Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Desert trout: Lake Lenore’s plentiful Lahontan cutthroats

Stand on the shore of Lake Lenore and watch the shallows long enough, and you’ll spot the shape of a trout, swimming like it has somewhere to be.

Then you’ll see another. And another. Maybe a big group of them, their colors contrasted against the drab brown of the lake bottom.

The fish are Lahontan cutthroat trout, a species native to the Great Basin of California, Nevada and Oregon. They have been stocked in this lake in the lower Grand Coulee for decades because they’ve adapted to live in salty, alkaline water. Those conditions kill other trout species, but the Lahontans thrive in them, which is why they can be seen cruising the shallows all spring.

On a sunny Tuesday in late March, some of the cruisers ended up in gillnets. Mike Schmuck, a fisheries biologist for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, along with colleagues and volunteers, had set a series of nets the day before to trap the fish for a study of their movements.

When they pulled the first net into the boat, they saw more than 50 fish, each with red cheeks and a trademark slash on their jaw. Some were almost white, while others were dark.

Each one received a tag, placed behind the dorsal fin. It’s the third year WDFW has put tags in the fish, part of an effort to track the relative abundance of the fish in the lake over time.

It’s an effort that Schmuck is hoping will help change the reputation of Lake Lenore, a long, narrow lake along Highway 17 that many anglers have filed in the “not-what-it-used-to-be” category.

Schmuck doesn’t see why. There are plenty of fish – his rough estimate is 12,000 to 15,000 adults, and many more juveniles – and he sees them all over the lake.

But he doesn’t see many anglers on the 1,670-acre lake. The day he was pulling nets, there were just a few anglers on the north end, and none anywhere else. This week, on days he drove through, he only saw a few on the south end.

“There could be so much more pressure on this lake,” Schmuck said. “The fish are everywhere.”

The word is getting out a little bit, said Darc Knobel, the owner of the Desert Fly Angler in Ephrata, and the fishing seems to be good.

“We’re on the right track,” Knobel said. “I think that pressure is definitely starting to pick back up and people are starting to know about it.”

Lenore is the second-to-last lake in the chain that begins at Dry Falls, just past Coulee City. The chain was formed thousands of years ago, when catastrophic flooding reshaped the scablands. Below Dry Falls, it left a deep and beautiful gorge with several depressions that were filled by springs and became lakes.

The spring water bubbles out of basalt, and as a result has some level of salt in it, said Victor Baker, a geology professor at the University of Arizona who has studied the area for decades. As the water moves through the chain of lakes, some of the water evaporates. Salt doesn’t evaporate, so the water that’s left behind becomes saltier.

Dry Falls Lake, the first lake in the chain, has freshwater, and chunky rainbow trout. Soap and Lenore are the last two lakes in the chain. They also don’t have outlet streams, so the water has nowhere to go but to the sky. Evaporation consumes some of the water molecules, and the water that’s left behind ends up with a higher salt content.

Soap Lake got its name because of the salt. Its salinity is so high that the water has a sudsy appearance. Lenore is less salty. Both lakes were historically fishless.

Lenore did have something else, though: robust insect hatches that could support a fish population. That convinced Washington fisheries officials to try to establish a fishery. They tried with rainbow trout first, putting them in liveboxes to see how they’d respond to the alkaline waters. All of the fish died, some within just a few hours.

In 1977, the state decided to try Lahontan cutthroat trout. The species had been successfully been stocked in Omak Lake before Lenore, so officials thought it would work. It did, and the state started stocking them in Lenore.

The fishery was popular for a time, known for kicking out big and pretty cutthroats. Over time, though, the reputation lagged. These days, there are plenty of anglers who will say they used to fish Lenore often but skip it now.

How it got that reputation is a bit of a mystery to Schmuck. For years, WDFW’s stocking program has remained mostly the same – officials gather eggs from the lake, raise them in the Columbia Basin Hatchery and release the fish back into the lake when they’re a few inches long – so even though the fish likely aren’t successful at spawning in the wild, more fish are added each year.

He said a poaching incident in the past seemed to turn people off, though it wasn’t big enough to have much of an impact. The tagging study was launched as a way to see if anything is going on with the population, and so far, all Schmuck has seen is plenty of fish. 

Knobel has a simple answer for why people stopped fishing it.

“My opinion is that it was underutilized because it didn’t fish worth a darn,” Knobel said.

He also said that’s changed in recent years, though he can’t pinpoint why.

“For whatever reason, the last three, four, five years it’s been fishing a lot better,” Knobel said.

Spring and fall are the best times to be there. Summer can be tough, when the lake gets hot. Fish become more lethargic, and catch-and-release fishing can be extremely hard on fish at best and lethal at worst. 

This time of year, fly anglers are mostly catching fish on chironomids, though Knobel said he’s heard from a few people who are getting the fish to eat damselflies.

Damsel action should kick up even more in the coming weeks, as the insects begin their migration. Callibaetis are also in the lake, and Knobel said the hatches can be heavy.

He added that while most anglers seem to focus on the north end of the lake, there are fish to be caught all over, and that the south end in particular can sometimes be devoid of people.

“All you have to do is get out and look around a bit,” Knobel said.