Lakes and rivers in far Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Western Montana produce nice fish in March.
By Jeff Holmes
March is a lovely month in the Inland Northwest to be a trout angler. While much of the Westside angling army is rotting on the hook drowning bait-wrapped plugs for spring Chinook or trolling herring through travel lanes for these fish that mostly won’t show up until April, dedicated swarms of anglers from all over the Northwest – even the world – show up here to fish trout. Why? We grow ‘em big, and trophy trout wake up in March ready to gobble more and more frequently throughout the day. We see excellent growth rates at many lakes that Westside biologists and other biologists throughout the West would love. But when one thinks about the best stillwater trout fishing in the Lower 48, the Inland Northwest probably doesn’t come up as often as it deserves. The region is dotted with small and midsized bodies of water, as well as huge lakes holding some of the world’s largest trout.
Luckily, not every excellent March trout fishery in Eastern Washington, North Idaho and Western Montana draws well-heeled anglers from afar, nor do many of them draw much of a crowd at all. And none of the fisheries resemble the madhouses of springer season or Washington’s soon-to-follow opening of trout season on the fourth Saturday in April. Except when certain guides blow up fisheries on social media, as was done to an epic Lake Roosevelt kokanee bite this winter, crowds of 30 or 40 boats are uncommon. Most days, expect to never pass within shouting distance of another angler or boat – if you want to. A prime example of that can be found at North America’s third deepest lake, the Panhandle’s Pend Oreille. It, along with several others, should be on your radar this March or in the near future. All lakes that follow are in top form right now.
LAKE PEND OREILLE
This giant trout heaven fell on hard times after several habitat and management crises led to severely depressed kokanee populations, an overabundance of newly introduced lake trout and a subsequent bounty on the heads of the lake’s precious Gerrard-strain rainbows to help balance the predator-prey relationship and allow kokanee to rebound. Well, the kokanee are back – really back – and trout of several species are getting huge. I’ll present in depth in the May issue on how the lake’s historic and current habitat and management challenges and successes have led Pend Oreille back into the conversation as America’s best trout lake. Period.
Lake Pend Oreille is again in the running for the title of America’s best trout lake. Kokanee have rebounded, and so have their predators, including Gerard-strain rainbow trout, which are once again numerous and often topping 20 pounds – the one Cashmere, Washington’s Ace Campbell (right) holds was estimated at 22 pounds. Specimens much larger than this exist, and in the May issue author Jeff Holmes will go in depth on the Idaho lake’s fantastic fisheries. (JIM CUMMINS)
Let’s look at some basic numbers in terms of fish size. The lake holds bull trout to over 20 pounds, rainbows to over 30, brown trout to the high teens and maybe larger and some large westslope cutthroat trout as well. Despite extensive deepwater netting efforts to eliminate lake trout, they remain in smaller numbers and fatter and larger sizes, topping 20 pounds and possibly larger. Pend Oreille is a big-water fishery that can be as rough as the ocean, and only experienced big-water fishermen in substantial boats should tackle it, except on bluebird days. Probably the best way to experience the 148-square-mile lake is with a guide or hitching a ride with a fellow recreational angler.
The most common approaches for trolling the lake are surface-planer boards and downriggers, usually deployed simultaneously to cover more of the water column. Big bucktail flies are trolled fast behind planer boards spaced far to the sides of boats to cover a large swath for surface-feeding, spooky rainbows, the top target for most anglers. Downrigger offerings are often Rapalas, Lyman plugs, spoons and an assortment of other trophy trout trolling lures including flasher and bait combos for lakers.
March is a great time for big fish on the lake as they begin to move toward an end to winter patterns. Many rainbows leave the lake to spawn, but most remain since they don’t spawn every year. Browns, lakers and bulls are all fall spawners and are in full effect. Several charter operators make a living at the north end of the lake. They and their reviews are available online.
Lake Roosevelt is one of the Northwest’s flagship trout and kokanee lakes. Home to football-shaped rainbows and landlocked sockeye averaging almost 20 inches right now, March is an excellent time to troll the big waters behind Grand Coulee dam all the way to Fort Spokane. (DAIWA PHOTO CONTEST)
March should be a fantastic time to fish Roosevelt as the water managers draw down the reservoir in anticipation of a substantial runoff this season. When Roosevelt is low, it concentrates fish, which tend to school up in elbows in the lake where plankton gets washed by the prevailing winds. In these food-rich areas – which are many along the lengths of the 144-mile-long reservoir – fishing can be fantastic for hatchery rainbows reaching 24 inches and averaging 15 to 19, as well as beautiful wild rainbows that occasionally approach 10 pounds. These football-shaped fish should be abundant and concentrated come March, along with 2016’s excellent crop of kokanee averaging 18 inches and reaching 24. The lake’s net-pen program is often chronicled, including by me, because of its scope and level of success. Some 750,000 rainbow trout are released from pens stretching its length. These 8-inch fish grow a whopping 6 inches and change completely in body shape and flesh coloration by the time winter rolls around. In March, last year’s stockers average 15 inches, with many substantially longer.
Rainbows and big kokanee are on the regular docket for March and all the way into summer, and other fish make occasional appearances as they wash through the system. Nice brown trout are occasionally caught here, as are washed down landlocked Chinook from Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho. I caught a nice little 22-inch Chinook trolling flies at the big reservoir. That fish came between Hawk Creek and Lincoln, on the lake’s lower section. The areas from the mouth of the Spokane Arm down to Spring Canyon and Grand Coulee Dam are most densely populated with trout, especially true for kokanee. Consider fishing out of Fort Spokane if you catch word of a bite, but I’d focus even further downstream at Seven Bays or even much lower. Think about Lincoln, Hanson Harbor, Keller Ferry and Spring Canyon as your best bets. This is big water and the wind can come up, but I have many times safely fished Roosevelt in a 14-foot boat. March days can be blustery, but they can also be beautiful and sunburny.
Trout and kokanee here tend to be spooky, and most anglers fan out a wide selection of trolled patterns, including Muddlers and other trolling flies, Apexes, Floating Rapalas, various spinners and other proven trout and kokanee lures. In March fish are still almost always in the top 20 feet of the water column, often coming to the surface to feed. Some rely on downriggers, others planer boards, still others leaded line with long monofilament leaders and light trolling weights. Others simply fish mono rigs with trolling weights and lures. Most Roosevelt veterans believe strongly in tipping every hook – even Rapalas – with maggots, worm, corn, etc. The trout and kokanee here will often favor one direction of troll over another, which I experienced fishing with Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Chris Donley in late January. Kokanee wouldn’t touch us going upstream and smacked it repeatedly going down. Later in the day, the reverse pattern developed. I’ll feature Roosevelt, along with trout and kokanee guru Donley, in the April issue.
I caught my first Rock Lake trout as an almost-tween and immediately fell in love with the lake’s wildness and geography, as well as the legends about its huge browns. I later taught 25 miles from Rock at Eastern Washington University in Cheney for over a decade and went to school there for way too long before that. During that time I developed an obsession with the lake, even its history, as I’ve written about here before and probably will again. But for now let me tell you this: It’s rad. Also, it’s rad in March. Provided major precipitation or runoff events don’t cloud the lake and throw it off-color, fishing should be amazing for hatchery winter steelhead, released here as a result of the Wild Fish Conservancy lawsuit settlement with WDFW. It should similarly be excellent for some of the season’s biggest rainbows and browns. I can verify browns here to 14 pounds and have personally seen a few topping 10. Most of my time at Rock has been spent fishing flies, and I have caught some giant trout, but to get the real monsters, lures or bait shine. Along with a small-but-strong population of large browns of multiple age classes, the lake has good numbers of 15- to 19-inch browns, as well as skinny, silvery juveniles that are best avoided and left to grow. They tend to bunch up in schools at this size. Browns may be what Rock is best known for – certainly not steelhead smolts – but its rainbows are remarkable. Averaging 15 to 18 inches, with lots of fish topping 20, they reach lengths of 24 inches with substantial girth and growl. A limit of Rock Lake fish can be a real haul. Four limits is hard to carry.
Rock is over 7 miles long and is ringed by steep cliffs and sharp drop-offs. It’s called Rock Lake for a reason, both for the beautiful above-ground volcanic landscape and the prop-shedding, transom-ripping architecture under the water. As a rule, run on plane only up the middle of the lake unless you know it well. I have launched a boat at the lake approaching 200 times in my life and I’m still always wary. Not long ago I found an outjutting shelf I did not know about, almost 100 yards from shore. As I’ve written about, the one boat wreck I’ve enjoyed in my life that wasn’t a whitewater raft or a canoe was at Rock, at high speed, in June. If this happens in March, you’re likely going to die. Of course a rock didn’t wreck me; I reached for a chew and lost the tiller.
I quit chewing.
You don’t want to go close to shorelines at high speed, but you definitely want to troll them or cast to them. Almost the entire lake features steep drop-offs, and food and predators are most abundant close to the rocks. I like to troll flies here like olive and black and brown Woolly Buggers, Bunny Leeches and other unweighted flies on fast-sinking fly lines, or you can even fish them with leaded line or with mono and weight. I also like to troll plugs like MagLip 3.0s and 3.5s, Rapala Shad Raps, and FlatFish and Kwikfish. I’ve caught trout here trolling most of my steelhead plugs, but guys who experiment with hard baits from the world of bass angling do especially well. These fish see a fair number of Rapalas. I like to use large-profile fish imitations from a variety of manufacturers to show them something different, including hard and soft swimbaits. Casting big stuff to ambush cover results in big follows and grabs from browns and rainbows, and March is sometimes the best big-fish month. I choose to release almost all of my fish, but when I want trout to eat, I like to get them out of 360-foot-deep Rock.
FOURTH OF JULY LAKE
Fourth of July grows fish bigger and faster than its winter-only counterparts, and when there aren’t undesirable species like fathead minnows to contend with, rainbows have free reign of the lake, growing fat on scuds (freshwater shrimp), chironomids, leeches and a variety of aquatic invertebrates that also thrive in the lake’s alkaline waters. The lake is a little over a mile long and mostly devoid of trees except for the end opposite the public launch, where ponderosas sit above the narrow lake that fills a coulee in the channeled scablands 3 miles south of Sprague. Its fish are piggish in size and appetite. The lake has historically churned out lots of big rainbows, with anglers biggest gripe being the overabundance of trout over 14 inches. The daily limit here only allows two trout over 14; the other three must be smaller, which isn’t always possible. For guys who like to catch and release lots of trout during a day, this is great news, however. The lake doesn’t get fished out as quickly, and there are big trout galore to be had. Trout as long as 26 inches have been landed here, and specimens stretching at least 2 feet are in the lake now.
The lake’s size regulation makes sense to me, and I’ve seen the benefits of it in excellent late winter and early spring fishing. Keeping five of those plus-sized rainbows would likely result in a declining fishery throughout the season, as was the case prior to the regulation. A fry-planted 18- to 21-inch fish at Fourth of July has more usable meat on it than five of the typical, catchable-sized stocked rainbows. And there are plenty of fish in the high teens and low 20s if taking home some dinners is a high priority. For this angler, however, and for a reliable contingent of other fishermen who value catch and release in order to encounter more fish, the greatest benefit of trout that big is the superior fight and appearance of strong, acclimated fry-planted rainbows. I think these particular fish fight better than they taste; there’s no real conservation objective involved.
On my first morning of fly fishing with sinking line from a float tube during a snowstorm in the mid-1990s, I landed eight fish between 16 and 20 inches at Fourth of July, mostly by accident. As I untied knots in the borrowed sinking fly line, my leech patterns would consistently sit still for long periods, slowly slithering along the bottom only as I shifted my rod tip by accident or as I drifted. On future trips, I made sure to get my leeches and chironomids as close to the bottom as possible, often in very shallow water, and I caught lots. Over the years I’ve learned that rainbows use all depths of the lake, from the shallow end nearest the launch to the far end and its deeper water. One thing is for sure: They are often gorging just out of sight really close to shore and in shallow water.
Fourth of July Lake is tucked into the Channeled Scablands a few miles south of Sprague and its namesake lake. Rainbow trout grow very fast here and get very fat – state biologist Randall Osborne landed this one while test-fishing the lake for the winter fishery a few seasons back. It’s tough if not impossible to launch a trailered boat, but very easy to haul a cartopper or a pontoon or float tube to the water. (WDFW)
To generalize, Fourth of July’s big fish spend most of their time quite low in the water column, something I began learning on that day although I might have reasoned it out earlier. When I bait fished the lake in earlier years, I was far more successful plunking than fishing with a fixed bobber, and so were those around me. Whether plunkers use Power Bait, marshmallows, or other means to suspend bait above the bottom, successful anglers are careful to keep baits out of the weeds, and to vary depths throughout the day if not getting bites. The fish are often very shallow and close to shore. Make sure you’re not casting right over the big bruisers that fight their way into the prime spots on the shoreline chironomid-and-leech buffet.
Sorry, Montana, I’m gonna go ahead and be “that” guy and unleash magazine readers on you and your not-so-secret March trophy trout fishery. I’ve seen enough Montanans nymphing the spey runs and speying the gear stretches of steelhead streams lately to not bat an eyelash. Point of fact, the biggest browns, rainbows, and cutthroats of the year begin to feed again for the first time in several months. They all look “up” in earnest for adult bugs, especially skwala stoneflies. These meaty, late-winter/early-spring bugs are part of a rich seasonal diet enjoyed by trout from the local rivers: Clark Fork, Bitterroot, Blackfoot and Rock Creek. All four fish well in March during the prerunoff pattern, which typically continues well into April. Definitely the Bitterroot and Clark Fork see the most traffic, partly because they run through Missoula and other population hubs in Western Montana, partly because they offer the best floating access and strong numbers of skwalas and other bugs, mostly midges, blue-winged olive mayflies and March brown mayflies. Both rivers are well-suited for drift boats or rafts and rowers of all skill levels.
Skwala nymphs become active when the water reaches the high 30s. The nymphs emerge from under rocks and immediately become targets of opportunity for feeding trout well before they make their way to the shore, where they crawl into willows and other vegetation and also rocks to shuck out of their nymph stage into adulthood. Swkalas then unloose, dry and test their wings until they can fly. They then become food as adults when they are driven into the water by high winds, when they die and when the females lay eggs. Trout eat them at all of these stages but eat far more nymphs than anything else. Still, when the adults are present in good numbers, early-season trout can’t help but look up and rise to dry patterns, which are big, fun to fish and intoxicating to watch get eaten. One must wait a count before setting on a trout picking off a big stonefly, long enough for them to turn their head and allow a positive hookset. This is challenging after a winter without dry flies, especially if one is conditioned to watch bobbers drown and to set the hook immediately. It’s fun, and the trout get drunk and dumb on the bounty. The year’s biggest trout are caught every year during the prerunoff. Even wise old browns will rise like greedy westslope cutthroats for skwalas, and the swkalas seem to make big fish eager to rise to other bugs when hatches occur. There are fish present in all four streams of all age classes, but to generalize mightily, all four streams offer lots of “teens” and much larger fish of a mixed bag: cutts, rainbows, cutt-bows, browns and even bulls.
All four of the Missoula-area prerunoff trout streams are awesome, including the Blackfoot, Clark Fork, and Bitterroot rivers, but me and my brother Zac’s favorites is more intimate and wild Rock Creek. The little river is home to lots of browns, including specimens larger than this as well as cutthroat, rainbow, brook and bull trout. (ZAC HOLMES)
It’s wise to book a day with a guide out of the better-reviewed of several area fly shops, but after one weekend with a friend in his boat in Missoula, I found it easy to take my own boat, set up shuttles with shops and get on fish immediately on all four rivers. I have never floated Rock Creek, nor would I in a hard-sided boat. It’s more of a small river than a creek, but it is a small river. It may offer the coolest and certainly wildest experience of any of the four major streams. It features healthy bull trout, browns, rainbows, cutts, cutt-bows and brookies. It’s a great trout stream and worth the half-hour drive from downtown Missoula. Expect possible bighorn, moose, elk and deer sightings especially on Rock Creek, but also on the other streams, even in Missoula. This famous trout destination has grown mightily in the last two decades, yet trophy opportunities exist in and around a big, cool town with lots of well-reviewed restaurants and great lodging, shopping, and bars. A trip here is an easy sell for almost everyone.