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Omak Lake Continues to Kick Out Lahotan Cutts at an Uncommon Clip

By Dave Graybill
Buell and Brad
(click image for detail)

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a lake that produced 19-inch trout at a pace that would keep a child’s attention?  That could promise the possibility of huge trout; maybe even a state record.  This “dream lake” would also have to be scenic, uncrowded, and—heck, as long as it’s just a dream—close enough to town that you could take a break at lunch time, eat Chinese and be back in about an hour.

As a matter of fact there is such a lake.  Its name is Omak Lake and it’s just eight miles from the town of Omak in Okanogan County.  It’s scenic, uncrowded and Lahotan cutthroat hit at a clip that will wear out an angler.  It’s also where the state record for Lahotan cutthroat was broken twice in less than a year and currently stands at 18 pounds, four ounces.

I just got reacquainted with Omak Lake, after an absence of about six years.  Now I wonder why I stayed away so long.  So many places just aren’t the same when you go back, but Omak Lake remains a spectacular fishery and it’s largely ignored.

Back in ’91 I first fished Omak Lake with my brother and cousin over a Fourth of July weekend.  We were surprised at the number of fish that we caught and that other fishing boats were so scarce.  We also noticed that ours was the only boat on the water using downriggers.  We returned the following year and paid more attention.  On a Fourth of July weekend there were a total of six boats on the water and we caught cutthroat at the rate of one every eleven minutes; for three days.

I went back to Omak Lake on September 17th, fishing alone in my 12-foot aluminum boat.  While trolling in the launch bay the longest interval between fish was eight minutes.  The following weekend, with my “native guide” along, the fishing was slower.  I once counted fifteen minutes between fish.  Most of the cutts were 19 inchers.

Now, I’d like to claim that I have found the secret to fishing Omak Lake.  But the reality is that even a casual angler can have the same experience if they do just a few simple things.

Number one:  get down.  I used a simple, clamp-on rigger with an eight-pound ball on my recent trips to Omak Lake.  I also used drop-lead setups here with success.  I prefer to use the downrigger, as these cutthroat tend to “follow” after the strike and rarely hit hard enough to snap off the rigger or drop a lead.  Also, at the rate an angler catches these fish the amount of lead that you’d have to bring along would sink a small boat.

Number two: experiment.   From the weekend of the 17th to the weekend of the 23rd the cutthroat had changed their lure preference.  On the first weekend they wouldn’t leave a #2 Needlefish alone and wouldn’t even sniff at my plugs.  On the following weekend only a #3 Needlefish would work, and they attacked a Swimmertail and a large Lyman plug.

Number three:  just do it.  Sure Omak can sound like a long way away from Seattle or Spokane, but the town offers all the comforts, and think what you could be missing.

In ’92 Dan Beardslee of Pateros, Washington decided to take a serious look at Omak Lake.  I mention serious because that’s the way Beardslee approaches fishing a new water.  He had learned that Lahotan cutthroat prefer a water temperature of 50 degrees, so he attached a thermometer to his downrigger and “fished” for depth.  This thermocline depth was what he looked for every time he fished and he ran his bait ten feet below the thermocline, looking for bigger fish lurking below the largest concentrations of cutthroat.

In October of his first season fishing Omak Lake he landed a cutthroat weighing 14 pounds, .95 ounces, establishing a new state record.

In ’93 Beardslee returned to Omak Lake for the first time that year on July 1st, the first day of catch and keep fishing.  He broke his own state record, moving the bar to 18 pounds, four ounces.

Dan Beardslee makes it sound easy, but even he admits that it took a lot of trial and error to get Omak Lake dialed in.  He made fifteen trips to the lake before he took the first record and tried a lot of different lures. 

Anglers who would like to have the kind of “luck” Beardslee has had on Omak Lake should employ the following tactics:

Find the thermocline.  This layer of water between warm and cold water will be evident if you have a good depth finder.  Fish tend to gather at this depth and you will see a concentration.  The thermocline will vary throughout the year as the lake heats up during summer and cools in fall and winter.  Put your lure at or just below this depth for best success.

Use darting plugs and lures.  Beardslee’s first record fish was taken on a Luhr Jensen J-Plug, and the second on a Ross Swimmertail.  Both of these lures have a wild, darting action that appeals to Omak Lake cutthroat.  Another of Beardslee’s favorites is a Needlefish. Although he hasn’t caught a record on one, he has found it to be a lure the cutts can’t resist.

Not many anglers take as technical approach to a fishery as Beardslee, have as much experience and fishing savvy, but that shouldn’t prevent even the casual angler from having an exceptional experience at Omak Lake.

After being away from Omak Lake for about six years, I fished it for the first time in my own boat.  No depth sounder, a clamp-on downrigger and a couple of tackle boxes crammed with lures.

I remembered that I had caught my weight in cutthroat at Omak Lake on Super Dupers, but the first lure I saw when I opened my box was a Needlefish, so I tied it on.  I had motored some distance out in the launch bay, and after figuring out how the clamp-on rigger worked dropped the lure to forty-five feet.  Whoops!  Must’ve hit bottom.  The rigger and rod were bouncing like crazy.  Wrong!  It was a fish.

I fished around the bay with the same lure, using the “Braille” system to find my depth (sometimes thirty five feet, sometimes thirty), and never had a reason to change my lure.  As I mentioned earlier, it was a fish every eight minutes.  I caught a couple smaller fish, but the majority ran 16 to nineteen inches, with one 23-incher.

Also on my first trip I ran out of the bay and down lake to try some of the “pockets” that had produced fish in the past and to see if there were any fish within range of a fly rod at the extreme south end.  

I did find some very nice fish in these narrow pocket and slots between islands and into bays, but I want to caution anglers who explore these for the first time.  Most of the shoreline of Omak Lake is steep rock and deep.  However, there are some shelves of solid rock and these shoals can come up fast.  On a clear day with the light high overhead these can be seen at a distance.  Omak Lake water is very clear.  But if there is an overcast or the light is low on the horizon it can be difficult to spot these abrupt changes in depth.  Approach the shorelines carefully until you are familiar with the lake.

When I reached the southeastern end of the lake I found what I had anticipated.  A gradual shallow with some submerged weed beds that looked just right for fly-fishing.  To confirm my suspicion I spotted an angler in a pontoon boat landing a fish just as I arrived.  I motored to within a courteous distance and learned that he had been fishing for about two hours and had hooked twenty and landed thirteen.  Not bad.

Fly anglers are no strangers to Omak Lake actually.  In fact I saw as many pontoon boats as fishing boats on my last two trips here.  There’s good reason.  The warm sunny temperatures in Okanogan County allow anglers here to enjoy damsel fly action clear till the end of September.  The angler I mentioned earlier was taking his fish on damsel nymphs.  

Quality fly-fishing isn’t limited to summer and fall here either.  Darc Knobel, of the Blue Dun Fly Shop in East Wenatchee has enjoyed fishing Omak Lake with a fly rod in the spring for years (see photo).  He has found the good ‘ol Wooly Bugger highly effective, along with his favorite white leech patterns.

After visiting with the fly angler I ran back up lake and tried my luck at an area we used to call the “Wall” and made a couple of passes with some success.  The lure of the action in launch bay was too much for me and I headed back.  The cutts were waiting for me and although my Needlefish was pretty bent and battered they continued to hit it with relish until I called it quits.

Expecting the same interest in my Needlefish on my next trip cost me some time.  As I mentioned earlier, the same size just didn’t work.  The same lure in a size larger did.  I also found that the same size plug that was ignored the previous week worked but in a different color.  Nothing worked on the drop-lead line—until I put on a Swimmertail.

Experiment.  Experiment.  Experiment. 

The frustrations I have experienced at Omak Lake are minor compared to what I have gone through at other lakes, though.  By and large the only disappointment I have had at Omak Lake is not catching some of the 10- to 12-pound and (obviously) larger fish that Dan Beardslee has taken.  But, like I said, just do it.  You just never know, the next fish could be a real whopper.  Maybe a new record!

To give anglers some perspective on what they’re facing at Omak Lake, and to give an indication of the kind of concentration of cutthroat that are found in the lake, it’s no small pond.  The lake is eight miles long, a mile wide and 300 feet deep.  There are 6,000 acres of water to explore here.

The heavy population of Lahotan cutthroat found in Omak Lake is due to the continued plants of these fish by the Colville Indians.  The lake is within the boundaries of the Colville Indian Reservation and their management of Omak Lake can be counted as a contributor to the quality of the fishing here.

The lake was first opened to non-tribal members in the mid seventies as a trophy fishery.  I’m not sure that there has been much of a change since then.  Anglers had to pay a special fee, and today’s anglers are still required to buy a tribal license to fish reservation waters.  There used to be a special twenty dollar fee to fish Omak Lake only, separate from the tribal license, but nowadays access to Omak Lake is included in the single license fee, which can be purchased on a one-day, three-day, seven-day and annual basis.  The one-day license fee is $7.50; three-day $18.00; seven-day $25.00, and the annual permit is now $35.00.

 Permits are available usually by April each year, and if you’re traveling from Seattle you can stop at the Triangle Texaco in Brewster to get a permit.  From there I would stop at Cascade Outfitters in Omak.  This is also the best place to call ahead for a current fishing report and conditions.  You can talk to Dick here by calling (509) 826-4148.  For who have visited the shop before should be aware that the shop has moved from downtown, to a spot not far from the shopping center on the road that leads to the light at the main highway.

There are many locations that carry licenses if traveling from the east.  To get a copy of the fishing regulation pamphlet that includes the license outlets, anglers can write to Fish and Wildlife Department, Colville Confederated Tribes, P.O. Box 150, Nespelem, WA 99155.  Can also call at (509) 634-2110.

The catch limit has always been restricted at Omak Lake.  It used to be two fish per day, but is now three.  The minimum size is 14 inches.  The lake is open year-round, but there is a catch-and-release season that runs from March 1st to May 31st.  Also, the “north embayment” (what I refer to as the launch bay) is closed to fishing during this same period.  In addition, all islands on Omak Lake are closed to access from March 1st to May 31st.  Fishing here is restricted to artificial lures and flies with barbless hooks only, no bait.  Fishing time is dawn till dark daily and anglers are required to provide creel census information.  There are boxes provided near the launches for this.

Anglers should also be aware that although Omak is just eight miles away, facilities at Omak Lake proper are Spartan. There are now pit toilets and picnic tables at the north embayment and pit toilets at Beer Can Beach.  There are also some of these limited amenities near the launches further down the southeast shore.  Also, near the bottom end or southeastern shore of the lake there are areas that are restricted to tribal members only.  They are posted and anglers are encouraged to respect these areas.

Fishing at Omak Lake is essentially non-existent during the March 1st to May 31st catch-and-release period, expect for fly fisherman, and these guys will go at it until November here.  Boaters will continue to fish Omak Lake well into winter and so will shore anglers.  The steep shore along the road to Nespelem is popular unless snow prevents access.  They cast large Blue Fox spinners and have good success during the cold months.

 A very significant change in Omak Lake is the condition of the launch in the north embayment.  The water has risen considerably in the past years and the launch I expected to use is now a swimming area.  

Due to the change in lake level many anglers are using other launch sites at Omak Lake.  One that has been in use for many years is found at Nichols, or “Beer Can Beach”, which is accessed from the road that leads to Nespelem and further east along this same road anglers will find at least one other serviceable launch. 

To reach Omak from the West anglers can take either I-90 or Highway 2 to Wenatchee and then head north on 97 about 90 miles.  An option in the summer is Highway 20 and North Cascades Pass to Winthrop. Continue on Highway 20 to Okanogan and then Omak on 97.  From the East, take I-90 or head cross state on Highway 2 to Wilbur and then take Highway 174 through Bridgeport and Highway 97.  Anglers can also take Highway 155 north through the Colville Reservation to reach Omak.

 This time year is actually a great time to head for Omak Lake.  Crowds are never a problem here, but North Central Washington is blessed with clear and calm days in October and November and conditions for fishing are very good for fishing here when other regions of the state are done for the balance of the year.

Omak Lake offers a great option to just dreaming about fishing during the early winter months.  Like I said earlier, it’s not just a lake of dreams.  It’s a trophy Lahotan cutthroat fishery ready and waiting for you. Dave can be reached at

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