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  Great Washington Getaways Home  |  Potholes Reservoir
Photo: Scenic photo of the Potholes Reservoir
Potholes Reservoir is a premiere inland fishery and summertime family destination. Photo by Rich Finger
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An oasis in the desert: Potholes Reservoir
Photo: Man on boat holding a large-mouth bass caught while fishing the Potholes Reservoir.

Potholes provide prime fishing for a variety of species, including largemouth bass. Photo courtesy of Mar Don Resort

The Potholes Reservoir was born in 1949, following construction of O’Sullivan Dam on Central Washington’s Crab Creek. This expansive body of water southwest of Moses Lake was created to collect and distribute unused Columbia River irrigation water from the northern half of the Columbia Basin Project to the southern half. The reservoir immediately became useful in supporting agriculture in the Basin and soon emerged as one of the Northwest’s premier inland fisheries and summertime family destinations. From trout to bass and burbot to walleye, the Potholes is loaded with fish.

Potholes State Park offers excellent camping opportunities close to good angling – reservations are strongly recommended for State Park sites, and a large resort nearby provides a wide array of services at one of the Northwest’s most famous fishing platforms. Grant County Tourism has more on the area’s attractions and events, as well as a downloadable visitor’s guide.

Changes in the water level have changed the mix of fish

Potholes Reservoir recently developed a reputation for producing some of the region’s fattest trout, but its history and future as a fishery centers on its warmwater catches. The huge man-made lake (14,200 acres) has for years been famous for largemouth and smallmouth bass, crappie, walleye, bluegill, and perch fishing, but over the past few decades, changes in the lake level have brought changes in the fishery.

Once the undisputed Northwest capital of panfishing, the numbers of perch, crappie, and bluegill dipped in the 1990s and the first decade of the 2000s. Fishing remained excellent during that time for skilled and lucky anglers, but the sure stringers of slab-sided panfish went away. Recent signs, however, point to a potential resurgence in panfish populations. After a few years of higher lake levels during the early season to store more water for increased demands from rapidly expanding vineyards, the lake’s panfish have had much greater access to critically important spawning and rearing habitat, especially in the northern portion of the reservoir in the sand dunes.

During the lower water levels of summer, this sandy maze of roughly 1,000 small islands is exposed above the lake’s water level. A vast sea of willows takes leaf and creates a visible labyrinth for boaters. The islands are then submerged under many feet of water during the spring as the reservoir is filled, creating ideal habitat for most of the lake’s gamefish, especially panfish and bass.

Photo: Man holding a largemouth bass caught at the Potholes Reservoir, Washington.
Potholes offers an abundant population of largemouth (above) and smallmouth bass. Photo courtesy of Mar Don Resort

Chunky bass respond to a variety of bait and lures

The Potholes has a huge population of largemouth and smallmouth, with many specimens of both species ranging from 2 to 5 pounds. Algners have landed smallmouth to 7 pounds and largemouth to 9 pounds.  Popular summertime fishing locations include the lake’s southern shoreline, especially the face of O’ Sullivan Dam, and the sand dunes in the reservoir’s northern reaches. Smallmouth are most numerous on the south end, largemouth on the north.

Bass can be caught easily on nightcrawlers suspended below bobbers, but casting lures is a much more popular and less messy way to cover lots of water to incite their predatory response. Spinnerbaits, crankbaits, floating minnows, jigs, and plastic baits like Senkos are popular offerings. The reservoir’s panfish will sometimes hit smaller bass lures, but better ways to catch them include casting and retrieving small jigs, vertically jigging, and fishing bait on the bottom or below bobbers.

Walleye seekers also find happiness at the Potholes

Photo: Man on boat holding a large walleye caught while fishing Potholes Reservoir, Washington.
Anglers can find excellent walleye fishing at Potholes. Photo courtesy of Mar Don Resort

Bass aren’t the only large, predatory target species in the Potholes: Walleye fishing has remained excellent over the years. Specimens to 17 pounds have been caught, including a very good number from 7 to 12 pounds. During summer, walleye fishing is especially good on the lake’s eastern shoreline, locally referred to as Medicare Beach. Due to its deeper waters, it also offers some of the best shore-angling opportunities.

Another prime walleye and trout spot is the east side of the face of O’Sullivan Dam, close to the Lind Coulee. Walleye diehards also focus on the mouth of Frenchman Hills Wasteway on the lake’s western shore; the mouth of Crab Creek on the face of the sand dunes; and the underwater structure around Goose Island. Trolling deep-diving crankbaits or worm harnesses behind bottom bouncers are surefire methods during summer. The fish are active, so covering lots of likely water is the best way to put lures in front of them.

Wildlife watching is another rewarding Potholes pursuit

At midday during the summer swelter, Potholes’ vast surface area becomes a playground for swimmers, water skiers and pleasure boaters as well as anglers, but the best fishing for most species occurs at early morning, evening and through the night. Cooler, low-light conditions also provide the best opportunities to view wildlife on the reservoir and on the adjoining Columbia National Wildlife Refuge to the south and Columbia Basin Wildlife Area’s units to the west and east.

Some of the state’s largest mule deer live around the reservoir. Tags to hunt these monsters are hard to come by and are much desired. Huge huge flocks of migrating waterfowl return to the Potholes in the fall, but resident waterfowl abound through all seasons wherever there is water, and a variety of songbirds, shorebirds, raptors, owls, and game birds are also present. Porcupines, skunks, coyotes, beavers, mink and many more species of mammals make their livings here, too. Reptiles and amphibians also abound, including docile Pacific Northwest diamondback rattlesnakes, which are easily avoided by cautious visitors.