It almost feels patriotic to like a place called American Lake.
And anglers will salute the fact that American Lake near Tacoma offers excellent prospects to catch plenty of trout, kokanee, bass and panfish. It’s one of Pierce County’s favorite fishing holes.
The lake is open to fishing all year and has a reputation for growing big fish, including the rare trout to the 10-pound range but good numbers of chunky rainbows and kokanee in the 1- to 2-pound range, perfect for eating.
The lake is bordered on much of its shoreline by Lakewood and is under 20- or 30-minute drive for anglers throughout the Tacoma area.
Because the fishing is quite good, and it’s close to home for about a million people, you won’t be alone when the fish are biting. And at times the lake can show the effects of heavy use and its suburban setting, like litter.
But American Lake is nearly 1,100 acres in size, big enough for anglers to spread out and find their fish.
Trout and kokanee count toward the same five-fish limits, and warmwater species follow state guidelines.
American Lake Trout Fishing
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is generous with American Lake.
The agency plants about 25,000 trout here during a typical year, according to recent stocking plans.
The bulk of those trout will be catchable-sized rainbows stocked during the spring months (roughly March to May), but WDFW also is in the habit of dropping a nice load of several thousand big “trophy” rainbow trout at the lake in the fall.
Rainbows have been caught into the double-digits here, thanks both to plantings of larger fish and a good food supply and favorable water conditions.
The lake also is home to naturally reproducing coastal cutthroat trout native to this region, and these fish show up in trout anglers’ creel regularly but not in the same volumes as the rainbows.
The majority of trout anglers stick to tried and true methods to catch these fish.
Bank anglers most often pitch bait, either suspended below a bobber when the trout are feeding relatively near the surface, or on or near the bottom when a deeper presentation is working better.
If you have a boat, trolling is an extremely effective way to land good numbers of trout. Anglers use either bait (such as a nightcrawler) or small spinners (Wedding Rings are always popular), spoons and wobbling lures like Flatfish. Some anglers tip their lure hooks with bait.
Trout anglers run some types of trolling lures behind attractors, such as a set of blades or a dodger, which may help bring more strikes.
The rainbows in particular may head to deeper water when the heat of mid-summer arrives, so trollers and still-fishers will go deeper with their offerings.
For those looking for easier limits, trout fishing will be best overall in the spring, when there are lots of stocked trout around and trout are feeding heavily in the cooler water.
Trout fishing is very likely to slow in the dog days of summer but you can catch trout at American Lake any month of the year. Things should pick up a little in the early fall as the water begins to cool again, and quite a bit more whenever WDFW puts more fish into the lake.
Fly anglers can catch trout as well, and wild cutthroat are particularly fond of flies.
Conventional or fly anglers also can try very slowly trolling a sinking fly pattern behind your boat or float tube. I like a wooly bugger or leach pattern for this but other wet flies will do the job as well.
Trout feeding on flies will likely be found in shallower water, especially cutthroats. Try around the bug-rich weed beds.
For more suggestions on catching trout, read our easy guide: Trout Fishing: Basic How-To Techniques and Tips.
Kokanee are a favorite game fish among the Pacific Northwest’s lake anglers who own a boat.
These land-locked sockeye salmon, which are similar in size to trout, are spunky fighters and absolutely delicious eating.
Kokanee like lakes that are cool and most often deep. While many lakes that meet that description are found at higher elevations or a distance away, Tacoma-area anglers have it good right near home at American Lake.
WDFW plants American Lake with at least 400,000 young kokanee every year. These smaller fish grow into pan-sized salmon in American Lake’s rich environment.
Kokanee aren’t often caught by bank anglers as they tend to stay off-shore most of the time, and trolling is popular, so a boat is ideal for this kind of fishing. Bank anglers can more reliably catch any other species of fish at American Lake.
Kokanee fishing starts going pretty good here by mid-spring, about April, and will continue through most of the summer before the bigger class of fish begin to take on spawning colors and stage in shallower water in the fall.
Kokanee tend to start out smaller in spring to gain weight as the season progresses.
When the water is still cool in the early season, kokanee may be relatively close to the surface, where trollers won’t have to employ a lot of weight to reach them. They also might be well-distributed around the lake.
But by about mid-summer, anglers should expect to fish in the cooler waters found deeper in the lake, where the fish will be more concentrated.
American Lake has a fair bit of water in the northern half that is 70- to 80-feet deep, with some smaller areas more than 90 feet down.
Trollers typically use weighted line, in-line weights or down-riggers to reach the fish at those kinds of depths.
Most people troll for kokanee with smaller lures, not unlike trout fishing. Wedding Ring or similar spinners or smaller spoons or hootchies (little squid) are all popular lures. Most anglers tip their lure hooks with a bit of bait, like a maggot or small piece of nightcrawler.
Also, it’s popular to run your lure and bait behind some sort of lake troll to help attract these aggressive fish.
Other anglers will turn to still-fishing with bait for kokanee, and it’s also possible to catch them with brightly colored metal jigs.
Kokanee are schooling fish, so when you find a depth and an area (along with a lure color and type) that catches fish, stick with what’s working and you’re quite likely to catch more.
A fish finder may help your search, and a two-rod endorsement might be a good investment so you can test out different approaches with more rods in the water.
Bass and Panfish
American Lake is home to the most popular species of bass commonly caught in Puget Sound-area freshwater lakes.
Largemouth bass are the biggest and often most popular of the three, while smallmouth bass don’t grow quite as big but are tough battlers.
The smallest is a rock bass, actually a member of the sunfish family, but which eat similar foods in smaller sizes.
All freshwater bass species are often found around cover, which at American Lake includes docks, islands, overhanging and fallen trees, coves and points. Aquatic weeds will attract feeding fish.
Bass eat smaller fish, crayfish, frogs and insects, or really anything they can fit into their mouths!
Largemouth bass have that big mouth and serious largemouth anglers often fish larger lures looking for trophy-sized fish, which they usually photograph and release unharmed.
Use medium-sized lures to focus on smallmouths, and rock bass are fond of small-sized soft plastics, crankbaits, spinners and natural baits.
WDFW have described American Lake as one of the best places to catch yellow perch in the South Sound area.
Yellow perch don’t have as many fishing fans as perhaps they should. The main rap on perch is their size, which is pretty small in many locations.
True, a very nice perch is similar in size to a regular trout or kokanee, but like they are a schooling fish and can be caught in good quantities here when you locate them.
Oh, and they are one of the very best eating fish around. Some people put them barely behind walleye if you like white, flaky freshwater fish.
Unlike kokanee, schools of perch are often found within casting distance of shore and are easy to catch with a simple still-fishing rig, using a small hook and a bit of natural bait, like a garden worm, piece of nightcrawler, or mealworm.
Usually perch are found near the bottom, but anglers also catch them under a bobber. The main key is to keep trying different areas until you find biting perch, and then stick with the school as well as possible.
Another fish you might well catch at American Lake if you fish bait near the bottom is brown bullhead catfish, another under-appreciated game fish in these parts but that also can be tasty if caught in fairly clean and cool water.
Location and Access
Much of American Lake is bordered by Lakewood and Camp Murray, as well as Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM). It’s just west of Interstate 5 on the southern side of the Tacoma metropolitan area.
The eastern half of the lake is predominantly surrounded by lakeside homes, most with private docks, but there are several options for public access.
A lot of boaters will head to WDFW’s two-lane concrete public boat launch in the Camp Murray area on the south side of the lake. It’s simple to reach from the Berkeley Street exit off I-5. Head west and it’s at the end of Military Road.
There is good bank access around the launch and also some spots to fish from shore at several parks around the lake, including Shoreline Park in the JBLM on the southwest side, American Lake Park on the north shore, and a little bit at Harry Todd Park in the Tillicum area.
The parks have a variety of other amenities, including some swimming, picnicking, playgrounds, restrooms, and so forth. Check the park links for individual details and specific locations to plan a visit.
Bill’s Boathouse is a private business where you can fish from the pier or rent a fishing boat at American Lake.
When you’re on the lake, you’ll find the deepest water in the northern half of American Lake, with plenty of water in the 80-foot range north and northeast of Silcox Island (the lake’s largest and most inhabited island).
There are a few spots that are 90 feet or deeper, especially in the slightly narrowed part of the northern lake.
The southern end of the lake near Camp Murray and Shoreline Park has more shallow water and fewer lakeside homes, and the tree-lined shore, weed beds, and small islands should make good cutthroat, bass and panfish habitat.