May 14, 2014

Columbia Basin Lakes

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Sometimes, a weekend fishing alone in the desert is exactly what a person needs to reconnect with the world. Between women, roommates and flaky friends, sometimes a guy really just needs to be able to explore some new water and avoid all of the other distractions that life can throw at you. I found myself in that situation recently and packed up the Fat Cat and a couple of 5wt rods in the truck and headed up into the Columbia Basin.

The Seep Lakes are no secret to fly fishermen from the Northwest. What makes this area special is the incredible amount of water in the area. I fished five (maybe it was six) different lakes in two days and could have fished more (I went back to two different lakes twice). There were dozens of lakes that I did not explore and a few that I am itching to cast a line into.

These lakes are generally small and surrounded by reeds and basalt cliffs. They tend to run in chains where they drain into each other through small sloughs. There are a few that are managed for catch and release only, but most are put and take. Several are heavily stocked and receive substantial pressure from the local worm-soakers. I had an encounter with what I could only call four gangbangers who spoke no English, but they were happy to show me a little cove protected for the wind. I was grateful and a little ashamed that I had assumed they were going to jump me, so I gave them a few beers and the trout that I ended up catching at that lake.

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Quail Lake is managed for fly-fishing/catch and release only. It is a 10-15 minute hike in with a float tube and gear, and is probably the most well-known of the lakes in the area. A guy with a float tube can make a lap around the shoreline in about forty-five minutes.

I only fished it for about two hours before my restless dog decided we needed to go somewhere else. The fishing had been mediocre at best in Quail anyways, only bringing one 12” rainbow to hand and another hooked and lost on an olive bugger. One other angler had arrived and caught two or three smaller trout on a soft hackle callibaetis pattern.

The other lakes that I fished will remain unnamed, however, a weekend in the area will provide more than enough opportunities for an avid angler to discover lakes with no trout, lakes with big trout and lakes with lots of trout. A few have walleye, bass and sunfish. I saw another angler get towed around a lake by a 20+ pound carp for a half hour. A motivated angler with a map can definitely find that little slice of heaven out there; a beautiful lake to himself with hungry trout eager to come to hand.

Camping is plentiful, free and easy to find, however, weekends can get busy, especially around the bigger lakes that are more popular with power boaters and bait fishermen. I suggest doing a bit of exploring before it gets dark to find a good spot. There are pit toilets at several lakes, but not at all of the camping areas. No open fires are allowed.

Fishing is best in April and May, and into early June if the weather does not get too hot in May. There are really two productive ways to fish there: trolling woolly buggers and chironomid fishing. Both can produce fish and are deadly on the right day. On a windy day (and there are plenty of those), trolling a bugger on a full type III or type IV sinking line with a slow strip with your back to the wind to slow you down is the most effective way to catch fish. Focusing on drop-offs around points, small coves and reed lines is a good way to focus your energy. I talked to guys with fish finders that were marking fish at 12-19’ of depth around areas where the ledges dropped off from about 10 to over 30’ deep.

Chrionomid fishing is not always the most enjoyable way for some guys to fish… Staring at bobbers drives some people insane. I don’t really mind it because its deadly effective when done right. I put on a clinic at one lake (although my dog was not too impressed), getting fish on nearly every cast for about an hour, fishing a bloody juju and an ice cream cone 7-9’ under an indicator with an occasional twitch to get their attention. The biggest fish of the weekend ate an ice cream cone and then towed me around the lake for 5 minutes, going airborn several times. It may take a while to find the “zone” but once it’s on, it can get really good really quickly.

A weekend exploring desert lakes was exactly what I needed in my life. At three hours from Hood River, its totally accessible for a weekend and a wonderful relaxing change of pace from the steelheading that dominates our fishing scene here.

Location: Seep Lakes/ Columbia National Wildlife Refuge

Timing: April/May

Techniques: Float tube fishing for trophy rainbow trout.

  • 5 and 6 wt. rods. A variety of lines are helpful. 
  • Full sinking type III or type IV for trolling buggers. 
  • Floating lines for chironomid and dry flies.
  • Intermediate sink or sink tip lines for fishing the shallow water early and late. 

I suggest a type III and a floating line of you can only bring two. If you can only bring one line, then bring the sinking because it can get too windy to chironomid fish sometimes.


Chironomid nymphs: (sizes 18-10) in a variety of colors, red and black are the most productive colors for me, but don’t be afraid to try tan or olive.

Chironomid Dries: Size 10 and 12 in black, evening hatches can be intense.

Damsel Fly nymphs: Carey Specials and Teeny Nymphs are my favorites, May is better for Damsels.

Olive, brown and black Wooly Buggers: Olive size 8 is my favorite.

Callibaetis nymphs and dries: Because you would hate yourself if you were in a hatch and didn’t have them.

Andrew Perrault
Gorge Fly Shop

"Fly Fish the World with Us"

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