In Just Fishin

When winter rolls into the Pacific Northwest, the rain blows in sideways and the temperature drops. For many kayak fishermen it’s all about finding space in the garage to store your kayak until spring.  Granted, there are a few die-hards that brave the salt to fish winter-run blackmouth salmon or stage near river estuaries in hopes that a steelhead might pass through.  Northwesterners know from experience that colder water temperatures typically mean, don’t waste your time fishing.

In October, while picking up some blackmouth fishing gear at Seattle’s Outdoor Emporium, I attempted to strike up a conversation with employee Jon Calvo, a local lake angler, about salmon fishing.  Jon confessed that he wasn’t a big salt water guy.  He’s spent most of his days on Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish fishing for cutthroat and rainbow trout.  I asked him; “People actually catch fish in Lake Washington?”  I’ve seen the occasional power boat while driving across the 520 and I-90 bridges but never paid much attention to anyone fishing.  Jon went on to tell me that he and his buddy troll different parts of the lake with down riggers and a variety of different gear from his power boat.  I thought to myself, this might be worth a try from my kayak.  I asked Jon for a couple of spoon selections worth trying.  I later walked out with a Luhr Jensen Needlefish in a rainbow trout pattern and a fire tiger pattern both in the #2 size (about 1.5 inch long).

That afternoon, determined to catch a fish, I put my Hobie in the back of my truck and headed over to Seward Park.  I pedaled out to 45 feet of water before putting my down rigger down 27 feet with 100 feet of line from the back of my kayak.  I trolled around the north tip of Seward Park near Andrews Bay.  It was a beautiful fall day with glass like conditions on the lake.  Even if I didn’t catch a fish, it was a great day just to be on the water.  I began marking some bait but the tip of my rod never moved. About an hour into my trip I noticed on my fish finder that I was getting into much too shallow water, so I angled out quickly.  My line began bouncing to what I thought was bottom.  To my surprise a cutthroat trout leaped 3 feet out of the water 100 feet behind me!  Wow, what a great fight on my ultra-light rod set up.  This 16″ inch fish could really pull out some drag.  Two jumps later, I netted the fish and dropped my line back again.  Another cutthroat trout hit the line before I could set my rod back in the holder.  The fish was off as quick as it was on but it was still a great day of fishing.  From the first day out I was hooked.

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I called my kayak angler buddy to tell him about my big day on Lake Washington.  He, too, was excited to learn a new fishery.  Being the curious minded type, he began researching the fishery in detail online. The information on what these cutthroat trout were feeding on in Lake Washington is staggering.  The short version is cutthroat trout are feeding on longfin smelt, sticklebacks, peamouth chubs, pike minnow and even juvenile perch, rainbow trout and salmon smolt in this lake.  And everyone agrees – find the bait and you’ll find the fish.

We spent the next couple of months fishing different parts of the lake with easy access to launch our kayaks.  We had a number of days without catching a fish but the next day we could catch 4 to 5 cutthroat; some approaching 4 pounds.  The key seemed to be always be willing to change up your presentation: change trolling speeds, turn often, try various depths and above all if you find bait – fish at the bait. Larger lures sometimes produce larger fish, but it is a safer bet to match the hatch if you can find out what they are feeding on.


Trolling Gear:   You’ll need a down rigger, lead core line or clip on weights (snap weights) to get your line down at least 25 feet on a typical day.  Your presentation should be back 100 feet or more. Trolling speed 1 to 2 miles per hour. We have found lead core line in 15 pound test to be the easiest method fishing for cutthroat trout on Lake Washington. Tip the lead core line with at least 50 feet of mono in the 12 to 15 pound test, and a good quality swivel before your leader and tie on your terminal gear. Avoid snap swivels to connect your terminal tackle to the leader.  Your presentation has to look as natural as possible.  Your line will be back quite a bit further than using a down rigger but it’s less hassle to have to worry about a down rigger on a kayak.

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Lures:  Match the Hatch.

Luhr Jensen Needlefish: Sizes #2 and #3.  Successful colors: Fire Tiger, Rainbow Trout, and Pearl Bikini/Brass, but others will work.
Brad’s Super Bait Mini Cut Plug:  Rainbow Trout and Double Take

Apex lures 3-inch variety: Rainbow trout, Watermelon
*tip Needlefish with a small piece of worm.  Stuff Brad’s Cut Plug stuffed with herring or scents.
**Other suggestions: wedding rings tipped with worms, cut plug herring, herring in a glow/spin helmet and hoochies with a small flasher can also be productive. You can add a flasher into the set-up, similar to a salmon trolling setup, but during the winter with the gin-clear water it doesn’t seem to provide much benefit. If your lure has good action you can leave the flasher out of the mix during the winter.

If you decide to keep your fish make sure after cleaning them to look in their stomachs to what the fish are feeding on. Carefully release the ones you don’t need and help maintain this fishery for the future.

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Find the bait, you’ll need a fish-finder for this.  Bait will move into shallow water in pursuit of bait or out deep.  Don’t be afraid to get into shallow water, your fishing from a kayak this is your advantage over power boats.  Cutthroat trout are ambush predators and will hang below ledges and structure looking for fish.  Fish above the bait schools or below them as dragging a presentation through a school of bait might make a lurking trout loose interest.  Making “S” turns and changing speed can be productive to enticing the bite.  Change the depth you’re trolling and if a lure isn’t working don’t be afraid to try something different. Scratch the bottom once in a while if you aren’t getting a bite.  There’s a good chance you could end up with a rainbow trout, a lake perch or a small mouth bass.

Areas Fished on Lake Washington

Northern Tip of Seward Park,Magnuson Park , Both 1-90 and 520 bridges, East Channel of Lake Washington, the mouth of the Cedar River. Almost any point in this lake, major or minor has the potential to hold the bait and the fish.  Lake Washington Cutthroat trout fishing is open year round with a 5 fish limit.  Take what you need and release the rest.

(Originally published in Kayak Angler Magazine/