Photo courtesy of Liberty Lake Historical Society

Ben Hurtig, son of Liberty Lake Park Manager Lew Hurtig, shows of a large fish caught from Liberty Lake. An unidentified park employee is also shown in this circa 1922 photo.

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History: Lure of the lake hooked fishermen
2/26/2014 11:19:14 AM

By Karen Johnson
Liberty Lake Historical Society


For some, it's the sport - the hunt, the adventure. Back in the '50s and '60s, my brother and his friend would camp out on opening day - as close to the water as possible to jump straight from the sleeping bag into the rowboat early enough to beat the crowds. (They overslept!) Others see fishing as a great opportunity to catch up on reading or to soak in a little sun. 

The lure for me as a little girl for those lazy, hazy opening days when Liberty Lake was the place to be was the anticipation. No one was more excited than my sister and me! No, we weren't grade-school fishing prodigies. We were Girl Scouts anticipating a great "catch" selling cookies from boat to boat - the lake so crowded we could've practically walked from boat to boat had we been so bold! 

Fishing seemed simple to me back then: Fish were just magically there, in the lake. Some are caught, and the rest reproduce, the natural order of things that kept a continual stream of tasty fish on the hook and in the fry pan. But that wasn't the actual order of things in reality. 

Early in the last century, when the Spokane and Eastern Railway ran daily electric trains to Spokane's Inland Seashore, crowds swarmed upon the waters of Liberty Lake to, among many other pleasures, fish. The Railway, always looking for ways to keep clients coming back, dispatched Lew Hurtig, manager of Liberty Lake Park, to construct fish pens for 500,000 trout fry on the Kalez property at the southeast corner of the lake. Kalez fed them chopped liver until large enough for release into the lake. 

Soon, ads in The Spokesman-Review boasted that Liberty Lake was "where the fish are at!" Boat rentals lured anglers to "save time, money and blisters." Great fishing was "just a five-minute row" away. By 1931, Liberty Lake was a popular fishing destination, a lake bragging about 6-pound smallmouth bass caught with pork rind bait.

Then the Isaak Walton League took notice of Liberty Lake. One of the nation's oldest and most respected, common-sense conservation organizations, the League's local chapter chose to restore the lake's water level as its top priority, believed to be one of the most important projects ever undertaken to protect "an important fishing and recreation area in the Inland Empire." The Spokane community shared the expenses, saying Liberty Lake was, after all, "Spokane's playground."

A highly respected John T. Little, publisher of a popular fishing bulletin and proprietor of Little's Sporting Goods Emporium, exalted Liberty Lake as the "best all-around fishing spot in the Inland Empire." Little cited 15 different varieties of fish in the lake and challenged any other lake to show its equal.

In January of 1949, true blue anglers strutted their all-weather spirit when the Spokane Valley Chamber of Commerce aviation committee invited all Inland Empire pilots and enthusiasts to a "fish fry-breakfast hop." Twenty-inch ice provided wheel or ski equipped planes a sound, snow-free runway in the center of the lake. Planes taxied to Sandy Beach, where fish were fried and served alongside hot cornbread, potatoes and plenty of hot coffee. Participants brought their ice skates and fishing tackle for ice fishing.

The early '50s ushered lake rehabilitation when the State Game Department poisoned the existing undesirable fish with rotenone and restocked it with 500,000 rainbow trout. The lake was closed to fishing for two years while resort owners, anticipating a successful outcome, purchased more boats, fixed docks and renovated cabins. Opening Day 1953 was expected to be the biggest in Liberty Lake's history. In perfect 65 degree weather, "The largest scale piscatorial slaughter took place in the Spokane Valley ... at the newly opened Liberty Lake which got the biggest play of any lake in the area. An estimated 2,000 anglers hit the 690-acre gem, and many of them were back on the sandy shores of the lake within an hour with limits of 15 rainbows that ran uniformly between 8-10 inches," read the following day's Spokesman. 

Liberty Lake, newly crowned a fish factory, had become one of the most popular fishing lakes in the state, posting bumper catches every year for 12 years thereafter.

Catering lake resorts became a fisherman's idyllic paradise. Sandy Beach's Homer Neyland told the Spokesman, "You know how I'd tell people to fish this lake? Just fish anywhere." Was it really that simple? Although some areas may have been slightly better than others, Neyland knew his lake. Fish biologists claimed the secret of excellent growth for rainbow trout, the fish du jour, was found in the natural fish food environment of the first 20-25 feet of water. Although Liberty dips to an occasional 30-foot pocket, it uniquely resembles a flat-as-a-pool table center that's dropped to a perfect depth of 25 feet-a whopping pool hall of fish paradise with plenty to eat, drink and roam freely (albeit with hungry anglers lurking above). Thus the fish experienced rapid growth to the delight of fishermen.

"If the Game Department ever needs an example to convince doubters of the potential benefits of lake rehab," a 1965 Chronicle article proudly maintained, it should "point to LL," which consistently led nearly all other lakes statewide in catch statistics. 

However, by the end of the decade, the lake was clearly stressed, and this time the rehab route wasn't as clear. A new solution to the lake's natural ecological balance arose: lake dredging, and along with it, considerable debate that lasted for years. Rotenone was again proposed, but this time vehemently shot down; yet, in 1974, rotenone again dosed the lake. Dredging was powerfully presented and stubbornly rebutted, but in 1980, 50 acres were dredged at its southwest corner. Predator fish were suggested, argued against, then introduced in 1996. Fishing limits were lowered and size limits were raised. Hundreds of questionnaires were sent to local residents, local anglers were interviewed, biologists conducted an exhaustive study and meetings and symposiums ensued. If nothing else, the controversy highlighted the lake's delicate ecosystem and the importance of careful stewardship. Through it all, water quality continued to improve, and watchdog efforts remain in place to keep our lake clean.

In a 2001 Spokesman article, past resort owners reminisced about old memories of opening days. Howard and Mary Floy (Neyland) Dolphin, owners of Sandy Beach, remember the cars that were lined up to launch fishing boats, "clear up to the top by the golf course." 

Ron Knudsen of Sig's Resort exclaimed, "you could've walked across the lake on boats back then." 

As the Dolphins aptly said, "Time has changed, but the lake hasn't lost its power to draw people now they come to stay." 

It appears the tide has turned as this lake and its city have picked a successful lure to fish for people.

Karen Johnson has lived in Liberty Lake most of her life. She is a board member with the Liberty Lake Historical Society. 

Did You Know? 
Liberty Lake's Joey Nania is a two-time Junior Bassmaster World Champion. He caught his first lunker bass at age 8 off the family dock - a 6.5-pounder! Find out more about Joey at

Helpful fishing lingo to keep you tracking with your angler friends (from Post Falls author and sportsman, Jim Grassi, in his book, "Heaven on Earth"):
Quality time - Time spent relaxing on your boat with your kids, all the while telling them to keep quiet, knock off the clowning around, turn down the music and quit the worm racing.
Flying fish - What you see coming at you when you leave a mess of bluegill to be cleaned in your wife's kitchen sink.
Trophy fish - Any fish weighing more than the gear used to catch it.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife records indicate that the original fish found in LL were Cutthroat Trout and Whitefish. 

Events, Competitions 
and Activities
From the Liberty Lake Historical Society, a 2014 monthly series

January - Ice Skating
February - Parade of Mermaid Competitions 
March - Opening Day of Fishing 
April - Dancing 
May - Water Competitions
June - Liberty Lake Amateur
July - All Valley Picnics 
August - Dutch Jake Picnics
September - Hydroplane Races 
October - Baseball Games
November - Liberty Lake and Football
December - A.R.T.'s Christmas in July