloudless skies provide good sight-fishing conditions. The combination of massive numbers of fish, excellent sight-fishing weather, and clear water make Banks Lake my first choice for carp fishing.

Banks Lake carp run up to 15 pounds, with most about half that weight. You need 7- to 8-weight rods to handle these powerful fish, particularly because they tend to race into the nearest tule patch (tules are dense freshwater reeds). Use 1X or 0X fluorocarbon tippet, a long leader, and a size 8 Black Cherry, or any fly constructed with rubber legs, marabou, and rabbit. Olive, tan, brown, black, and burnt orange are productive colors for the fly body. Polarized sunglasses and a wide-brimmed
hat are essential.

Smallmouth bass, like carp, are everywhere in the lake. Head to Barker Flats on the northeast shore in May, and expect to have plenty of company, because the smallmouth and those who pursue them reliably show up. The old roadbed comes through Devils Punch Bowl, water easily accessed from Steamboat Rock State Park. The road enters at the south end of the Punch Bowl and runs at varying depths along the east shore, then exits at the north end of the Punch Bowl before disappearing into the Northrup Canyon rocks.

Banks Lake, WA

Carp are not the fastest swimmers, and they don’t jump, but they make up for their lack of agility with brute force, so step up to a 7- or 8-weight rod and prowl the extensive flats along the shoreline for sight-fishing excitement. PHOTO BY STEVE MAEDER

Smallmouth love the drowned roadbeds in the spring and early summer until the hot weather drives them into deeper water. If the roadbed is covered by a few feet of water, the fish will be on each side of the road. If the roadbed is deep, the fish will be on top of it. The railroad bed fish follow the same pattern.

Osborn Bay Lake, accessed from the WDFW gravel launch, has some great smallmouth structure along the SR 155 riprap, and rocks along the far shore. Tucked away from the main lake and protected by the surrounding topography, it can be fished when the wind whips Banks Lake into froth.

The upper third of the lake has more weedy structure favored by largemouth bass. Jones Bay, Kruk Bay, and Osborn Bay Lake are good choices. If you want to target largemouth, look for coves and shoreline filled with tules and cattails. There is great largemouth bass habitat around the Osborn Bay Campground and along the Electric City airport shoreline.

Banks Lake’s bottom contour constantly varies. An area may have a 4-foot-deep hump, then plunge to 20 feet. That rapid depth change means carrying at least two rods—one rigged with an intermediate line, the other equipped with a long type 6 sinkingtip or sinking line. If room allows, take a third rod with a floating line for fishing top-water flies, because the bass will take a top-water bug any time of day. The bass key on crayfish, yellow perch, and kokanee. Bennett’s Baitfish in perch or smolt colors are good imitations. Try working a Hoffman’s Chickabou Crayfish along the bottom, but bring plenty, as the basalt substrate gobbles flies. Use The Hamster on top.

Banks Lake, WA

Fish-eating great blue herons and many other waterbirds thrive at Banks Lake. PHOTO BY STEVE MAEDER

May is prime time for Banks Lake bass. That’s when they have moved into their prespawn pattern. October is also excellent, because that’s when kokanee fry are stocked. Try to be on the water when it has cooled to 60 degrees and the bass begin their first of two fall feeding binges. The second binge happens when the water temperature drops another five degrees.

Expect to find plenty of average-size bass and a few ranging up to 5 pounds. In the bass tournaments, the big-fish winner is usually 4 or 5 pounds and the winning team averages at least 3 pounds per fish.

The WDFW has worked to develop a rainbow trout fishery at Banks Lake, annually stocking about 1,000 catchable-size trout. They can grow up to about 20 inches. The same baitfish and crayfish patterns that smallmouth eat work for the rainbows. Damselfly and dragonfly nymphs prevail along the tules and cattails; in November, the rainbows are 10 to 15 feet deep,
eating perch.

If you really want to stand out in a crowd, target walleyes. These toothy critters come shallow in the spring, looking for a rocky, cobble bottom where they can spawn. The smaller males (14 to 18 inches) check out the sites first, followed by the bigger females (some as heavy as 8 pounds or more). Immediately after the spawn, the fish hang near the spawn sites and feed aggressively. According to WDFW research, walleyes of all sizes dine on the abundant kokanee as well as crayfish. The best fishing is in early morning, late evening, and even at night. I use a Chartreuse Caboose matched with a Kokanee Fry or brown D-Dub’s Rabbit Bugger on a sinking-tip line with a short leader ending in 6-pound tippet. Walleyes tend to feed near the bottom, so I try to keep the fly a foot or so off the substrate. In the spring, that means water 8 to 14 feet deep. Use a slow strip-and-pause retrieve coupled with intermittent quick pulses.

Another Banks Lake fish that rarely sees a fly, and turns Banks Lake into a year-round fishery, is the lake whitefish. These weigh as much as 5 pounds and emerge from the depths when the water is coldest—December through February. A fly-fishing friend and I took a page from the gear-chucker book and fished weighted sparkly flies on long 4-pound-test leaders. The north end of the lake across from Coulee Playland and the kokanee net pens south of Coulee Playland are two popular spots. Sadly, the big numbers of lake whitefish bring out poachers—WDFW enforcement officers are always catching bad guys breaking the law, typically by exceeding the 15-fish bag limit, snagging fish, or even using gill nets.

Crappies don’t get much love from fly fishers, but they are fun to catch on 3- and 4-weight rods. Early in the year, the fish move into flooded brush and vegetation. As the water warms, they retreat into deeper water. Carey Special, Chum Baby, and White Lightning are good patterns.

Banks Lake offers a lot of options, though smallmouth bass and carp are the prime targets for most of the lake’s regulars. But taking all species into consideration, the combination of remarkable scenery, myriad species, and plenty of easy access makes Banks Lake a year round destination.


David Paul Williams is an attorney, freelance writer, and author of Fly Fishing for Western Smallmouth.
He lives in Bellevue, Washington.