Lake Chelan: Hot Salmon Fishing and More

by Terry Rudnick, Washington Editor

Talk about summertime at Lake Chelan and most people think of hot boats, cold drinks and cool sun glasses. It's a place to zip around on water skis and lie around coated in suntan lotion. Yes, Chelan is all these things, but if your summer travel plans include a visit to this 52-mile-long watery playground, don't forget the fishing tackle. This gem of north-central Washington is fast gaining a reputation among Northwest anglers.

I recently had an opportunity to fish the lake with its premier guide, Rick Graybill, and was surprised at the fishing variety available on this long, deep, cold lake.


Trolling Chelan with Rick Graybill.

Photo: TERRY RUDNICK

"Well, for starters, the chinook salmon fishing is good enough that it's beginning to draw anglers away from the traditional fisheries over on Puget Sound," Graybill explained as we motored out of the city park boat ramp and under the highway bridge at the edge of town.

Chelan was first stocked with chinook salmon in 1974, and for the past several years the Washington Department of Fisher and Wildlife has planted 100,000 chinooks annually, according to Graybill. If all goes according to plan, those plants will continue for the next two or three years, he says.

In addition to the stocked fish, adult chinooks spawn in the Stehekin River at the north end of the lake, adding further excitement and angling potential. A typical Lake Chelan chinook has been in the 10- to 12-pound range, but Graybill says salmon in the high-teens and low-twenties have been boated.

Unlike most of the chinook salmon we west-siders are used to chasing, Lake Chelan salmon are seldom concentrated around schools of baitfish. In fact, smaller fish make a up a rather small part of their diet, according to Graybill.

"They feed primarily on freshwater shrimp," he explained. "That makes for the sweetest, reddest salmon flesh you'll ever put on a barbecue, but it also means you have to cover a lot of water in search of scattered fish that only have to cruise around with their mouths open whenever they want a meal."

Covering a lot of water in search of fish means trolling, and that's the technique that accounts for most Lake Chelan chinooks. Early and late in the day, when the light-sensitive shrimp are nearer the surface, trolling in the top 60 feet of water will pay off.

But as the sun gets higher in the sky, the shrimp and the salmon that feed on them get deeper in the water, and anglers have to take their baits or lures deeper and deeper to find fish. In a lake that's as deep as 1500 feet in places, you'd better be equipped with downriggers or forget about catching salmon throughout most of the day.


"I've caught kings as deep as 325 feet, and I catch a lot of my fish in 200 to 220 feet of water," said the veteran guide.

Exceptional Chelan salmon offer an attractive option year-round

Photo: RICK GRAYBILL


Downrigger trolling at depths of 200 feet or more is challenging to say the least, and Lake Chelan salmon anglers have to be on their toes at all times. Line stretch is a problem when there's that much monofilament between the rod tip and the downrigger weight, and these salmon are notoriously light biters, so many strikes go unnoticed.

To help improve the odds, Graybill watches the tips of his trolling rods constantly, even attaches a small bell to each rod for an audible signal of a strike. Chelan salmon seldom hit hard enough to pop the line loose from the downrigger release, so the first sign of a bite is a signal to grab the rod from its holder and jerk hard to release the line and set the hook.

Whole and plug-cut herring account for many Lake Chelan chinooks, as do herring strips fished behind flashers. A variety of plugs and wobbling spoons also are effective.

If you use bait, check it constantly, because these light-biting salmon will peel it from your hooks without your even knowing it.

Something else to keep in mind is that preferences on the part of the salmon seem to change daily, so exchange baits for lures and one color spoon for another until you find what they want, Graybill advises.
"If you aren't getting hits, do something different until you discover the right combination, and then be willing to change again when that combination quits working," he says.
The same trolling methods that catch salmon also account for good numbers of lake trout, or Mackinaw, caught from Chelan, according to Graybill. Chelan is one of only a handful of Washington lakes where this big transplant may be found.

These largest members of the char family were first stocked in Chelan about 1980, and about65,000 have been planted during each of the past four years.

Lake trout grow as large as 60 pounds or more, and the Washington state record, caught in the mid-sixties, weighed just over 30 pounds. Graybill thinks the next state record will come from Lake Chelan, although most of the lakers caught there so far have been fish of 10 to 16 pounds. Some, though, have topped the 20-pound mark, and they continue to add inches and pounds.

While the trophy-fish angler might prefer chinook salmon or lake trout, there are other fish species available to Lake Chelan anglers that require less in the way of serious concentration and state-of-the-art equipment.
Chelan is stocked with tens of thousands of rainbow trout each year, and both bank and boat anglers make good catches of them all around the south end of the lake. Bank anglers catch some good-sized rainbows at Riverfront Park, at the extreme south end, as do guests at the nearby Caravel Resort.

Like rainbow trout everywhere, those in Chelan will hit a wide range of baits and lures. Berkley Power Bait is a favorite of many, as are salmon eggs, worms and marshmallows. Rooster Tails, Needlefish, Triple Teazers, Flatfish, Kwikfish and Mepps spinners are among the many artificials that will do the job.

Kokanee are among Washington's most popular freshwater fish, and Lake Chelan has 'em. The freshwater shrimp have had a negative impact on kokanee, but anglers still make some good catches of these sweet-eating little sockeye salmon. Trolling produces most of them, and, like the salmon and lake trout, you often have to troll quite deep to catch Lake Chelan kokanee.

Although it's a fairly well-kept secret, Lake Chelan also offers good smallmouth bass fishing. The warmer waters at the south end of the lake provide some of the best bass action. There's no shortage of rocky points, submerged boulder piles and gravel beaches for smallmouth anglers to try their luck.

If you want to try something really different, ask some of the locals about burbot, commonly known as freshwater lings. These somewhat prehistoric-looking denizens of deep water provide year-round action at Chelan, although some of the best fishing is during the winter and early spring. They're long, slim and ugly, but the white-meated burbot is always a hit on the dinner table.

That's a quick rundown on the fishing variety available at Lake Chelan, but you really should investigate the possibilities for yourself. If you're headed that way this summer, remember to include a rod and tackle box with all that other fun-in-the-sun equipment.

If you aren't planning a trip to Chelan this summer, maybe you should change your plans!

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Even if you plan to fish for Lake Chelan salmon or lake trout in your own boat, you would be wise to first fish the lake with a guide who's on the water every day. Learning from a local expert always saves time and money, but in the case of this rather technical fishery it's almost a necessity.

You can contact Rick Graybill at Graybill's Guide Service by writing P.O. Box 2621, Chelan WA 98816, (509) 682-4294.

As for hotels and motels, the Caravel Resort is right on the lake and within walking distance of the Riverfront Park boat ramp and all the shops and restaurants in downtown Chelan. Many of their units have fully equipped kitchens and all are a few steps from the lake. If you want to soak away the sore muscles after playing all those fish, try one of their Jacuzzi suites. Reservations are recommended for the summer months. Write or call Caravel Resort, P.O. Box 1509, Chelan WA 98816, (509) 682-2582 or 1-800-962-8723.
RV and tent spaces are available at Lake Chelan State Park, but in summer most spaces are reserved far in advance. There are also private RV parks and campgrounds in and around Chelan.

If you need further information, contact the Chelan Chamber of Commerce, 1-800-4-CHELAN.