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  Great Washington Getaways Home  |  Lake Roosevelt
Named for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lake Roosevelt provides a variety of opportunities for anglers and campers each summer. Photo courtesy of National Park Service
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Washington’s biggest summertime playground: Lake Roosevelt
Lake Roosevelt’s size, numerous access points, and diverse waters enable it to outshine all other Washington lakes and reservoirs for summertime fishing, camping and boating. Large campgrounds with marinas, high-quality boat launches, boat-in campgrounds, dispersed shoreline camping on sandy beaches, and fishing opportunities galore await families at Lake Roosevelt.

This massive reservoir boasts robust fisheries for large rainbow trout and kokanee, walleye, smallmouth bass, and burbot. Anglers also catch incidental Chinook salmon washed down the Spokane River from a landlocked population in Idaho’s Lake Coeur d’ Alene.  Lake Roosevelt attracts anglers from across the region year round, but its fisheries today bear little resemblance to those of past years.

The lake behind Grand Coulee Dam

Lake Roosevelt kokanee draw anglers to the area each year. Photo by Riley Colliton

Lake Roosevelt is a 130-mile-long Columbia River impoundment created after the completion of Grand Coulee Dam in 1941. The 550-foot-tall, nearly one-mile-long dam was built without fish ladders due to its immensity, the limitations of early 20th century engineering, and a lack of fisheries management and knowledge. Huge runs of salmon and steelhead were cut off from their spawning streams. The dam’s completion marked the start of a decades-long era of poor fisheries above Grand Coulee.

Above the dam, newly formed Lake Roosevelt inundated the Columbia River and lower stretches of its tributaries. The free-flowing Columbia’s natural ecosystem was buried under deep water by what was then the world’s largest hydropower and water‑storage project. The result was a highly disrupted aquatic ecosystem up and down the food chain.

Establishing fisheries in Lake Roosevelt was difficult due to the sheer size of the lake and massive swings in lake depth, caused by the reservoir’s primary function of storing water for power production and agriculture. Throughout its history and still today, Roosevelt’s shallow water environments are left high and dry as the lake’s level is manipulated to store and use water.  The dewatering of the lake’s shallow water habitat causes a ripple effect in the entire food chain and severely limits productivity.

Other limiting factors included the challenge of stocking the huge number of fish needed to provide good fishing on such a large lake and what is known as “entrainment,” when high spring runoff flows pull fish through the dam and out of the reservoir. Entrainment can still be a problem during extraordinarily high runoff years, but thanks to a stellar collaborative effort, producing enough trout to stock the lake is not.

In 1985, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) worked with volunteers to set up a net pen for rearing hatchery trout. From an initial stocking of 5,000 rainbows to the eye-popping number of 750,000, today the Lake Roosevelt Volunteer Net Pen Program assists WDFW in continuing to raise and stock fast-growing rainbows all along the lake. These trout are a special strain that feeds in open water and preys primarily on plankton called daphnia that don’t depend on shallow-water habitat. The rainbows grow fast and fat, putting on several inches and doubling their weight after just a few months of gobbling daphnia in the expansive and food-rich waters of the reservoir. The abundance of plankton results in football-shaped trout with gorgeous, red meat.

Fat trout run deep

Lake Roosevelt is unparalleled in the Evergreen State as a cool and cold-weather trout fishery, attracting legions of anglers in pursuit of the lake’s shallow-running rainbows. During summer, however, rainbows seek the cool refuge of deeper water, and most anglers let their trout rods rest and abandon the lake until fall. Some also switch over to walleye rods or to water skis.

Meanwhile, the rainbows are still in the lake, gorging themselves 25-50 feet below the waters’ surface. Still-fishermen who locate fish with their fish finders sometimes do well, but Lake Roosevelt is a troller’s paradise. The fish can be widely distributed due to the abundance of daphnia throughout the reservoir, so covering lots of ground is often the best approach. To get trolled offerings down to the depths where rainbows cruise, most summertime trout anglers use several colors of leaded line, downriggers, or heavy trolling sinkers.

The same lures that catch fish during the cooler months work during summer, too. A muddler minnow tipped with a fluttering segment of nightcrawler is a proven Roosevelt rainbow killer, fished alone or behind a dodger or gang trolls. Local anglers and shops have developed a variety of specialized muddler minnow variations as well as other trolling flies. Small baited spinners are also deadly effective, as are small, fluttering trolling spoons and small minnow imitations. The lake’s large but less-numerous kokanee take many of the same offerings, but often run far deeper during summer, up to 150 feet. Both species are best pursued during mornings and evenings. Overcast days and cool spells during summer usually trigger an uptick in the bite.

Walleye bite day and night

Fishing for walleye in Lake Roosevelt has become popular in the summer. Photo by Don Ghramm

The state of Washington never stocked walleye in Lake Roosevelt, but around the 1950s, the species showed up – illegally. The lake became the state’s first fishery for walleye, which ruled the bag for decades until the advent of net-pen-reared rainbows. Rainbow trout and kokanee draw more anglers to the lake than any other species; however, walleye fishing is also very popular, especially during summer.

For novice walleye anglers, the approach is simple, and finding good fishing areas is as easy as performing a little Internet research or just going out to a popular area on the lake and watching other anglers. Walleye anglers tend to congregate in good fishing areas, usually trolling shorelines where the fish find most of their forage during summer when the lake is at full pool.

Night fishing can be very productive from the shore or from boats as walleye move freely in shallower water and trout swim closer to the surface. But the nighttime has its avoidable dangers on the shore and on the water. Rattlesnakes are common on Lake Roosevelt, especially on the lower half of the lake, and they are most active at night: lure-chucking shore anglers beware. Boaters with legal lighting systems on their boats can do well but must avoid potential debris, cliffs, reefs, and other boaters.

The laidback summertime approach most families take is to fish in the early morning and then spend the day swimming, boating, sunbathing, and doing all of the other fun camping activities families do on sun-drenched beaches. Many anglers then head out in the evening to troll for rainbows and kokanee or to troll, cast, or jig for toothy and tasty walleye.

Planning your trip

Lake Roosevelt, a family vacation destination. Photo courtesy of National Park Service

The majority of Roosevelt is within Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area (LRNRA), and the National Park Service offers extensive resources for families of all income levels to plan a trip. Likely areas to find good walleye and trout fishing and camping in the lower half of the lake include Fort Spokane, Seven Bays, Hanson Harbor, Keller Ferry, and Spring Canyon. The lower Spokane River, known as the “Spokane Arm” of Lake Roosevelt, is also impounded by Grand Coulee Dam and offers good fishing and camping too, especially near Porcupine Bay. On the northern half of the lake, Hunters, Gifford, Kettle Falls, Marcus, and the mouth of the Kettle River offer strong opportunities and abundant camping access.

For information about LRNRA’s many camping opportunities, check out these resources. To make reservations for Roosevelt’s campgrounds with reservable campsites, visit Recreation.gov.  The Colville Chamber of Commerce has additional information.  Many campgrounds do not require reservations, but competition is high during summer for obvious reasons. Who wouldn’t want to emerge from a sleeping bag into the morning sun in one of Washington’s premier summertime playgrounds? To eliminate the competition and ensure a camp spot, check out LRNRA’s shoreline camping rules for boat-in opportunities.