Lake Whatcom Fishing: Catch Lots of Smallmouth Bass, Kokanee

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Lake Whatcom is considered one of the best places to fish for bass and kokanee near Bellingham.

The 5,000-acre lake’s western extremity backs up to the city, with access available through a city park. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also maintains a boat launch.

Lake Whatcom is seasonally managed, with the fishing season beginning on the fourth Saturday of April.

Once the season opens, it’s full steam ahead: kokanee, yellow perch, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass and more can all be caught right away.

The lake isn’t without restrictions, however.

Coastal cutthroat trout may be encountered, but their population has declined due to logging and pollution. At last check, state game authorities still require that any cutthroat trout that is caught must be put back in the water unharmed.

It’s possible there are a few rainbow trout around, and some sources have suggested that lake trout (Mackinaw) have been caught in the past, but we’ve seen no sign that either is present in numbers worth targeting.

Two-pole fishing is not allowed anywhere on the lake, and fishing of any kind is not permitted west of the Electric Avenue bridge.

Those same groups should limit their consumption of largemouth bass to no more than twice per month and yellow perch no more than once per week.

Bass Fishing

Lake Whatcom is best known for smallmouth bass, and is in fact one of northwest Washington’s best smallmouth spots.

Largemouth bass are present as well, although in significantly smaller numbers.

From opening day on, smallmouth bass are readily available. Fishing prospects remain good until the last month of the season in October, when bass fishing tends to fall off a bit.

Smallmouth bass are aggressive and territorial, especially when defending their nests during brooding season. This means late spring can be the best time to fish for smallmouth bass, as it doesn’t take much to rile them up and they are very active.

How to Catch Bass

Try using spinnerbaits or jerkbaits — anything that moves and disturbs the water. Remember that fish are cold-blooded, so they tend to be more sluggish in cold weather and more active and invigorated when the water is warmer.

Neither smallmouth bass nor largemouth bass tolerate high heat and bright sunlight all that well, so by midday during the summer, they’ll typically retreat to deeper, cooler waters or find a shady spot to lounge around.

Bass do most of their feeding in the morning before temperatures warm up or in the evening after the high temperatures have dropped. They will sometimes move into shallow water to hunt in lower light. 

For best results, go fish when the bass do.

Smallmouth often will seek out rockier structures, but you’ll also find docks, points and other types of cover at Lake Whatcom that these fish will use to ambush prey.

Largemouth bass aren’t as numerous here as their smallmouth cousins, but they tend to grow a bit larger and sometimes will take larger prey than smallmouth bass might consider, although their diets are somewhat similar and include crayfish, smaller fish and other aquatic animals.

Largemouth bass have a tendency to swallow whatever will fit into their mouths — a good reminder to consider forgoing still-fishing with natural baits, which bass tend to swallow more often than moving lures.

Deeply swallowed hooks tear up a fish’s insides, so if you’re planning to catch and release your bass, as many serious bassers do, use artificial lures that move through the water and mimic fish or frogs.

Here’s another reason to release these fish: Bass caught at Lake Whatcom are not recommended for eating due to elevated levels of mercury detected in their flesh.

Women and children, especially, should avoid eating smallmouth bass altogether and restrict their eating of largemouth bass to no more than twice per month, according to state fish consumption advisories.

Those same groups can occasionally eat largemouth bass and more often perch caught at Lake Whatcom, according to those same guidelines. (Kokanee and a few other species are considered healthy in all quantities.)

Want to learn more effective ways to catch either of these bass species? Read our easy guide, Bass Fishing: Simple How-To Techniques and Tips.

Kokanee Fishing

Unfortunately, coastal cutthroat trout — once a robust fishery on Lake Whatcom — are now a restricted species on the lake. To protect fish stocks, you must release any cutthroat trout you catch.

Thankfully, the same restrictions don’t apply to kokanee. Sometimes known as silver trout, and related in fact to the trout family, kokanee are actually sockeye salmon.

What separates kokanee from other sockeyes is that kokanee do not undertake the migration to the sea that defines the classic salmon life cycle.

As a result, kokanee don’t grow as large as oceangoing sockeyes.

The typical kokanee is roughly 12 inches long and about a pound in weight. But while they’re comparable in size to a trout, a kokanee can often put up a livelier fight.

Trolling with small lures and/or bait behind a set of attractors is one of the most popular ways to catch kokanee. Bait fishing and jigging are other methods.

Many anglers swear by the use of a snubber or very soft rod to reel in kokanee, as they have soft mouths and can more easily tear free off the hook, especially if an angler is not prepared.

Reeling in a kokanee takes both skill and finesse, making them a good challenge for intermediate anglers and an entertaining catch even for seasoned pros.

Kokanee also are an excellent-eating fish cooked fresh or smoked like larger salmon.

When to Catch Lake Whatcom Kokanee

Kokanee can be caught right away at the start of the season, although prospects improve into late spring and summer.

By October, Lake Whatcom kokanee fishing drops way off as the largest class of fish prepares to spawn and die off.

Lake Whatcom is a large lake at roughly 5,000 acres, and the number of kokanee with which the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife annually stocks the lake reflects it.

At last check, state game authorities scheduled the release of some 4.4 million kokanee fry and fingerlings into the lake, making it among the most heavily stocked kokanee lakes in Washington.

Yellow Perch Fishing

Like many fishing lakes in western Washington, Lake Whatcom is a fine spot for yellow perch fishing.

Yellow perch tend to be at their most active in late spring and summer. Prospects are good nearly throughout the fishing season, tailing off a bit by October.

Anglers appreciate perch as a tasty fish that can be encountered and caught in good numbers at any time of year, and there are no limits on how many can be legally taken.

Yellow perch are small, growing up to about 10 inches and typically weighing well under a pound. But they can be caught in quantities, because they travel and feed in schools.

Two-pole fishing is not allowed on Lake Whatcom, so you’ll have to catch your perch one rod at a time. But if you’re patient and stay put once the fish start biting, you’ll have the chance to catch quite a few before the school moves on.

Use small hooks baited with pieces of earthworm. Let the perch nibble for a bit, then set your hook and reel them in.

Try fishing in different areas until you locate a school with decent-sized perch. Often those schools are near the bottom of the lake, but at different depths at different times.

Perch fishing is particularly family-friendly because there are lots of chances to catch them and they’re easy to reel in for most anglers.

However, as mentioned above, keep in mind that elevated levels of mercury have been detected in perch caught at Lake Whatcom. Women and children shouldn’t eat perch from the lake more than four times in a month.

Perch anglers may also find themselves hooking some of the other bait-loving species in the lake, including pumpkinseed sunfish and brown bullhead catfish.

Where is Lake Whatcom?

Lake Whatcom is directly to the east of Bellingham in northwestern Washington.

Access to the lake is available through Bloedel Donovan Park, which is maintained by the city government. The boat launch at the park was recently upgraded.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife also maintains a gravel boat launch at the lake’s east end, in South Bay, outside city limits. It’s located off South Bay Drive. Restrooms are available on-site.

The fishing season on Lake Whatcom is not year-round. It opens on the fourth Saturday in April and closes after Halloween.

Find more fishing spots in Whatcom County

Washington Resources

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