Yale Lake Fishing: SW Washington Kokanee Hot Spot

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Yale Lake is known as one of Washington’s best kokanee fishing spots.

It’s also easy to reach, located just off State Route 503 in Southwest Washington, putting it within an easy drive of Vancouver and even Portland, Oregon.

Yale Lake, just as frequently known as Yale Reservoir, was created from the damming of the Lewis River in 1953. The reservoir is just upriver from its cousin, Lake Merwin (or Merwin Reservoir).

As with other Lewis River reservoirs, PacifiCorp manages Yale Reservoir for hydroelectric power and also manages all of the recreation access, including parks and multiple boat launches.

The lake is open year-round, and kokanee can be caught at any time, but the best fishing is seasonal and the reservoir’s level tends to vary by the season and the year.

Besides the kokanee, we’ll tell you about the resident trout species at Yale that anglers might catch, and which of them are fair game.

Kokanee Fishing

Kokanee are a landlocked form of sockeye salmon. Without undergoing the migration to sea that characterizes the classical life cycle of salmon, kokanee don’t grow nearly as large as their anadromous relatives.

Kokanee are similar in size to trout (their fellow salmonids) and are sometimes colloquially referred to as silver trout. They have a slightly oily flesh like other salmon and are an excellent eating fish.

Many kokanee anglers will chase their quarry with a trolling rig similar to typical “pop gear” used for trout, including some sort of lake troll set or dodger as an attractor running ahead of a small lure, possibly with a bit of bait on the lure hook.

Try using a snubber to better your odds of successfully reeling in kokanee, which are notorious for their soft mouths.

Some manufacturers make rods specially designed for kokanee, with a soft tip that provides some of the same shock absorption that the snubbers offer and then enough backbone to bring them in.

Unlike some salmon, kokanee aren’t exactly known for brutish strength capable of busting rods and ruining reels, but they are active fighters that tend to throw off hooks at a frustrating rate.

Kokanee typically grow to about 12 inches long and can weigh 1 pound or more, though sizes can vary by location and year to year.

While kokanee can be encountered at any time of year, most anglers agree the best time to fish for kokanee is in late spring or early summer.

Still, fishing later in the season can be rewarding as well.

Mid-summer kokanee will often congregate in even larger schools, which make a tempting target for an angler, especially one with electronics to find them and down riggers to reach them, as by that time of year the kokanee are likely in quite deep water.

As with most locations, kokanee fishing at Yale Lake is largely a boat show, as these fish tend to be well out from shore and at times in deep water.

Unlike Lake Merwin, which gets plants of young kokanee, most of the kokanee at Yale spawn naturally in tributaries, particularly Cougar Creek, which enters the reservoir at Cougar Park.

By fall you might find kokanee bunching up near this creek mouth, and perhaps others, preparing for their spawning run. These fish will be starting to take on the red hues of spawning sockeye and won’t be as tasty as silvery kokanee, but they can be aggressive.

We suggest releasing kokanee that have started to alter for spawning, as they aren’t that great to eat and their contributions to future kokanee populations are more valuable.

Trout Fishing

Cutthroat trout aren’t typically stocked in at Yale Lake, but these beautiful trout are native to rivers throughout western Washington, including the Lewis River and its tributaries.

A typical adult coastal cutthroat trout caught in the region might range from 8 inches to up into the low teens, with a rare specimen caught in larger sizes.

A major part of the cutthroat trout’s diet is insects, so it’s not surprising that fly fishing is a popular and effective method for catching them.

The best fishing for coastal cutthroat trout in Southwest Washington is typically from about March through May, when insects start hatching and trout are hungry after winter.

Spring is by now means the only time trout can be caught. Early fall also can be quite good and fewer anglers will be around.

Trout dislike hot weather and are less active and harder to catch during the hottest months of summer, but they are still possible to catch. One plan then is to focus on incoming tributaries that bring cooler water and possibly food into the reservoir.

Siouxon Creek forms a long arm on the lower reservoir and is a pretty good trout bet because it’s a decent trout stream.

Trout are generally more agreeable to falling for a variety of fishing methods, from trolling bait or lures, to casting lures and flies, to still-fishing with bait.

You might also hook a rainbow trout at Yale Lake every once in a while, often with the same methods used for cutthroat or incidentally while fishing for kokanee.

Bull trout (which many anglers still call Dolly Varden, although they these days they are considered distinct from each other) are also present at Yale Reservoir, but they cannot be targeted or retained under state regulations. They must be released if caught.

If you are new to this kind of fishing or would like a refresher, with offer an easy guide to the best trout fishing methods.

The other fish you might likely catch at Yale Lake, especially in relatively shallow water, are northern pikeminnows, a native species that are fun to catch but not prized much as a game or food fish.

Pikeminnows also tend to overpopulate places like Yale and eat the young of more popular fish, but there is no sport reward fishery here like there is on the Columbia River.

Planning Your Trip

Yale Reservoir is popular as both a day trip destination as well as an overnight trip.

Where is Yale Lake?

Yale Reservoir is about 30 miles east of Woodland along State Route 503. The highway follows the Lewis River mainstem (also known as the North Fork Lewis River), which is a popular salmon and steelhead fishing river below the reservoirs.

Yale Reservoir is the middle of the river’s three large reservoirs.

Lake Merwin is the lowest of the trio, which you will pass on the way to Yale. Merwin also has kokanee as well as tiger muskies. Swift Reservoir is the upper reservoir and is primarily managed as a trout-fishing lake.

Yale Lake is under a 45-minute drive from Woodland, an hour or so from Vancouver, two hours from Olympia, and three hours from Seattle.

Access and Amenities

There are four major access points, although anglers should check ahead with PacifiCorp.

to see which spots are open. Sites are occasionally closed for work on the system.

Yale Park is generally open all year for day use only and is often the focal point for anglers who come to fish for the day before the main camping season.

Cougar, Beaver Bay and Saddle Dam parks offer seasonal access, including camping, boat launching, bank access, and more. Again, check with PacifiCorp for details and trip-planning.

There is a fee for launching watercraft on the weekend.

Note that Yale Lake can be quite popular with the power boating crowd during the summers, especially on weekends, so anglers seeking a quieter fishing experience likely will do better getting off to an early start during the hot months.

Water levels can vary dramatically, which can impact boating and fishing. At their most severe, the water may not be high enough to launch.

Fortunately, the lowest water conditions are typically in the fall into winter, not usually when fishing is at its peak.

Still, we suggest you call 800-547-1501 for information before heading out.

Shoreline access at Yale Reservoir is good, especially at the parks, but if you’re fishing from shore, best aim for catching trout. Kokanee are typically out of casting range from shore.

The small community of Cougar is located along the highway on the north side of the lake and has most basic supplies visitors might need, including tackle and groceries at its stores, and a couple restaurants.

Find more fishing spots in Cowlitz County

Find more fishing spots in Clark County

Washington Resources

WDFW Fishing and Stocking Reports
WDFW Fishing Regulations
National Weather Service forecasts