American Fly Fishing

Washington's Best Private Bass Lake
By Steve Maeder

Anticipation ran high as I rolled the tumblers on the locked gate across the road to Hilltop Lake. Just two weeks prior, I had strolled into Red’s Fly Shop and bumped into owner Steve Joyce, who was excited to tell me he had secured a lease on the Hilltop Lake property. What he didn’t know is that I had been eyeing the sliver of the lake visible from the road for more than a quarter century, always with a level of curiosity you would expect from a bass fanatic. It was all private property, though, fodder for a law-abiding fisherman’s fantasy at best.
   So my immediate response to Joyce was, “Have you fished it? What’s in there?”
   “I don’t know,” he said, “You better go figure it out.”
   In truth, I had at least a hint of what Hilltop might offer. Years ago, I reconnoitered a pond on this same property, adjacent to a county road below Hilltop Lake. It was small by any standard, but easily accesible, easy to check out, and it looked “bassy.” Eventually, I decided to try it. It wasn’t the first time I found myself risking life and limb casting off Grant County blacktop. The adventure was short-lived, though, because a county sheriff who lived down the road wasted no time telling me I was a traffic hazard and it was in my financial interest to move on.
  He had a way with words and I got the message, but not before landing a 7-pound largemouth off the narrow shoulder. That fish had a mate and I saw several other large specimens. So it wasn’t a complete surprise when I was into a largemouth of fair size on the second or third cast after launching at Hilltop. The lake filters through about 150 yards of dense tules before reaching those roadside puddles. That’s Grant County for the uninitiated—bass everywhere.
   So I was more than eager to heed Joyce’s advice to “go figure it out.”
   After closing the gate behind us, Jon Luke and I realized immediately that the two-track road into Hilltop sees little traffic beyond the cattlemen who annually haul stock in to feed on spring grasses. The dearth of human encroachment just fed the rising excitement.
   “This place never gets fished,” I said. That’s the exclusivity anglers get for a modest rod fee of $150 per day (guided rates and group rates are also available).
   A little research before our trip, including a call to Chad Jackson, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife District 5 biologist, revealed that Hilltop is pretty much perfect for largemouth bass. Covering 35 surface acres, with a maximum depth of 18 feet, it’s is ideal for fly anglers—with a few different fly lines and pattern choices, this spot is easy to cover top to bottom.
   Hilltop sits amid sagebrush steppe, dominated not only by sagebrush, but also rabbitbrush and bitterbrush, along with tules along the shore and nonnative Russian olive trees. The lake occupies a shallow depression, enhancing the feeling of utter privacy once you are on the water. Quiet and cozy, the location offers a fine view to the west across the Columbia River to Colockum Ridge. Make the short trek up the hill (likely where the lake’s name comes from) to the south end and walk east a little way for a wonderful overview of the whole setting. From that point, in good light, you can see into the water, gleaning valuable insight on the locations of weed lines, submerged points, shelves, and drop-offs. Such intel shortens the learning curve, and will increase your success rate. You won’t regret the effort.
   Like an oasis, Hilltop Lake attracts wildlife, including ducks and geese; when the wind blows, they often congregate on the leeward side of the lake’s island. Raptors soar above, hunting for rodents and other prey. Great blue herons frequent the water’s margins, and observant anglers might get to see one of these long-legged waders pick off a fish or frog with a lightning-quick strike. Painted turtles also inhabit the lake. And the pumpkinseed sunfish sometimes take to the air after hovering damselflies.


With our one-man rafts fully inflated, we each rigged two rods so we could easily switch between surface fishing and subsurface tactics. The launch is primitive, but fairly level, so anglers can wade in to launch rafts, pontoons, drift boats, and small motorized craft without difficulty. As I kicked away from the launch, pockets in the weedbeds caught my eye. My popper had barely landed before it flew skyward on the lip of a 4-plus-pound largemouth bass. I startled Jon with a loud proclamation of “Fish on!”
   Seconds later, in a different tone, I mumbled, “Fish off.”
   I’m not sure if I didn’t get a good hook set or if the weeds were on the bass’s side but it was all over in short order. What a start, was all I could think. In the back of my mind, though, I was trying to squelch the memories of the many days that started with a bang only to fizzle quickly. It was time to calm the nerves and get the A Game going, I told myself. 
   To a bass angler, Hilltop Lake is akin to a dream date—it has lots of appealing features. Never-ending shoreline curves and swerves keep things interesting, if not mysterious. The banks wrap through and around many bays, points, nooks, and crannies. Assume nothing and explore everything should be your mantra.
   And all that variety you can see above the water continues unabated beneath the surface. Flats or shelves are located at a variety of depths and we caught fish in as little as a foot of water. Generally, when the fish are up in such areas, they are on the prowl and should behave accordingly. A couple of deeper troughs in the lake are bordered by aquatic weeds, creating prime
bass habitat.
   As the season progresses, substantial weed growth develops and targeting pockets or holes in these areas is a standard bass tactic. You can work over the top of a pocket or plop a slow-sinking fly right on the target. Hilltop also has some submerged brush and a few stickups, which largemouth love. Anything from a small stump on up deserves a few casts.
   The deepest water is located in the southeast end. Transitions to the depths vary from a fairly steep drop-off on the southeastern side at the base of the hill to a gradual slope from west to east. I’ve caught fish on all the drop-offs except the long, gradual slope, but I haven’t fished that area much. I prefer bottom structure with more defined contours. The variety of terrain is part of what makes this place so much fun. And at 35 acres, the lake is ideal for small craft—you can quickly go from location to location to fish a different kind of habitat. It’s an excellent opportunity for those hoping to gain insights into largemouth behavior because you have it all in one package.
   Turnover occurs twice a year. At these times, the fishing can slow. Seasoned bass fanatics aren’t discouraged, though; they just change the speed of retrieve (slow down) and focus on prime fish-holding structure.
   We experienced what I felt was a fall weed die-off. There was no floatsam such as that you’d see in a turnover situation, but rather a distinct opaque tea stain tint to the water. What convinced me of the weed die-off theory was that the color of one species of weed matched the water color perfectly; I also noted plenty of the same weed that looked sickly white. The tint was nothing more than a leaching of weed pigment. A particular aquatic weed had completed its life cycle and was decaying; at least, that’s what I hypothesized. 
   Whatever was going on didn’t kill the bite, but we had to adjust our tactics. In such situations, a fly that is streaking by is on and off the bass’s radar in an instant and the fish aren’t likely to respond. When fish aren’t running down dinner, can’t see well because of turbidity, or the water is cool enough to retard metabolism, slow down your presentations. Use tight-line tactics, such as crawling a fly slowly across the bottom with no slack in the line so you can feel the gentlest pick-up. Heavy flies often work best for such tactics, so I usually rely on size-3/0 patterns with the largest-size metal dumbbell eyes. Weed guards are essential unless you want to spend half your day removing salad from the hook. Use a strip-set rather than simply lifting the rod tip as you might with trout—big hooks require power to penetrate, so let ’em have it, and a second strip-set can’t hurt your cause.
   All that said, I must admit that casting poppers right up against the tules is the most exciting form of bass fishing. If the fish don’t respond to the usual pop-pop-pause retrieve cadence, change it up. A floating line seems logical for top-water flies, but in some situations, slow-sinking lines work even better. A large Dahlberg Diver might float so high it doesn’t make enough surface commotion when fished on a floating line, but a slow-sinking line pulls the fly under when you strip line, and then it resurfaces when you pause. This motion can create quite a ruckus, drawing attention from far and wide. It is a fun technique that provides additional entertainment between strikes.
   Bigger and louder isn’t always better, though. Joyce says standard-size poppers are all that work some days, and I agree. The hard crack of a time-tested black Bugle Bug is music to the ears of bass or panfish.
   When surface bugs like a Black Galaxy or a Sneaky Pete fail to entice Hilltop’s bass, try fishing tight to structure with a moderate-density sinking line and choose a Mike’s Salamander or Bennett’s Lunch Money Shad. When fish aren’t looking up or are shy about rising, those choices can be the solution. Bass love slamming flies on the drop, too, so a sinking, undulating pattern, such as Ehlers’s Foam-Tail Super Worm fished on a floating line often works well.
   If bass don’t seem to be hanging in the tules waiting for a meal to swim by, try fishing nearby drop-offs. In these deeper waters, type 3 through 6 sinking lines help keep the fly swimming level to your retrieve. Suspender-style flies like the Murdich Minnow or Kip Veith’s Goldie are deadly, but so light that they don’t sink unless the line pulls them down. In my book, these are don’t-leave-home-without-them patterns. You can fish them effectively with a variety of retrieves, but match the fly line to
your tactic.
   To suspend them in the water column and fish them slowly, use a slow-sinking line; to fish them rapidly for bass that are in a mood to chase, use a fast-sinking line. At times, patience is critical, and hang time matters. Often, I’ve watched bass follow a fly at a distance but refuse to attack it until it stops. For such fishing, I especially like 4.5- to 7-inch-long Murdich Minnows. The long strands of flash material wave enticingly even when you pause the retrieve. Nothing beats watching a fish wiggle as if it’s winding up like a bull kicking up dust preparing a charge to smash your motionless fly. The so-called “hover” fly lines are tailor-made for fishing unweighted sinking flies in this fashion.
   One thing to remember: keep an open mind about tactics when you fish Hilltop. If one ruse isn’t fooling the bass after 20 minutes or so, change lines, flies, retrieves, or locations—or some combination thereof. The lake is loaded with bass, so change things up if the bass aren’t cooperating.


Big Bass Paradise
Jon and I landed about 25 bass of 4 pounds and larger on our initial foray to Hilltop Lake, and twice that number of smaller fish. Of course, some got away, too. The largest we landed was a 6.6-pound bruiser, and as it often goes, the biggest fish didn’t get to meet the net. That’s a fine day by Northwest bass-fishing standards and reflects the difference between public waters and private. And it’s not just the catch rate, but the fact that you have the whole place to yourself.
   Moreover, on numerous days fishing Hilltop, Joyce has hooked 50 fish on poppers alone and has come close to double that number on a few occasions; he has seen 8-pound and larger bass in the lake. Hilltop also has plenty of sunfish and some black crappie.
   It’s great place to introduce anyone to fly fishing. Red’s offers guided trips to Hilltop using drift boats, making the fishing easy for anglers of all ages and abilities. You are in experienced hands and all that is left to do is have fun. Anglers can book at the single-rod rate or reserve the lake exclusively.
   By midsummer last year after several trips, we felt we had covered it all. But in a conversation about the lake, Joyce asked if we had ever ventured all the way to the back of a bay in the northwest corner. I said we had not because it was so shallow at the mouth that our prop boat might get hung up.
   Cryptically, Joyce said, “There’s a hole back in there.” On a later trip, Red’s client, Troy Kokenge, did a thorough assessment of that entire bay via a personal float craft. Late that day, we queried him as to his findings “back
in there.”
   He reflected, “Oh, they are back in there
all right.”
   “In the hole?” I asked.
   “They’re everywhere,” he said. “Big bass, lots of big bass.”


Steve Maeder is the advertising manager for Northwest Fly Fishing magazine.


The full version of this article is available in print, PDF, and through our free APP.