List of Fish Species in Lake Chelan 2023 [Updated]

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List of Common Lake Chelan Fish Species [Updated]

Lake Chelan, Washington
Lake Chelan has a total surface area of just 52 miles but is the third deepest freshwater lake in the United States! Dana Hutchinson, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The largest natural lake in Washington state with a total surface area of 52 square miles, Lake Chelan winds its way through the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in the north-central area of the state. This 50-mile-long lake is only one to two miles across but is the third deepest freshwater lake in the United States, with a maximum depth of 1,486 ft. The lake is mainly fed by the Stehekin River to the northwest of the lake and bounded by a dam at the southeastern end in the town of Chelan.

This fjord-like lake’s depth is due to the effects of multiple glaciation cycles that eroded the bedrock into very deep channels more than 10,000 years ago. Lake Chelan also features two separate basins, the Wapato Basin and the Lucerne Basin, which are three times longer and almost four times as deep. The lake’s long, narrow shape and periodic fierce winds result in an internal seiche, which changes the depth of the thermocline and associated warmer waters at each end of the lake throughout the summer. Fluctuating the thermocline depth by about 100 ft every few days, this is one of the largest observed internal seiches in the world!

Lake Chelan is a major recreation area due to its clear water, surrounding mountain forests, and extensive shoreline. It also offers year-round fishing, made easier by an abundant amount of docks, boat launches, and US Forest Service land with publicly owned shoreline. The areas of Lake Chelan close to the shore are less pristine, but local initiatives are currently addressing the increase in algae and invasive species that are affecting the water quality in these areas. The most popular fish species that can be found in Lake Chelan are listed below.

List of Fish Species in Lake Chelan

1) Kokanee (Oncorhynchus nerka)

Sockeye salmon
Kokanee, otherwise known as sockeye salmon, have distinctive red-colored bodies after spawning. Kalvin Chan / CC BY 4.0

Native to western North America

A non-migrating form of sockeye salmon, kokanee can be caught in Lake Chelan from mid-April through June. Commonly called silver trout, they have blue backs and silver sides without the distinctive dark spots on their backs and tail fins other salmon have. Kokanee spawn in rivers, and adults return to the streams they hatched in to lay their own eggs. Kokanee spawn when they are 4 to 5 years old, at which point their coloration changes to a distinctive red body and grey-green head. The males also develop a hump and a hooked mouth. On average, this species is 9 to 12 inches long but can reach up to 20 inches long.

Kokanee feed nearly exclusively on zooplankton, which are minuscule aquatic animals. They feed in the open water and prefer water temperatures of about 50 °F, and will occupy different water depths depending on the water temperature. They are more aggressive and found closer to the surface in the late spring when plankton blooms are at their peak. They can be caught through trolling, still fishing, or jigging using silver, red, or orange spinners or spoons, small hooks (size 8 to 12), or small jigs (¼ to 1 oz).

2) Lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush)

Woman holding lake trout
Lake trout are covered in light spots and can live for up to 25 years! Leigh Lindstrom Clausen / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America but not native to Lake Chelan

Also commonly called mackinaw, the lake trout found in Lake Chelan have set several state records for size, including the current record of 35.63 pounds! They are covered in light spots on a dark grey background that lightens to silver toward the white belly of the fish. Lake trout are broadcast spawning fish, breeding in the fall in shallow areas. It takes 6 to 7 years for this species to become sexually mature, and they can live upwards of 25 years.

As adults, lake trout primarily feed on other fish, but are also known to eat crustaceans, insects, and plankton. They prefer cold water, and as a result, are often found deep in the water, up to 200 feet deep in the summer. Along with kokanee, lake trout are one of the most popular species fished in Lake Chelan and are best caught via trolling in the early morning.

3) Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha)

Chinook salmon
Male Chinook salmon have a hooked section at the top of their mouths. brendanboyd / CC BY 4.0

Native to western North America

As the largest of Pacific salmon, mature Chinook or king salmon are typically about 3 feet long and weigh 30 pounds, but can grow to more than 5 feet long at 100 pounds. This species is characterized by a blue-green head and back, with silver on their sides. Additionally, their tail, back, and upper fin are covered in irregular black dots. The males are characterized by a distinctive hooked section at the top of their mouth and a ridged back. The back fins and tail of both sexes turn reddish during the breeding season.

This species is naturally anadromous, meaning breeding and the first couple years of the juveniles’ lives are spent in freshwater streams before moving into the open ocean to finish maturing. The young typically feed on insects and small crustaceans, while the adults primarily eat other fish. The landlocked Chinook salmon population found in Lake Chelan have a relatively lower abundance than other trophy fish found in the lake, and are usually caught incidentally. Like the kokanee and lake trout, Chinook salmon prefer colder, deeper waters within the lake.

4) Rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss)

Rainbow trout underwater
In the summer, rainbow trout are usually found in deeper, cooler water. Will Sides / CC BY 4.0

Native to western North America

A freshwater-only type of steelhead trout, the rainbow trout is one of the most common freshwater fish species found in Washington in part due to a large stocking program. They are usually 11 to 18 inches long but can grow to over 20 inches long. They have a blue-green back with silver sides and belly, and a reddish stripe along their sides. There are several rainbow trout subspecies in Washington, but only the coastal rainbow trout and the Columbia River redband trout are native to the state.

Rainbow trout can be caught year-round, but are more likely to be found in the spring after they are stocked statewide. They are also more active at the surface when the water is cooler in the spring and the fall, and are found in deeper, cooler water during the summer. They are opportunistic feeders, primarily feeding upon small aquatic and terrestrial insects, but larger individuals will also prey upon small fish. A variety of baits and lures can be used to catch this iconic species, which is regularly stocked within the lake.

5) Burbot (Lota lota)

Man holding burbot
In Washington, burbot tend to weigh from 2 to 6 pounds. Rob Foster / CC BY 4.0

Native to North America and northern Eurasia

Burbot are one of only two freshwater fish species that has a circumpolar range, since they are native to both North America and Eurasia, and are the only true freshwater species in the cod family. This species ranges from yellow-brown to dark green in coloration, overlayed with black mottling. Burbot are long, narrow, fish with tiny scales and a large chin barbel for food detection. The burbot found in Washington weigh from 2 to 6 pounds.

Burbot prefer to eat other small fish, but will opportunistically prey upon crayfish and aquatic insects. They spawn in mid to late winter by breeding in shallow waters and scattering the fertilized eggs with erratic swimming. Burbot biology and distribution are severely limited by water temperature, with the species preferring temperatures below 54 °F. As a result, this species is often found at depths of 100 feet or more, and at the bottom of the lake when in shallower places. The health of the burbot population is actually used in many areas as a watershed health indicator for cold freshwater systems.

6) Westslope cutthroat trout (Oncorhynchus clarkii lewisi)

Westslope cutthroat trout in net
Westslope cutthroat trout are usually 8 inches long but can reach up to 16 inches in length! tonyblake / No copyright

Native to northwestern North America

The westslope cutthroat trout is one of two native cutthroat trout subspecies found in Washington. They are characterized by an olive-bronze back and greenish-gold sides, with some red coloration on the gill cover and body and spots above the lateral line concentrated on the posterior and fins of the fish. Like other cutthroat trout, this subspecies has the distinctive red slash mark on each side of its lower jaw. On average, westslope cutthroat trout reach about 8 inches long but can reach lengths upwards of 16 inches.

Westslope cutthroat trout are aggressive and opportunistic feeders, and primarily prey upon a variety of invertebrates. They spawn in streams and rivers in the spring, where the fry remain for several years before migrating to the lake. Westslope cutthroat trout prefer colder waters, which means they are located deep in the lake during the summer but can be found in shallower waters in the spring and fall. Because of their aggressive feeding tendencies, this species is best caught using natural baits when fishing. This native fish is also routinely stocked in Lake Chelan.

7) Chiselmouth (Acrocheilus alutaceus)

Chiselmouth can live for 6 years and spawn in spring and summer. Tom Nelson from FishBase, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to northwestern North America

The chiselmouth is named for its characteristic hard plate jutting out from the lower jaw. It is dark brown on the top of its body and light brown on its belly and is sometimes spotted above the lateral line. As adults, chiselmouths are about 8 to 12 inches long. This species reaches maturity at about 3 – 4 years, and have a lifespan of about 6 years.

Juvenile chiselmouths feed on insects on the water’s surface, but later in life, they use their hard jaw plate to scrape surfaces to dislodge single-celled algae called diatoms. Spawning begins when the water reaches about 62 °F, in late spring or early summer. At this point, the fish move from the lake shallows they usually inhabit to streams to breed. Much else about the biology and ecology of this species remains unknown. While chiselmouths are not a commonly fished species now, they were a primary food source for the Nez Percé people.

8) Smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu)

Smallmouth bass in hand
If you wish to catch smallmouth bass, the best time is in the spring and fall! Dustin Minialoff / No copyright

Native to North America but not native to Lake Chelan

One of two species of black bass found in Washington, the smallmouth bass boasts a steadily rising population. They are mottled with dark vertical bars, which are more pronounced in clear waters, such as those found in Lake Chelan, and are more obscure in locations with lower water clarity. Smallmouth bass are also more yellow-brown in areas with lower water clarity. They are typically 12 to 16 inches long but can reach up to 24 inches in length.

Smallmouth bass spawn during the spring, when they move into the warmer shallows once the water temperature reaches 60 °F. During the summer they retreat to cooler waters below the thermocline where they prey upon crayfish, their preferred food source, but return to the shallows for hunting at dusk and dawn. During the winter, smallmouth bass retreat to even deeper water until spring begins again. Fishing for this species is best in the spring and fall, although there are also successful tactics for summer as well.

9) Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)

Caught largemouth bass
Largemouth bass are one of the most popular game fish in the United States but are rarely caught in Lake Chelan, due to a lack of their preferred habitat in the lake. Nick Loveland / No copyright

Native to eastern North America but not native to Lake Chelan

The largemouth bass is the second species of black bass that can be found in Washington. These fish are greenish-black in coloration with a dark stripe along their midline. As the name implied, largemouth bass have larger mouths than smallmouth bass, since the edge of their mouth extends past the eye rather than only reaching the middle of the eye. They grow to a comparable size to the smallmouth bass, averaging 12 to 15 inches but able to reach over 20 inches in length.

Largemouth bass prefer areas with dense cover within and above the water, such as brush piles and areas with lots of aquatic plants. Juveniles typically eat insects but will begin primarily preying upon fish as soon as they are able to. Additionally, adults will eat small rodents, birds, and amphibians. Largemouth bass are one of the most popular game fish in the United States, which also means there is an extensive amount of specialty equipment available to fish them. While listed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as one of the species that can be found in Lake Chelan, there is not a lot of their preferred habitat found around the lake.

10) Bridgelip sucker (Catostomus columbianus)

Bridgelip sucker with red lateral line
Both male & female bridgelip suckers develop a red lateral line during the breeding season. Ernest Keeley / CC BY-NC 4.0

Native to northwestern North America

Bridgelip suckers are dark brown to olive on the back and top of the head, a mottled pale brown above the lateral line on the sides, and a white or cream color on the lower sides and below the eye on the head. Compared to other suckers, the lower lip is only slightly cleft, with rounded lobes. Bridgelip suckers generally reach 12 – 14 inches in length, which is smaller than other sucker species found in the area.

Bridgelip suckers are primarily herbivores, scraping algae from rocks, but also consume some aquatic invertebrates. They are common in deep waters with strong currents during the day, and in slower, shallower waters at night. They spawn during the spring in cold waters at about 51 °F, and both sexes develop a red lateral line during the breeding season. Not much else is known about this species, since, historically, it has been of little interest to fisheries, anglers, or scientists, but a recent study conducted in Idaho investigated how bridgelip sucker populations could be informative of trout populations, which could inform fisheries’ management decisions.

11) Largescale sucker (Catostomus macrocheilus)

Largescale sucker in hand
Largescale suckers are opportunistic feeders that are found in lakes, pools, and rivers. Schyler Brown / No copyright

Native to western North America

Largescale suckers have dark grey-green sides and backs as juveniles and become more reddish as adults. Their coloration changes dramatically just below the lateral line into a cream color that contrasts sharply with the side coloration. True to its name, largescale suckers have larger scales than other sucker fish, with less than 75 scales along the lateral line. They are usually around 10 inches long but can reach lengths of 24 inches.

Largescale suckers are opportunistic feeders and will eat anything found on the lake floor, including algae, aquatic insects, and mollusks. This species reaches maturity after 4 to 5 years, and spawn in the spring when the water reaches about 51 °F in gravel shoals throughout the lake. Juveniles remain in these shallow areas until they are old enough to move to deeper locations. In addition to lakes, this species can be found in pools and rivers. Because largescale suckers occur and spawn in the same habitats as the closely related bridgelip suckers, largescale – bridgelip sucker hybrids have been observed.

12) Peamouth (Mylocheilus caurinus)

Peamouths are schooling fish, favoring areas with dense aquatic vegetation. Lee Cain / CC BY 4.0

Native to western North America

Also called the northwestern dace and redmouth sucker, the peamouth is a species of minnow named for its small mouth. They have a dark grey back and a white belly and have two dark stripes along each side. They have a reddish mouth and develop an additional red stripe along their sides during the breeding season. They are usually about 7 to 8 inches long but can reach lengths of up to 14 inches.

The peamouth is a schooling fish that can be found in areas of dense aquatic vegetation in the shallow areas of lakes and rivers. They spawn in the late spring, when water temperatures reach 54 to 64 °F in very shallow areas with depths of 1 to 2 inches close to the shore. The peamouth feed primarily upon aquatic insects and larvae, but are also known to prey upon crustaceans, mollusks, and small fish. One unique ability possessed by this species is its ability to withstand brackish water for short periods of time, which has allowed them to colonize some inshore islands off the West Coast of North America.

13) Pygmy whitefish (Prosopium coulteri)

Pygmy whitefish
Pygmy whitefish have silver bodies and eyes that are almost the same diameter as their snout! Oliver Barker / CC BY-NC 4.0

Native to North America

The pygmy whitefish is a small salmonid that is almost entirely silvery-white in color, except for its dark green-brown back. It has a very large eye, which is about the same diameter as the length of the snout, and a noticeably round body. They are usually 4 to 6 inches long and can reach a maximum length of 10 inches. This adult size is much smaller than those of other whitefish species.

Pygmy whitefish primarily eat aquatic invertebrates and fish eggs from the bottom of the lake and will change their eating habits depending on food source availability throughout the year. This is most clear in their preference for eating fish eggs primarily during their own spawning season. Populations of pygmy whitefish sometimes migrate to other freshwater systems such as rivers for spawning in the winter, but they may also just move closer to the shore for breeding. This cold-water species prefers to reside in areas below the thermocline of the lake and may be sensitive to changing water temperatures.

14) Tench (Tinca tinca)

Tench underwater
Tench are highly adaptable fish that can reach lengths of up to 35 inches. Shaun Lee / CC BY 4.0

Native to Eurasia

Also called the “doctor fish”, tench is an invasive species in Lake Chelan, introduced to North America in 1877 by the U.S. Fish Commission for food and sport. It is olive or brown in color with very dark colored fins and a darker colored back. This large-bodied fish species is usually about 16 inches long but can reach lengths upward of 35 inches long.

Tench are extremely adaptable, and can live in many kinds of freshwater habitats outside of the ponds they inhabit within their native range, provided the water is relatively shallow and slow-moving. They also compete for aquatic insect larvae and mollusks with other native sportfish. Tench spawn during the summer in areas of dense vegetation. It is usually found at the bottom of waterways with clay or silt bottoms. The State of Washington encourages the public to report possible invasive species like tench to the Washington Invasive Species Council or via the WA Invasives app.

15) Northern pikeminnow (Ptychocheilus oregonensis)

Northern pikeminnow
Northern pikeminnow look similar to pike and spawn in late spring and early summer. Lee Cain / CC BY 4.0

Native to western North America

Northern pikeminnow, also known as Columbia River dace, have an appearance very similar to pike. They have a dark green back with silvery sides and belly, and juveniles have a dark spot at the base of their tail. They have a large, toothless mouth that extends behind the front of the eye. Northern pikeminnow are usually around 12 to 19 inches long but can reach up to 25 inches long.

Northern pikeminnow eat most kinds of aquatic invertebrates, but adults will also prey upon small fish such as young salmon and trout. Their voracious hunting tendencies mean that the northern pikeminnow can have major effects on salmon and steelhead populations, and the State of Washington has developed the Northern Pikeminnow Sport-Reward Fishery Program to manage the average size of this native fish. Northern pikeminnow spawn in late spring to early summer once water temperatures reach 55 to 65 °F, in areas with gravel substrate in streams or lakes when they reach sexual maturity at around 5 to 6 years.

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