Fish and Wildlife
Fish of Lake Whatcom
Lake Whatcom supports a variety of fish including native and introduced, cold and warm water species.
|Common Name||Scientific Name||Status|
|Blue Gill||Lepomis macrochirus||Introduced|
|Brown bullhead||Ictalurus nebulosis||Illegally introduced|
|Cutthroat trout||Oncorhyncus clarkii||Native|
|Largemouth bass||Micropterus salmoides||Illegally introduced|
|Longnose sucker||Catostomus catostomus||Native|
|Peamouth chub||Mylocheilus caurinus||Native|
|Pumpkinseed sunfish||Lepomis gibbosus||Illegally introduced|
|Rainbow trout||Oncorhyncus mykiss||Introduced early 20th century|
|Smallmouth bass||Micropterus dolomieui||Introduced 1983, 1984|
|Three-spine stickleback||Gasterosteus aculeatus||Native|
|Yellow perch||Perca flavescens||Illegally introduced|
Two of the salmonids native to Whatcom County reside in Lake Whatcom, the kokanee, a resident form of the sockeye, and the cutthroat trout.
For more information about these two fish, visit the Whatcom County Salmon Recovery website
The map to the right shows the current and historic habit within the Lake Whatcom watershed of kokanee and cutthroat. The purple lines denote the kokanee habit and the brown indicates the cutthroat. These tributaries and lakeshore areas are used for activities such as spawning, rearing, and foraging.
Longnose sucker (Catostomus catostomus):
The longnose sucker, the most widespread of all sucker species in North America, is one of only six fish species native to Lake Whatcom. As its name implies, it can be identified by its elongated nose and the wart covered (papillose) sucker that is located on the ventral (towards the underside) side of the head.
The dorsal (top) surface of the longnose sucker is usually dark gray, black, or reddish brown contrasting with the white to cream colored ventral side. The male longnose develops a dark reddish coloring while spawning, along with a bright crimson stripe along both sides that extends to its nose, and bumps on the head, dorsal, anal and caudal (tail) fins.
Longnose suckers are bottom feeders, eating algae, crustaceans, insect larvae such as caddis flies and mayflies, and detritus (decayed matter). They typically reach up to 18 inches in length, reach sexual maturity from 4 to 9 years, and spawn in cold streams or gravel covered areas of lakes.
Peamouth chub (Mylocheilus caurinus):
Native to western North America, including Lake Whatcom, this member of the minnow family is actually the only member of its genus, Mylocheilus, meaning grinder lip. Reaching 9 to 12 inches in length, peamouth can be identified by the dark brown to green coloring on their backs, silver-yellow ventral surface, two dark stripes along the sides and yellow to brown fins. Additionally, the peamouth has a deeply forked tail and a small whisker-like feeler on its mouth. They tend to be long and thin with large eyes and a long rounded nose. Breeding males develop bumps on the head, pectoral and pelvic fins, and a dark stripe outlined in red along the lateral line. The dorsal (top) surface also becomes dark green. Breeding females, unlike the males, lack the coloring as well as the well-developed stripes.
Peamouth chub tend to reside in the more heavily vegetated and shallow areas of lakes. Their diet consists of aquatic insects and their larva, crustaceans, and other small fish. During the spawning season, which takes place in the late spring, they form into schools near the inlets, outlets and shallow gravel beds of the lake. Each female will release between 5,000 and 30,000 green sticky eggs, depending on her size and age; these eggs will hatch within seven to eight days.
Sculpin are small, bottom-dwelling fish that are characterized by their broad heads, upward looking, large eyes, and camouflaged / mottled coloring on a mostly scaleless body, except for a few small sharp scales called “prickles”. They have two distinct dorsal fins, a front spiny one and a back soft one and fanlike pectoral fins. Their bodies are compressed and relatively flat on the bottom (ventral side); this along with a lack of a swim bladder, allow the sculpin to remain on the bottom of the lake or stream. Sculpin reach between four to five inches in length.
Three-spine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus):
The three-spine stickleback, as its name implies, has three prominent separated spines forward of the dorsal fin as well as spine-like pelvic fins. Rather than scales, the sticklebacks have a series of bony plates along their sides, and a triangular shaped caudal (tail) fin. Sticklebacks are silvery-green to brown on top with silver sides. During breeding, males are distinguished by their blue sides, red underside, and bright blue eyes. Additionally, the males exhibit an elaborate zigzag dance to attract a suitable female mate. Prior to this dance, the male builds a nest using detritus and other debris that he keeps together by secreting a gluey fluid from his kidneys. The male will guard the nest until the eggs hatch seven days later.
Three-spine sticklebacks are usually found close to the bottom of lakes and streams near abundant aquatic vegetation. Their diet consists of insect larvae, worms and other invertebrates, as well as the eggs from other nests while breeding. Sticklebacks are a favorite food source of the cutthroat trout.
Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus):
This brightly colored member of the sunfish family can be identified by the blackish-blue spot that is seen at the posterior end of the gill coverings (opercles). The body of the bluegill is laterally flattened and like other sunfish, has one dorsal fin that is spiny in the front and softer towards the back. Vertical dusky barring is also apparent in many bluegills.
Young bluegills travel in loosely formed schools while feeding, but this trait lessens as the fish reach maturity at the age of two or three. Food sources for the bluegill include insects, small crayfish, amphipods, and fish eggs.
Brown bullhead (Ictalurus nebulosus):
The brown bullhead catfish is a highly adaptable fish, capable of thriving in a variety of habitats including very high temperatures and very low oxygen levels. Its distinguishing characteristics include: four pairs of pigmented barbells including a pair on the upper jaw that extend past the base of the pectoral fin; olive to black coloring on the back fading to lighter mottled sides and belly; and a serrated pectoral fin spine.
The brown bullhead is usually found in deeper waters along the shorelines where they feed on midges, mayflies, worms, crustaceans, other insects as well as aquatic plants. Some adults will also feed on pumpkinseed and other fishes.
Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides):
This member of the sunfish family was illegally introduced to Lake Whatcom in the early to middle decades of the twentieth century. The largemouth bass has a mottled olive to dark green coloring with a dark midlateral stripe, and the spiny portion of the dorsal fin is almost separate from the soft portion. The mouth and jaw extend far past the middle of the eye, even in smaller fish.
Pumpkinseed sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus):
The pumpkinseed is closely related to the bluegill, but can be distinguished by its orange coloring, small head and mouth that extends to the eye. This colorful fish also exhibits blue and orange cheek stripes and an orange to red spot on the end of its opercular (gill) covering. Young pumpkinseeds lack the vibrant colors of the adult and are silvery in color.
Another fish that was introduced illegally to Lake Whatcom, the pumpkinseed is predominantly a warm-water fish and as such grows slower in the colder waters of the lake and does not get as large as it would in warm water. Food sources for the pumpkinseed include dragonfly nymphs, fly larvae, and other insects.
Rainbow trout (Oncorhyncus mykiss):
This lake resident form of the steelhead was introduced to Lake Whatcom in the early 20th century. Often mistaken for cutthroat, it can be identified by a lack of the red-orange slash on the underside of the lower jaw and the absence of teeth near the base of the tongue. Their coloring is metallic-blue above fading to a silvery coloring on the belly and they usually exhibit a distinctive red band along the lateral line with small black spots throughout.
Rainbows are no longer stocked in Lake Whatcom, and sources vary as to their presence in the lake.
Introduced to Lake Whatcom in 1983 to increase recreational fishing opportunities, the smallmouth bass is a favorite gamefish for anglers. Similar to the largemouth bass, its coloring is dark olive to brown with mottled sides, but the dorsal fin of the smallmouth does not show any separation between the spiny and soft portions. The mouth and jaw do not extend past the middle of the eye.
Introduction into Lake Whatcom was considered to be favorable due to the abundance of crayfish, a popular food choice of the smallmouth bass. There has also been some evidence that smallmouth bass prey upon the native salmonids of the lake, and as such could impact the health of those stocks if the smallmouth bass populations increased.
Yellow perch (Perca flavescens):
Like the smallmouth bass, the yellow perch has been flagged for high levels of mercury. Illegally introduced to Lake Whatcom around the same time as the largemouth bass, the yellow perch is now one of the most abundant fish in the lake. The yellow perch can be easily identified by the six to eight broad dark vertical bars on its yellow sides.
Yellow perch tend to travel in loosely formed schools of the same size, age or sex. Young perch eat planktonic crustaceans whereas larger yellow perch consume mostly aquatic insects and crayfish.
Wydoski, Richard S., Whitney, Richard R. 1979. Inland Fishes of Washington; University of Washington Press, Seattle.
Mueller, Karl W., Downen, Mark R., Fletcher, Douglas H. 1999. 1998 Lake Whatcom Survey: The Warmwater Fish Community 15 Years After the Introduction of Smallmouth Bass; WDFW.
Catostomus catostomus catostomus: Longnose Sucker
WDFW Aquatic Education Program. Freshwater Sport Fish Identification Guide.
Lake Whatcom is host to two hatcheries operated by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW): the Lake Whatcom/Brannian hatchery located at the south end of the Lake, and the Bellingham Hatchery, located at Whatcom Falls Park. Both hatcheries receive water from the lake for their operations.
The egg-taking program at the Lake Whatcom hatchery on Brannian Creek is nearly 100 years old and has historically produced the largest number of hatchery-propagated kokanee eggs in the country. Two-thirds of the state’s kokanee fisheries are dependent on the periodic stocking of fry from this location. Kokanee are the fourth most preferred game fish in the state and contribute $36.7 million annually to the state from wild and hatchery fish. Of that, $20.7 million (56.5%) is supported directly by the Lake Whatcom program.
Since 1914, over 1.4 billion eggs have been collected from the brood stock of Lake Whatcom. Thirty-six lakes in Washington are stocked annually with 14.4 million Lake Whatcom kokanee and five million are stocked back into the lake to maintain the brood stock and provide fishing opportunities.
The kokanee from the Lake Whatcom Hatchery generally hatch between October and December and are released into the lakes shortly after hatching.
The Bellingham Hatchery raises rainbow trout that they receive as fingerlings from the Kendall Creek Hatchery. They are raised until they weigh three-fourths of a pound and are then released into lakes in Snohomish, Skagit, and Whatcom County in April.
The hatchery produces 47% of the catchable trout available for use from south of Seattle to the northern border, and west into the Cascades, and also stocks 14 lakes with rainbow trout fry.
Approximately 900,000 kokanee fry from the Lake Whatcom hatchery are raised at the Bellingham facility until they consume their yolk sac, and are then released into local lakes to grow on their own.
For more information on the hatchery programs throughout the state link here for the WDFW -- Hatcheries Program or Whatcom Salmon Recovery for more details about the local hatchery programs and issues.
Other Wildlife: Mammals, Birds, Reptiles and Amphibians
In addition to the fish that live in the lake, the Lake Whatcom watershed is home to a variety of wildlife species. As a result of years of human caused change to the environment, several species that were thought to once live here have been extirpated from the area. These species include: northern spotted owl, gray wolf, wolverine, fisher, marbled murrelet, grizzly bear, marten, and elk.
Most wildlife is dependent on and requires very specific types of habitat, especially while mating and caring for their young. For example, many birds and mammals throughout their life stages will utilize snags (partially or completely dead trees) for nests or dens. Without these snags they are more prone to predation and have less chance for survival. Additionally, if an animal is generally used to human disturbance in their habitat, they are less likely to be affected by their presence, however if a particular species lives and raises its young in secluded, quiet areas, they are much more likely to be negatively impacted by the presence of humans.
Of the 10 amphibian, 2 reptile, 125 bird, and 49 mammal species that are found in the area, many are considered to be “species of interest”, meaning that concern exists for the future of their populations, generally due to a loss of habitat. Included in this list are the common loon, osprey, northern goshawk, the great blue heron, bald eagle, pileated woodpecker, long-eared myotis (a bat species) and the tailed frog, to name a few.
PDEIS - Lake Whatcom Landscape Plan 9/13/02; Scott Fisher
A. Wildlife species known to occur or likely to occur in the Lake Whatcom Landscape.
(Key: FSC= Federal Species of Concern; FT=Federal Threatened; FE= Federal Endangered;SM= State Monitor; SS= State Sensitive; SC= State Candidate; ST= State Threatened; SE= State Endangered;)
- northwestern salamander (Ambystoma gracile)
- Pacific giant salamander (Dicamptodon ensatus)
- Oregon Ensatina (Ensatina eschscholtzi oregonensis)
- western redback salamander (Plethodon vehiculum)
- Roughskin newt (Taricha granulosa)
- western toad (Bufo boreas) FSC; SC
- Pacific tree frog (Hyla regilla)
- tailed frog(Ascaphus truei) FSC; SM
- red-legged frog (Rana aurora)
- bullfrog (Rana catesbeiana)
- northwestern garter snake (Thamnophis ordinoides)
- common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis)
- common loon (Gavia immer) SS
- pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)
- eared grebe (Podiceps nigricollis)
- western grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis)
- double-crested cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)
- great blue heron (Ardea herodias)
- green-backed heron (Butorides striatus)
- Canada goose (Branta canadensis)
- wood duck (Aix sponsa)
- green-winged teal (Anas crecca)
- mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)
- northern pintail (Anas acuta)
- gadwall (Anas strepera)
- American wigeon (Anas americana)
- ring-necked duck (Aythya collaris)
- lesser scaup (Aythya affinis)
- common goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)
- bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)
- hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus)
- common merganser (Mergus merganser)
- turkey vulture (Cathartes aura)
- osprey (Pandion haliaetus)
- bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) FT; ST
- northern harrier (Circus cyaneus)
- sharp-shinned hawk (Accipiter striatus)
- Cooper’s hawk (Accipiter cooperii)
- northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) FSC; SC
- red-tailed hawk (Buteo jamaicensis)
- golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) SC
- American kestrel (Falco sparverius)
- merlin (Falco columbarius) SC
- peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus) FSC; SE
- gyrfalcon (Falco rusticolus)
- blue grouse (Dendragapus obscurus)
- ruffed grouse (Bonasa umbellus)
- Virginia rail (Rallus limicola)
- sora rail (Porzana carolina)
- American coot (Fulica americana)
- killdeer (Charadrius vociferus)
- spotted sandpiper (Actitis macularia)
- common snipe (Gallinago gallinago)
- ring-billed gull (Larus delawarensis)
- glaucous-winged gull (Larus glaucescens)
- rock dove (Columba livia)
- band-tailed pigeon (Columba fasciata)
- mourning dove (Senaida macroura)
- common barn owl (Tyto alba)
- western screech owl (Otis kennicottii)
- great horned owl (Bubo virginianus)
- snowy owl (Nyctea scandiaca)
- northern pygmy owl (Glaucidium gnoma)
- barred owl (Strix varia)
- long-eared owl (Asio otus)
- northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus)
- common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor)
- black swift (Cypseloides niger)
- Vaux’s swift (Chaetura vauxi) SC
- rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus)
- belted kingfisher (Ceryle alcyon)
- red-breasted sapsucker (Sphrapicus ruber)
- downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)
- hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus)
- northern flicker (Colaptes auratus)
- pileated woodpecker (Dryocopus pileatus) SC
- olive-sided flycatcher (Contopus borealis) FSC
- western wood-pewee (Contopus sordidulus)
- Pacific slope flycatcher (Empidonax difficilis)
- tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)
- purple martin (Progne subis) SC
- violet-green swallow (Tachycineta thalassina)
- northern rough-winged swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis)
- barn swallow (Hirundo rustica)
- gray jay (Perisoreus canadensis)
- Stellar’s jay (Cyanocitta stelleri)
- American crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)
- common raven (Corvus corax)
- black-capped chickadee (Parus atricapillus)
- chestnut-backed chickadee (Parus rufescens)
- bushtit (Psaltriparus minimus)
- red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis)
- brown creeper (Certhia americana)
- Bewick’s wren (Thryomanes bewickii)
- house wren (Troglodytes aedon)
- winter wren (Troglodytes troglodytes)
- marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris)
- American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus)
- golden-crowned kinglet (Regulus satrapa)
- ruby-crowned kinglet (Regulus calendula)
- Townsend’s solitaire (Myadestes townsendi)
- Swainson’s thrush (Catharus ustulatus)
- American robin (Turdus migratorius)
- varied thrush (Ixoreus naevius)
- cedar waxwing (Bombycillia cedrorum)
- northern shrike (Lanius excubitor)
- European starling (Sturnus vulgarus)
- solitary vireo (Vireo solitarius)
- Hutton’s vireo (Vireo huttoni)
- warbling vireo (Vireo gilvus)
- orange-crowned warbler (Vermivora celata)
- Nashville warbler (Vermivora ruficapilla)
- yellow warbler (Dendroica petechia)
- yellow-rumped warbler (Dendroica coronata)
- black-throated gray warbler (Dendroica nigrescens)
- Townsend’s warbler (Dendroica townsendi)
- MacGillivray’s warbler (Oporornis tolmiei)
- common yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)
- Wilson’s warbler (Wilsonia pusilla)
- western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana)
- black-headed grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus)
- spotted towhee (Pipilo erythrophthalmus)
- chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina)
- fox sparrow (Passerella iliaca)
- song sparrow (Melospiza melodia)
- golden-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia atricapilla)
- white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)
- dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)
- red-winged blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
- Brewer’s blackbird (Euphagus cyanocephalus)
- brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater)
- purple finch (Carpodacus purpureus)
- house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)
- red crossbill (Loxia curvirostra)
- pine siskin (Carduelis pinus)
- American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)
- evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus)
- Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana)
- Pacific water shrew (Sorex bendirii)
- water shrew (Sorex palustris)
- vagrant shrew (Sorex vagrans)
- Trowbridge’s shrew (Sorex trowbridgii)
- shrew-mole (Neurotrichus gibbsi)
- Pacific mole (Scapanus orarius)
- Townsend’s mole (Scapanus townsendii)
- big brown bat (Eptesicus fuscus)
- silver-haired bat (Lasionycteris noctivagans)
- hoary bat (Lasiurus cinereus)
- California myotis (Myotis californicus)
- Long-eared myotis (Myotis evotis) SM, FSC
- little brown myotis (Myotis lucifugus)
- long-legged myotis (Myotis volans)
- Yuma myotis (Myotis yumanensis) FSC
- Townsend’s big-eared bat (Plecotus townsendii) FSC; SC
- coyote (Canis latrans)
- red fox (Vulpes vulpes)
- black bear (Ursus americanus)
- raccoon (Procyon lotor)
- river otter (Lutra canadensis)
- striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis)
- ermine (Mustela erminea)
- long-tailed weasel (Mustela frenata)
- mink (Mustela vison)
- spotted skunk (Spilogale putorius)
- mountain lion (Felis concolor)
- bobcat (Lynx rufus)
- black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus)
- mountain beaver (Aplodontia rufa)
- northern flying squirrel (Glaucomys sabrinus)
- Townsend’s chipmunk (Tamias townsendii)
- Douglas’ squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii)
- beaver (Castor canadensis)
- bushy-tailed woodrat (Neotoma cinerea)
- deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus)
- southern red-backed vole (Clethrionomys gapperi)
- long-tailed vole (Microtus longicaudus)
- Oregon vole (Microtus oregoni)
- Townsend’s vole (Microtus townsendii)
- muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus)
- house mouse (Mus musculus)
- Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus)
- Pacific jumping mouse (Zapus trinotatus)
- porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum)
- pika (Ochotona princeps)
- snowshoe hare (Lepus americanus)
- eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus)
Macroinvertebrates are animals that lack a backbone and you can see with the naked eye. The term benthic macroinvertebrates refers to those invertebrates, such as worms, crayfish or the larval stage of many insects, that reside near the bottom of the stream or lake. Within the Lake Whatcom watershed, many different types of macroinvertebrates can be found. Some of the more common ones you will see in the tributary streams of the lake such as Brannian, Anderson, Olsen, Austin, or Smith Creeks include those of the mayfly family (Ephemoeroptera), stonefly family (Plectoptera), caddisfly family (Trichoptera), beetles (Coleoptera), and true flies (Diptera). These organisms are good indicators of water quality since they vary in their tolerance of pollution levels. Caddisfly, mayfly, and stonefly larvae, for example, would be indicators of good water quality, since they are unable to survive in depleted conditions, whereas midge larva and bloodworms can live in areas of poor water quality. The presence of bloodworms would not, however, indicate that water quality is poor, but their presence coupled with the absence of mayflies or stoneflies could. Species such as these that help determine the health of an ecosystem are referred to as biological indicator species.
In addition to being good indicators of water quality, invertebrates provide a critical link in the food web and ecosystem. As a major food source for all life stages of fish as well as most birds and other wildlife, a lack of macroinvertebrates would eventually result in the depletion of many other species. Macroinvertebrates also provide other functions in the ecosystem, acting as decomposers, they help break down plant and animal remains that then get put back into the system as nutrients.
One of the most common macroinvertebrates you will find in the Lake Whatcom watershed is the signal crayfish (Pacifastacus leniusculus). A favorite prey of the cutthroat and the smallmouth bass, the signal crayfish is usually found in areas of the lake with coarse substrates such as large pebbles on sand that are tucked under boulders that provide refuge from predators. The signal crayfish gets its name from the white spots on the claw.
The crayfish of Lake Whatcom, like several of the fish species, has been found to have high concentrations of mercury in its tissues, and accumulated it at faster rates than many of the fish. This is probably a result of its feeding on a wide variety of organisms from detritus, aquatic insects, water mites, as well as dead animal remains.
If you are interested in studying more about the macroinvertebrates of the watershed, Critters Clues is a chart that lists many different species and their ability to tolerate pollutants in the water. Head out to the nearest stream with a small net, magnifying glass, and collecting jar to check out what critters are present. An easy way to get a sample is to simply dip the jar directly into the flow of the water, do this at a variety of depths and locations to compare your findings.
Today, much of the Lake Whatcom watershed is comprised of forested areas dominated by stands of western hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla) and Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) interspersed with areas of western red cedar (Thuja plicata). Stands of hardwood trees are dispersed throughout the riparian areas and lower elevations of the watershed. Common hardwoods include red alder (Alnus rubra), black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa), and big-leaf maple (Acer macrophyllum). The dominant species found in the understory are sword fern (Polystichum munitum) and huckleberries (Vaccinum spp.); the riparian zones contain salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), and drier areas find dwarf Oregon grape (Berberis nervosa). In addition to these native species, many invasive and non-indigenous species such as the Himalayan blackberry, horsehair, and morning glory are also present. Proper maintenance of vegetation on shoreline property is needed to prevent the spread of these and other invasive species. Aquatic invasive plants such as Eurasian milfoil and riparian plants such as Japanese knotweed can take over an area and create homogenous systems that lack the genetic diversity needed for a healthy balanced ecosystem.
While there are limited wetland areas in the watershed, riparian areas are abundant and are associated with the streams as well as the areas of land that border the lake. Riparian vegetation provides critical habitat features for the resident wildlife, such as lowering water temperatures through shading, providing cover, and recruitment of logs into the creeks; it also helps with the ecosystem processes such as slope stability and filtration of runoff.