By Mike Carey
"Look at all those fish marks - kokanee for sure - darn things aren't biting though!"
It was a tough weekend of fishing for my wife JoAnn and I - lots of fish marks, but just a couple bites. Such is kokanee fishing. Kokanee anglers know this and accept our lot in life - some days can be lights out, other days you're scratching your head in frustration.
Kokanee anglers are always looking for the next great kokanee fishery and are eagerly searching the internet for fisheries that are exploding or unknown. To that list we humbly add Billy Clapp Reservoir. This reservoir and kokanee have an interesting history and offer a tantalizing possibility of another kokanee destination to add to Washington's list of quality kokanee fisheries.
I first became aware of Billy Clapp kokanee reading old reports from Dave Graybill, The Fishing Magician, a Central Washington expert on all things fishing. He talked about (and filmed) big, 18" kokanee coming out of Billy Clapp Lake. I scoured the internet and found tantalizing glimpses and reports of big kokanee caught over the years. Intrigued, I dig deeper, trying to puzzle out the mystery that is Billy Clapp kokanee.
My research revealed a few interesting factoids. First, up until recently (more on that in a bit) Billy Clapp Lake has never been stocked with kokanee. So how is it that it holds kokanee? For the answer to that, we have to talk about Banks Lake, just north of Billy Clapp.
Banks Lake has a long history of Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife efforts to create a thriving kokanee fishery, but due to white fish and walleye predication the kokanee fishery has never been able to get firmly established. Oh, there's been some scattered reports of 14-18" kokanee being caught, but overall reports indicate small fish and little angler effort, save some locals that "may" have the fishery dialed in. Certainly, Banks is not considered a destination kokanee fishery. Add to that my recent conversation with WDFW biologist Mike Schmuk who informed me that the long term plan was to end the Banks Lake kokanee planting program. Mind you, WDFW has been planting 400-500,000 kokanee fry per year into Banks, so it's a big deal that WDFW has decided to close the chapter on kokanee in Banks Lake.
At this point you're probably asking what in the heck Banks lake kokanee have to do with Billy Clapp kokanee? Well, Banks Lake and Billy Clapp are connected by a long, large irrigation pipe which fills Billy Clapp Lake. This is all part of an amazing vision by one Billy Clapp, lawyer, who in the early 1930s with fellow community members of the town of Ephrata came up with the proposal of damming the Columbia River to supply irrigation water. Namely, their vision led to the creation of the Grand Coulee Dam. We can thank Billy Clapp for an irrigation and electricity producing system that has fed millions of people since it's construction. Say what you will about the loss of free flowing water for salmon reproduction, you have to concede that the Columbia Basin has been an amazing engineering accomplishment that has benefited and fed generations of people since it's construction.
The underwater pipe that flows water from Banks reservoir into Billy Clapp reservoir also delivered thousands of kokanee into Billy Clapp. Those kokanee thrived in a nutrient rich environment and produced (for those in the know) some amazing kokanee fishing. But for most anglers Billy Clapp was an enigma, a tale, a destination less traveled and a place of legendary but seldom fished kokanee lore.
Fast forward to 2021. I spoke with WDFW biologist Mike Smuck regarding my interest in Banks Lake kokanee. During our conversation he mentioned to me several interesting things. First, after an involved study WDFD had come to the conclusion that further planting of kokanee in Banks Lake was futile. The plan is to stop kokanee plants after 2020, and to focus on planting Banks Lake for rainbow trout. Then Mike dropped a bombshell on me. He reported that rather than me fishing Banks lake for kokanee I should consider Billy Clapp Reservoir. The reason being, as fish biologist for that region, Mike had the discretion to plant excess kokanee wherever he thought appropriate, and he chose Billy Clapp Reservoir. He revealed that in 2018 285,000 kokanee fry were planted in Billy Clapp, and in the next two years over 100,000 additional fry were planted. That’s a lot of kokanee fry planted in Billy Clapp Lake!
With that information in mind my wife JoAnn and I decided to give Billy Clapp a try in mid-April of this year. We fished hard for two days and came up with no kokanee. Despite the poor fishing, I was heartened by a couple things. First, the water temp was cold - 46 to 48 degrees. What this told me was we were a tad early in our quest. Second and just as important, we marked a lot of kokanee, especially at the north end of the lake by the power lines. This told me the fish are there and we were early.
For kokanee anglers willing to take a chance and spend a few days exploring Billy Clapp Reservoir, I think the potential payoff could be substantial. The lake has a a history of producing large kokanee, that is well documented. And with a recent heavy stocking program there may well be a couple years of outstanding kokanee production for anglers willing to give it a try. The wild card is what does the future hold for Billy Clapp Reservoir? Will WDFW continue to plant excess kokanee fry in Billy Clapp? Will they support this fishery? Or will they let it die, to become another Kokanee Destination Legend? Only time will tell. In the meanwhile, Billy Clapp could be a sleeper kokanee destination that may yield you your next 18-20" kokanee.
*Pictured - a beautiful rainbow trout caught on our trip. These beautiful trout are in there and make an amazing bonus catch to those elusive kokanee!