Crown Jewel of the Panhandle
In the 1900s Priest Lake (See map.) was named after the early-day Jesuit missionary Priests who had a base camp at Kalispell Bay in the 1840s.
by Richard North
Bonner Countyís 19-mile-long Lower Priest Lake is one of the most beautiful bodies of water in the Northwest! Shadowy cedar forests grow right down to waterís edge completely around Priestís 80 miles of white-sand shoreline. The lake itself is remarkably clear, appearing almost black offshore as it plunges hundreds of feet into ever-icy depths. Priestís surface is sprinkled with large and small islands, while looming thousands of feet above are the thinly-forested Selkirk Mountains where grizzlies and mountain caribou still roam.
For those who seek even greater privacy in a semi-wilderness setting, 4-mile-long Upper Priest Lake lies hidden in a heavily-forested basin 2 miles north of Lower Priest. The upper lake can be reached only by cross-county hiking or a slow boat trip up a winding 2-mile channel called the "Thorofare." A no-roads policy by the Forest Service happily insures that Upper Priest will remain in a near-pristine state for the indefinite future.
While these gorgeous glacial lakes are certainly a general vacationerís paradise, the exotic fishing here provides a special draw. Of the gamefish in Lower Priest, the Mackinaw or lake trout is unquestionably the main attraction at present. The lakeís depths now teem with lakers in the 4 to 12 pound category, and every year plenty of 20-plus pounders are hauled out. Chris Ford of Detroit, Michigan caught a 28-pounder on June 14. The U. S. record laker of 57 lbs., 8 oz. was taken here in 1971. (See Priest Lake Guide Serviceís Fishing Report.).
Until they tune in to a few Mackinaw basics, many anglers will find lake trout hard to catch. These big "gray trout" insist on very cold water between 45 to 55 degrees, with 48 degrees about right. They also tend to orient to bottom structure rather than cruising mid-water depths as many trout do. Consequently, lakers are most often found near bottom well offshore and from 40 to 100 or more feet down.
SPRING AND FALL:
Spring ice-out is an exception, since kokanee-gobbling lake trout cruise cold surface waters at this time. Lakers are fall spawners, so you may also catch them near surface and even inshore when late-autumn winds chill these waters just before ice-up.
Most skilled lake trout anglers slowly deep-troll large plugs and spoons on lead-core line, or use downriggers set at whatever depth is suggested by experiment, rumor, or fish-finding sonars. Other boaters free-drift while vertical jigging near bottom with heavy slab spoons or leadhead jigs, sometimes adorning lure hooks with worm clusters, and even pieces of bacon may also be deep-drifted alone, much like bait-jigging for perch or catfish. A few locals swear by lures with internal rattles or those coated with light-emitting phosphorescent paint, both of which are thought to help lakers locate dinner in Priestís inky depths.
The daily and possession limit for lake trout on Priest Lake is 3 fish and NONE between 26" - 32", and only ONE over 32". Cutthroat trout is totally closed, so if accidentally caught, release them quickly and carefully. Upper Priest Lake is Catch-and-Release fishing only. No fishing is allowed in the "Thorofare," nor at Caribou and Trapper Creeks in the Upper Priest.
The second most popular gamefish on Priest has been kokanee salmon in the past, but numbers are down so much that you can no longer keep 25. Only six of the landlocked salmon is allowed. Most kokanee are taken by random near-surface trolling with flashing gang-trolls followed 2" back by a tiny spinner, fly, or piece of corn. The state record kokanee was taken in Priest Lake in 1975. It was 24 1/2 inches long and weighed 6 lbs., 9 1/2 oz.
Relatively few anglers realize kokanee are notorious "stratifiers" that usually suspend at precise but varying depths each day. Try using a sonar or at least systematic experiment to locate the best depth for kokes, then downrigger-troll or vertical-jig nearly any tiny lure or bait at that exact level. Be prepared to change depths on each successive day!
Priest Lake may or may not be coming back as an outstanding cutthroat fishery. At present cutt numbers are still too low to allow a catch-and-keep season in Priest. Kokanee anglers and lake trout fishermen may accidentally pick up a stray cutthroat, but fish must be returned immediately to the water. Fortunately, insect-feeding cutts mostly hang out inshore and near shallow-water weedbeds where little conflict results with koke and laker fishermen.
The bull trout , or Dolly Varden, is also found in Priest Lake. Though lake trout anglers will hook a few of these large minnow-feeding char, all must be released immediately to help restore bull trout populations. These voracious 3 to 20 pound fish will hit nearly any lure or bait worked near bottom.
Ten brook trout can be taken here. Thatís in addition to whatever kokanee or lake trout you catch. Whitefish and perch are also caught in Priest Lake.
Priestís western shore is managed by the National Forest Service, which maintains fee-campgrounds with tables, restrooms, drinking water, and waste disposal. The eastern shore is controlled by the state, which provides several excellent fee-campgrounds and three scenic Priest Lake state parks, Lion Head and Indian Creek, both north of Coolin, Idaho. Dickensheet park lies 4 miles south of Coolin.
Private campgrounds, resorts, marinas, and numerous vacation cottages are sprinkled all around the lake. On Kalispell Island and along less accessible shorelines are additional semi-developed campsites for boaters and hikers (See hiking trails maps).
Priestís shores are mostly gentle and sandy, so boats can be beached at nearly any point for safety, shorebreaks, swimming, or sight-seeing. Good thing too -- the lake is large enough and local weather sufficiently moody that emergency landings may be needed on short notice. Launching ramps of varying quality are available at numerous points around the lake. Canoeists generally prefer Priestís calmer upper end, particularly the gorgeous 2-mile-long Thorofare channel leading through primitive forest to Upper Priest Lake.
AUTUMN AND WINTER:
Priestís surrounding hills, forests and mountains are laced with strangely hushed foot trails leading to dramatic canyon vistas, through hauntingly primitive rain forests and passing by lonely, roaring waterfalls. In winter, both snowmobiling and Nordic skiing are popular over lower elevation snowpacks. Officials report that very few hunters penetrate surrounding forests, so early autumn is an especially lonely and lovely time in this remote region.
Located just 25 miles above the town of Priest River, Lower Priest Lake may be reached year-around by paved State Route 57. For current info, maps, and area literature, contact Priest Lake Ranger District; Idaho Panhandle National Forest; HC 5 Box 207; Priest River, ID 83856; 208-443-2512; FAX: 208-443-3013.