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Palmer Lake Smallmouth Bass Fishery

Dave Graybill - 9/1/2002

When I suggested an article about Palmer Lake and its potential for a state record smallmouth bass, I told the editor that I may have some trouble getting the scoop on this one. Palmer Lake is in northern Okanogan County in Eastern Washington, and the folks up here are very protective of their waters. This is a remote region of the state and most anglers are tight-lipped about the fishing. Sure enough, when my contact called me to set me up with some people to talk to about Palmer he wasn’t optimistic. In order to get a story on this spectacular smallmouth fishery, I had to cut a deal. Tell the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Now who can you talk to and get the real truth about fishing? How about a local minister? It was my luck that not only was there are really good smallmouth angler willing to me about Palmer Lake, but he was the minister at the Pentecostal Church in Oroville, Washington, which is just a few miles from the lake.

Claude Roberts holds up a nice Palmer lake smallmouth.

"You’re probably not going to get the kind of story you thought about Palmer Lake, " said Claude Roberts, when we shook hands in his Oroville home. "I’ll tell you about the lake all right, but you’ve got to tell people what’s happening up here. Palmer is a special lake and could produce a state record smallmouth, but unless there’s an increase in enforcement of the game laws, it could be ruined forever."

Roberts and Fred Bender, who lives on the shore of Palmer Lake and has fished it for over twenty years, went on to explain why the lake has the potential for a record fish. The stringer weights of the spring tournament held in April tell the tale. Five years ago the winning weight for a five fish limit was 20 pounds. The next year it was 21, the following year 27 and just three year ago the winning stringer weight a whopping 29 pounds—all smallmouth! But the next two years produced stringers of just 13 and 12 pounds. The reason for such a dramatic decline in stringer weight is the number of anglers that ignore the slot limit and over-fish the lake to the extreme.

"Fred and I used to catch 20 to 25 smallmouth weighing a good seven pounds every year," said Roberts. "Fred has taken two over eight. Last year we got just one. Five years ago we got six fish that weighed a total of 34 pounds." In 1996 there was a lake record set. The smallmouth weighted eight pounds, 10 ounces, just two ounces shy of the state record. It appears that the word got out about the size of the smallmouth at Palmer, and the number of anglers who came to fish during the spring jumped dramatically.

The anglers who hammered the smallmouth while on their beds in April and May reached unprecedented numbers in the last two seasons, and unusually clear water conditions contributed to their ability to spot fish. The typical spring runoff that clouded the water in Palmer just didn’t develop. This made it possible for those unfamiliar with the structure on Palmer to easily spot the beds. Visibility was 12 to 13 feet and anglers took smallmouth off their beds at will.

Russ Main and another smallmouth.

These ideal conditions made it easy for those who choose to put bragging rights ahead of filling their freezer. There has been as many as 10 boats a day, fishing for a week or more straight in the spring the past couple of seasons on the 2,000-acre lake. Both Roberts and Bender have observed countless cases of anglers ignoring the slot limit. They have seen evidence of anglers using set-lines, and Bender has counted as many as 32 carcasses from the result of a days fishing by one boat in the spring on Palmer.

There is hope for the Palmer Lake whopper smallmouth fishery, though. There’s a new warden in the area now, and with the proper attention and enforcement of the game laws, the lake could be on the road to recovery in short order. Should anglers cross Palmer off the list of lakes to fish for smallmouth? Is there no chance of catching a smallmouth of seven or even eight pounds? Even Roberts and Bender admit that there are still fish—even a potential state record fish—fining the waters of Palmer Lake. They just don’t exist in the numbers they did just two or three years ago.

If you’re a fan of smallmouth fishing, you can still expect a great day on Palmer Lake. It is still one of the most, if not the most remote of all the quality smallmouth fisheries in the state. This is no day-trip from Seattle or Spokane, and the fishing shuts down pretty early in the fall, compared to a lot of other bass waters in the state.

If you want to take a crack at Palmer Lake and its smallmouth, here are some timing and tackle strategies.

In the early season, and sometimes this can come as early as March on Palmer, anglers in the know prefer soft plastics. Lizards, grubs, spider jigs, and worms all get the nod, but colors can change frequently and anglers should be prepared for a lot of experimenting. Both Roberts and Bender manufacture their own plastics, and stress the advantage of using scent with their baits.

As the season progresses and the bass have moved off the beds, a variety of lures can be productive. Crank baits, buzz baits and spinner baits will take their share of smallmouth. Spinner baits should be run slower on Palmer than on many other waters, and running and dropping spinner baits will increase their effectiveness. These tactics can usually serve anglers well through the month of June.

A couple of other lures that are worth mention are the Rapala in the black back, blue back and gold back colors, and the Bill Norman in the perch pattern.

By July bass anglers will make a switch to top water buzz baits, and large grubs are also favored. The top water action can be spectacular on Palmer Lake, and I should mention that anglers can expect more than just smallmouth strikes. Largemouth bass also share the water here, and anglers can expect a mixed bag. When fishing grubs, anglers should try "burning it in" and letting it fall. The same is true if fishing a worm. Grubs can be fished as large as three or four inches, and worms of eight and nine inches can be effective in the summer season on Palmer.

These same tactics will work through the balance of the summer and into the fall. Just when the season winds down will depend on the weather, but it rarely lingers much into September. There will be a late burst as both smallmouth and largemouth put on the feed bag in preparation for winter, but then both species will move into deep water. The fish will settle into depths of about forty or fifty feet (Palmer is about eighty feet at its deepest). Smallmouth can be tempted to strike when at these depths, but it’s both tough work to get the bass to bite and hard on the fish, too, to be wrestled to the surface this time of year.

What kind of structure can an angler expect at Palmer? Rock. Lots of broken rock and boulders. This is the structure that provides the hiding places for the abundance of feed that supports the growth of smallmouth here, and also lends itself to the creeping and bouncing of plastics along this uneven structure. Palmer Lake is home to a strong population of crawdads, and an abundance of peamouth chubs, or redsides as they are referred to locally. Anglers can also expect to find three to four acres of lily pads on Palmer, and these can be very productive at times.

Palmer Lake is the one watch for big smallmouth, and is also the site of the state record of burbot or freshwater ling. The record is currently just over 17 pounds, taken in 1993 in the winter, through the ice. The lake also known for good fishing for brook trout, silvers, yellow perch and crappie.

I mentioned earlier that Palmer Lake is not a day-trip fishery for most anglers. It is near Oroville, Washington, which lies just six miles south of the Canadian border. Most travel Highway 97 north to Tonasket, and then take the Loomis-Oroville road that leads past Whitestone and Spectacle lakes. The road passes through the town of Loomis and then turns east. It’s just a few miles from Loomis (which offers gas, groceries, and hot food) to the public launch on Palmer Lake.

There is a small resort here, Chopaka Lodge, and they can be reached for current conditions and lodging at (509)223-3131. The town of Oroville is less than twenty miles from Palmer Lake and offers most everything an angler could need.

Many local anglers are concerned about the recent abuses that have taken place at Palmer Lake. With proper attention it is possibly the best smallmouth fishery in the state, with the potential of producing the next state record fish. It is hoped that it will receive this attention and its population of really big smallmouth improves. In the meantime, Palmer still offers one of the best places a bass angler could spend his time casting a lure. You may not come away with a state record, but you could have one of the best days of bass fishing you’ve ever had.

Practice catch and release to keep catching nice smallies like this one.