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Tuesday, October 15, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Deep drawdown: Lowering water levels test patience and ingenuity of local fishermen

Spokane anglers Jim Kujala and Dave Ross kicked butt on Lake Roosevelt rainbows all winter, catching their five-fish daily limits in as little as 20 minutes occasionally with the help of the two-rod endorsement.

But the last two weeks have been humbling.

One or the other can be on fire, hooking trout after trout while trolling a pink hoochie, and then get blanked the next time out using the same rig.

A reliable shore-fishing hot spot went dead suddenly. They had to explore the beach for hundreds of yards before getting into fish again.

On Sunday, they caught fish on the surface, down 60-feet deep and in-between. Rapalas caught a few fish, so did an Apex lure and pink flies with spinners.

“There isn’t a clear pattern,” Ross said, after investing 11 hours to catch a limit. “You have to keep trying different things.”

“As the water gets lower, the fish just get moodier,” explained Chris Donley, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife inland fish program manager.

The annual reservoir drawdown has been underway since mid-March. Recently the lake level has been dropping a foot a day. With a heap of snow and runoff lingering in the Columbia River headwaters, the low point isn’t in sight, according to a Bureau of Reclamation forecast posted Wednesday.

“It’s not for lack of fish,” Donley said, referring to the hit-or-miss success rates. “But I’ve never cracked the code to be consistent in April. It’s something with fish behavior.”

If you’re easily frustrated, this isn’t the best time to fish for Roosevelt trout. But anglers willing to gamble can win big.

Kokanee to 20 inches are occasionally caught. Rainbows are running 15-18 inches long and they’re beefed up like linebackers. An 18-incher easily feeds four people with meat as tasty as any trout on the planet.

Get ’em while you can. The drawdown forecast indicates that many of the big carryover trout will soon be flushing out of Lake Roosevelt through the Grand Coulee Dam where they’ll become downstream chum for gulls, pikeminnows and sturgeon.

When the reservoir is lowered beyond average drawdown – below elevation 1,240 feet – the number of fish washed out of the reservoir substantially increases, according to research conducted through Eastern Washington University by Holly McLellan.

“When the reservoir is drawn down below 1,220 (deep drawdown), twice as many fish will likely entrain over the dam,” she explained.

Years when the reservoir is not drawn down so deep – no lower than about 1,260 feet – are the best for the 750,000 hatchery rainbow trout raised and released from net pens in the lake during late spring, she said. Ditto for the 500,000 or so hatchery kokanee.

But ideal conditions are rare. In the past 10 years, good-for-fish drawdowns of 1,254-1,259 have occurred only in 2004, 2009 and 2013.

In huge runoff years, the drawdown has been drastic – as low as 1,217 in 2011.

Donley says the best trout “catching” period on the 150-mile reservoir is October through March, when, as he puts it, “they’ll bite just about anything.”

Success during the drawdown is trickier.

Location certainly is more critical. Studies show most fish in the reservoir have moved downstream by now below Whitestone, which is about halfway between Lincoln and Keller.

“That’s still a lot of water between Whitestone and Grand Coulee,” Donley said. “Favorite spots are the mouth of the Sanpoil, Swawilla Basin, Goat Rocks and down past Spring Canyon to the dam.”

If lake levels get to 1,230 feet, the only boat ramps reaching the water will be in that area – Spring Canyon, Keller and Seven Bays. The reservoir’s other 19 ramps will be high and dry.

“Think of the reservoir as a river in terms of where the trout will go to feed,” he said. “A lot of the fish are right down the middle as they stay with the zooplankton. But other fish will go into shore and the backs of bays – the reservoir’s eddies – for food. That’s where you can get them plunking PowerBait or nightcrawlers.

“From a boat, my approach in April would be trolling over deep water with small stuff.”

Donley suggests trailing a quarter-ounce sinker and dodger with small Rapalas, especially double-jointed plugs, or pink flies, orange or pink minnie hoochies or spinner rigs such as wedding rings.

Variables that will impact the post-drawdown fishery include how fast Roosevelt is refilled. If the drawdown is so deep that the net-pen fish run out of water in their bays and must be released early, a high percentage of them could be lost over Grand Coulee Dam, too.

“The deeper the drawdown, the worse the fishing will be for the next year,” Donley said.

“That’s the frustrating thing about managing that reservoir. It’s so dynamic and we have no control over it.”

Most of the fish tend to be in the top 10-15 feet of the water column until the water temperatures get up to about 46 degrees and they head deeper, he said.

“That’s one reason those fish are so dang spooky,” he said. “I use good planer boards to get out where the fish aren’t disturbed.”

When going direct from the boat, he’ll run lures on monofilament at least 200 feet back to give fish displaced by the wake time to regroup.

“Go for it,” was his final advice for the rest of the month. “You may not do well one day but the next time you may come back with a 4- to 5-pound kokanee and five of the best-eating trout you’ve ever caught.”

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email


Below: minimum water levels for using boat ramps.

Daily Lake Roosevelt level forecast, (800) 824-4916.

Spring Canyon1,222
Seven Bays1,227
Keller Ferry1,229
Hunters Camp1,230
Kettle Falls1,234
Porcupine Bay1,243
Fort Spokane1,247
Bradbury Beach1,251
Hansen Harbor1,253
Crescent Bay1,265
French Rocks1,265
Jones Bay1,266
Snag Cove1,277
China Bend1,277
North Gorge1,280
Napoleon Bridge1,280
Hawk Creek1,281
Marcus Island1,281

Check out this NOAA site with Roosevelt levels  — the hydrograph web page helps boaters with constantly updated information on lake levels, projected elevation changes and boat ramp launching levels. It also shows when the lake is too low for running the Gifford and Keller Ferries.

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