Denis Peirce: Kokanee season is on! |

Denis Peirce: Kokanee season is on!

Denis Peirce
Andy Hoskins and his daughter Quinn of Grass Valley fished Stampede with Fishtales Guide Service for kokanee salmon and were not dissapointed.
Photo by Denis Peirce


Kokanee fishing requires quite an investment in fishing gear. You need a boat and the ability to fish from 35-60 feet or deeper. These fish can be quite fickle and kokanee anglers are known for the quantity of tackle they own.

The kokanee bite can switch colors from pink to orange and then on to chartreuse over the course of a day. They can be feeding at 35 feet at sunrise and progress down to 70 feet by early afternoon.

If you are not a serious angler a good value is to hire a guide. They are your best bet for going home with a limit of fish. The following are three local guides that I have fished with and highly recommend:

Ed Fisk:

Shaun Rainsbarger:

Brett Brady:

Cooking tip

Kokanee are sockeye salmon. Cut one open and you will find dark orange flesh that is as good eating as any coldwater fish in California.

A pair of kokanee fillets from this year’s fish makes a nice dinner for two.

As the summer heat builds in mid July, it gets harder to find a trout willing to bite, especially in lakes. The water temperatures have moved from the ideal middle 50s up into the low 70s at the surface, driving the fish down. Even going down deep looking for trout is not very productive.

However, there is a fish that has been introduced to our lakes that provides great action for the hot weather months, kokanee salmon.

Kokanee are sockeye salmon that have been planted into many of our Sierra lakes. They are the fish that gives us a cold water fishery in the warmest season of the year.

We begin to fish for them in May but as the summer progresses they put on length and weight, reaching their prime just before the early fall spawning season. They are the freshwater fish that saves the summer.

There seems to be a geographical gradient to fish size, with larger fish farther north in Washington and Oregon. In California we have struggled with small kokanee in many of our lakes, Bullard’s Bar and Little Grass Valley being examples.

An important determinant is choosing the quantity of fish to plant after estimating natural reproduction. Put in too many fish and the size will be small. There is a balance between number of fish and their food source. It is tough to predict in advance how much water and food will be in a lake when this year’s plant will not mature for two to three years.

The overriding factor though is water. Five years of drought was rough on all of our fisheries. Two wet years back to back has made a world of difference. If you add water, you will get fish!

Happy lakes

A couple of weeks ago I took my first kokanee trip of the summer to Bullard’s Bar. The kokanee down by the dam were willing. My son Colin, Bob Lively and I were on the water by 6 a.m. and off by 10:30 a.m. The fish were big by Bullard’s standards with the largest measuring 13 inches with another two months left to grow.

The best news is Stampede Reservoir north east of Truckee. Stampede is having the best kokanee year in a decade. Not only is the length two to four inches longer than recent years, these fish have been putting on girth and are in the best condition that I can remember. It is not coincidence that the lake is full.

Last Sunday the same crew as the Bullard’s Bar trip went to Stampede. We were up at 4 a.m., out the door just after 5 a.m. and on the water before 7 a.m.

Summer kokanee fishing is best early in the day. We were not the first anglers on the water, in fact I got one of the last parking spots at the launch. Despite the number of boats on the lake it was not crowded. We had our first fish in the boat a half hour into the day. We landed the final one mid afternoon.

Another reason to be on Stampede early is the wind. It is quite predictable that by late morning, the wind will come on and the transition from a glassy surface to white caps can take as little as 15 minutes. We were not about to be pushed off the lake early after all the effort to get there. We went to the upwind side of the lake to get out of the white caps and continued to fish into the afternoon.

We are having the best kokanee season in many years. You should get out there and enjoy some great summer fishing!

Denis Peirce writes a fishing column for The Union’s Outdoors section and is host of “The KNCO Fishing & Outdoor Report,” which airs 6-7 p.m. Fridays and 5-6 a.m. Saturdays on 830-AM radio. Contact him via his website at

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