Fishing at Sullivan Lake: Trophy Trout in Rugged Forest

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If you like big fish and you cannot lie, Sullivan Lake is a widely recognized spot for trophy fishing.

Unlike many other popular trout lakes, Sullivan Lake — located in the rugged Colville National Forest, just south of the Canadian border — is not regularly stocked by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Bag limits are strict in order to maintain this giant lake as a place where you might catch the fish of a lifetime.

The nearly 1,300-acre lake is home to the holder of the state record for largest brown trout, a 22-pound bruiser landed in 1965, and Sullivan Lake known to hold some big rainbow trout as well.

If the prospect of catching a trout big enough to impress your friends and family isn’t enticing enough, Sullivan Lake also has plenty of kokanee. These tasty landlocked sockeye salmon can be caught in decent numbers.

Sullivan also is home to the only local freshwater member of the cod family the burbot, or freshwater ling (because its appearance and excellent white meat lend itself to comparisons with saltwater lingcod).

Sullivan Lake is open year-round. Ice fishing is popular in the winter.

Boat access is through the adjacent U.S. Forest Service campground.

Trout Fishing at Sullivan Lake

Many make the trek up to Sullivan Lake in the hopes of landing the biggest trout they’ve ever seen.

If you want to keep your fish, you just about have to land a fairly big one: State sport-fishing regulations require anglers to put back any trout they catch that’s smaller than 14 inches, meaning only trout that are above your average stocker size can be retained.

There is also a strict bag limit of two trout per day, again helping maintain a fishery that isn’t supplemented with regular visits from a hatchery truck.

The lake is probably most famous for its brown trout, thanks to the state record-holder. But a variety of trout have resident populations at Sullivan Lake, including rainbow trout and westslope cutthroat trout.

Often, hatchery rainbow trout are a beginner’s introduction to angling. But Sullivan Lake is managed largely for trophy opportunities, and the larger trout that inhabit these waters are better suited for more experienced anglers.

In other words, this isn’t the lake to hit if you want to score large and easy limits of trout. For that type of experience, try heavily stocked Diamond Lake a little over an hour down the road, or other regional hot spots you’ll find in the link at the bottom of this article.

Size notwithstanding, trout at Sullivan Lake behave much like trout anywhere else, though a bit savvier being purely wild.

Ice fishing is possible here, but the best fishing opportunities for trout are in the spring and the fall.

Trout in the summer will typically lurk in cooler and sometimes deeper water than in those cooler months.

Even when the water is warm for this far-north location, trout still need to eat, so anglers can still have some success fishing off the bottom.

Note that brown trout tolerate heat somewhat better than their cousins. Summer fishing opportunities for browns may be better than for cutthroats or rainbows.

See our how-to article for a bunch of trout-fishing techniques and tips.

Kokanee Fishing at Sullivan Lake

Kokanee are salmon, even though they’re sometimes called silver trout — they are landlocked variants of the larger anadromous sockeye salmon.

Anglers like sockeye both for their spirited fight above their weight class and also because their red meat is incredibly tasty.

But while kokanee typically do not grow as large as oceangoing sockeyes, unfortunately the kokanee at Sullivan Lake are particularly diminutive, averaging 8-9 inches.

While they’re still good eating, an angler looking to make a meal of his catch here may have to work a little bit harder for a full supper.

Kokanee really respond to disturbances in the water. Flashers, dodgers and spinners will typically get their attention and provoke a territorial strike.

Ice fishing for kokanee is generally a poor bet. Fish for kokanee when it’s nice out, roughly from April to October.

In the summertime, you’ll likely find the schooling kokanee at greater depths, because they prefer water even colder than trout. Lead-core line, weights or downriggers likely will be necessary to reach them.

Bump up your kokanee catches with these techniques and tips, including the best lures.

Burbot Fishing at Sullivan Lake

These freshwater lings present a fairly uncommon fishing opportunity in Washington, where there is a relatively limited supply of good burbot fishing lakes.

Sullivan Lake hosts a resident population of burbot, a close relative of marine cod, including lingcod common along the Pacific coastline. Some anglers might mistake burbot for eels, with their long tapering bodies.

Burbot are predatory fish, graduating to a diet of other fish and even amphibians and other animals. (The state record for largest burbot caught is from nearby Bead Lake, a 17.37-pound specimen in 2004.)

Try baits of fresh cut fish to land bigger burbot. Whitefish, natural prey for the burbot, are particularly enticing. Remember that only dead fish may be used for bait in Washington.

Ice fishing is sort of the “iconic” way to fish for burbot, and ice fishing at Sullivan Lake is a top attraction.

However, burbot can still be caught when the lake is thawed. Fishing off the bottom is best, as like catfish, burbot usually stick to the lake bed and eat what comes their way.

Note that burbot are classified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need in Washington, they aren’t rare in most of the bigger lakes and reservoirs where they are found in the upper Columbia River drainage.

While you don’t have to feel bad about taking them to make a meal — at Sullivan Lake, the burbot are doing just fine — there is a daily bag limit of five that must be observed.

Where is Sullivan Lake?

Sullivan Lake is nestled in the mountains of northeastern Washington. It is located wholly within the Colville National Forest, and the federal government manages lake access.

The U.S. Forest Service operates a number of campgrounds in the Sullivan Lake area, mostly at and around the north end of the lake. It also maintains a boat ramp at the north end of the lake.

Access Sullivan Lake by taking Sullivan Lake Road east from state Highway 31, just north of Metaline Falls.

Sullivan Lake is about a two-hour drive north from Spokane, about five hours northeast of Wenatchee, and about four and a half hours southeast of Kelowna, British Columbia.

The lake is tucked way up in Washington’s farthest northeast corner, just miles from both the Canadian border to the north and the Idaho state line to the east.

Two-pole fishing is allowed.

Find more fishing spots in Pend Oreille County

Washington Resources

WDFW fishing and stocking reports
WDFW fishing regulations
National Weather Service forecasts