Lake Sammamish Winter Cutts
Mike Carey, December 29, 2016
Lake Sammamish in Washington’s King County is an often over-looked urban fishery. The lake is better known for its outstanding smallmouth bass fishing. However, come winter those in the know will brave winter conditions to target the lake’s unique cutthroat trout fishery. Action can be off the charts if you are fortunate enough to find the fish. While the cutthroat are not as big in neighboring Lake Washington, Lake Sammamish can put out some excellent catch numbers. Let’s look closer into this great urban trout fishery.
The cutthroats in Lake Sammamish are Coastal Cutthroat Trout, “Oncorhynchus clarki clarki”. Don’t let the name fool you. While some of the trout in Lake Sammamish may be sea-run fish, the vast majority of the cutthroats spend their lives in Lake Sammamish, spawning in the lake’s tributaries from late winter into spring. Because of the spawning pattern of these fish anglers can find them schooled up and in greater concentrations during the winter. However, there is another reason winter fishing can be so hot – food source.
In the winter Lake Sammamish has an amazing food source for the cutthroats as massive swarms of midge hatch and rise to the surface of the lake. This food source allow for some incredible feeding frenzies as the cutthroats gorge themselves and put on winter weight. On a recent trip to the lake my boat was literally covered with tiny flying midge insects. These concentrations of insects will cover the surface of the water and bring in the fish.
Remember the old saltwater adage of fishing where the birds are? Well, in the winter on Lake Sammamish this goes double. If you see groups of birds, stop and give the area a try. The odds are where the birds are the midges are, and where the midges are... well you get the picture.
Lake Sammamish is a big lake, over seven miles long and 4,850 acres in size. It’s an urban, fully developed lake. There is only one public boat launch, on the south end of the lake. Because it’s a State Park, in addition to a boat launch fee you’ll need a Discovery Pass. The launch itself was recently remodeled and is excellent, with eight lanes and plenty of parking. Not that parking will be an issue, since you’ll have little to no recreational boaters to deal with, just some hard core fishermen. One note about the ramps to be aware of is they all have drop-offs on either side of the ramp underwater. Stay in the center of the white lanes and you’ll be fine. Fall off on either side and you’ll risk breaking an axle on your trailer.
With a lake this big, it can be daunting to know where to start fishing. There are some classic areas to start exploring for fish. As you leave the launch and head north, to your left a quarter mile is Issaquah Creek. This creek leads to the Issaquah Salmon Hatchery. It can be a good bet fishing out from the creek entrance. Just be aware that certain times of the year there are restrictions on how close you can be to the mouth of the creek. Another spot that anglers will stop at is the Weather Buoy. This buoy is located about a mile north of the launch on the east side of the lake. The lake itself is shaped like a reverse “S” and there aren’t really distinct “spots”. Your best bet is to be scanning the lake for those birds feeding on the massive midge hatches. When you do catch a fish, mark the area if you have GPS and work it. The odds are good where you find one fish you’ll find more.
So what do you put on the end of your line to attract these fish into your boat? On a recent trip with Northwest Fishing Reports anglers we ran four rods, each with a different set up. Every rod caught fish; in fact the first four fish each came on a different rod, something I’ve never seen happen before. Go with what you feel confident with, and adjust your gear every half hour or so if you don’t get bit. A couple tried and true rigs would be a ford fender set up with a wedding ring, a small kokanee sized dodger with a hoochie rig, a small tied fly with perhaps an attracting blade in front of it, or a small spoon.
In all cases I would recommend some type of attracting dodger or spinning blades to draw the fish in. And for sure don’t forget the night crawlers or a piece of a worm. Just use a 2-3” long piece though – don’t use the entire worm. Make sure the worm doesn’t impact the action of your lure. Spoons may not wobble very well with too big a piece of worm on them.
As to water depths, you’ll be able to catch these fish anywhere from the surface down to 25-30 feet deep. Local NWFR member Paul “wafisherman20” recommends running your line back a good 90-120 feet behind the boat. You can run downriggers, drop weights, deep sixes or just long line. Planer boards are another method that is gaining followers in the Pacific Northwest and will allow your gear to get even further away from your motor.
Your trolling speed should be somewhere in the 1.5 to 2.0 mph range. Pay attention to turns. Did you get a bite on the inside rod when you made a turn? Maybe you need to slow down a tad. Outside turning rod goes off? Speed up a bit. Mark the location of your first fish caught on your GPS and work the area well before moving on to your next spot. Don’t troll in a constant straight line, instead, make lazy “s” turns, and concentric circles until you either catch more fish or feel confident that you’ve worked the area well – then move.
Finally, we should touch on the health of the fishery and the balancing act that we as responsible anglers should keep in mind. I spoke with Danny Garrett, Fisheries Biologist for the Mill Creek Region 12. He told me that based on limited creel information over the past five years the cutthroat trout fishery on Lake Sammamish is healthy and under-utilized. “The cutthroat trout population appears to be robust and the sizes of these fish are a prime indicator that the population is healthy”, said Danny. Lake Sammamish has a good food forage source for the cutthroat. Midges, juvenile perch, salmon smolt, and kokanee all are on the menu for cutthroat. When you catch these fish you’ll find that in general they are plump and cut a beautiful red. And I can tell you from personal experience that they taste great! Fry them up in some oil; add salt, pepper and butter and you have yourself a meal you’ll savor.
While the fishery is currently healthy, it’s important that we limit our catches to what we’d reasonably eat. Don’t waste these fish by freezing them and forgetting about them only to find them freezer burned six months later. Remember, while the fishery is currently healthy, if fished too heavily that could change. Danny told me that in the past WDFW had looked at petitions to lower the limit to two fish, but found that the population of fish did not warrant that action. However, in the future if WDFW sees a significant increase in angling pressure it’s an option they would consider. Currently there are no firm numbers on how many fish are in Lake Sammamish. Danny noted that based on a preliminary study of cutthroat in Lake Washington it was possible to extrapolate a potential population of around 25-30,000 cutthroat trout in Lake Sammamish. It should also be noted for those that advocate for a catch and release fishery that cutthroat have a very complex and predatory relationship with the recovering kokanee population in Lake Sammamish.
Growing cutthroat populations on the lake would definitely have an impact on the kokanee, especially in the warmer months when the two species tend to share the same water column. It’s a delicate balancing act and one that WDFW is learning more about. Cutthroat also are prime predators of salmon smolts coming out of the Issaquah Hatchery. Like most things in life, there are no easy black and white answers to the best ways to manage the fishery. We as sport anglers can do our part by harvesting responsibly and hopefully continue to enjoy this unique winter urban fishery for years to come.