Denis Peirce: Kokanee, the other salmon |

Denis Peirce: Kokanee, the other salmon

Last Sunday was a smokey day in the Sierra. Heading for the east slope, the worst of the smoke was in the top few miles on the west side of Donner Pass. Colin and I were headed to Boca Reservoir to go kokanee fishing. We were fishing with Shaun Rainsbarger (Shaun’s Guide service). He had an early morning party that he expected to get limits for, by mid morning. We were going up to try out some new kokanee flies I have been tying.

Kokanee are a landlocked sockeye salmon. These fish have been planted in freshwater lakes since the middle of the last century and have proven to be the savior of summer lake fishing.

The heat of the summer is the toughest time of the year for trout fishing in lakes. The water is warm and the fish go deep. Yes, it is possible to catch trout but not in good numbers. On the other hand this is the peak of the kokanee season. These fish are feeding heavily preparing for their fall spawn and limits of fish are the rule rather than the exception.

The problem with California kokanee fisheries is the over population of these fish relative to their food source. Too many fish for the food supply results in smaller individuals. Theoretically the more fish we harvest, the bigger the remaining fish will get. The five fish limit has been raised to ten in Bullards Bar in an attempt to address the size issue there.

Kokanee are plankton feeders. They filter their food out of the water. I heard an interesting theory recently that years with heavy precipitation produce full lakes. This in turn creates maximum plankton populations and bigger fish. Low water years produce the opposite effect. Kokanee are planted by the DF&W but there is also a natural spawn that is hard to quantify. Balancing kokanee populations for maximum size is more of an art than a science.

Of the local kokanee lakes, Bullards Bar, Donner, Stampede and Boca, the best fish this year are coming from Boca. Bullards has been producing easy 10 fish limits since last winter but regardless of the number of fish taken, the size continues to disappoint. Stampede, which has a rich food chain, has not been putting out good sized fish. As a casual observer, it seems the water level in Stampede has been sacrificed to keep Boca in better shape. Maybe keeping the Little Truckee River flowing between the two lakes is another priority, resulting in better water levels at Boca.

Shaun’s second choice has been Donner Lake. It has good numbers of modest sized kokanee but Shaun has been able to land some big mackinaw occasionally this summer. A couple of weeks ago a 16 pound mackinaw was landed and successfully released back into the lake.

With the right gear to fish at depth, summer kokanee are willing biters. The keys to success are the correct depth, slow speeds and fluorescent colored lures or flies dancing behind a dodger. Shaun has this formula wired and can regularly put his clients on lots of fish.

Colin and I fished for a couple of hours starting at 10 a.m. By late morning the water skiers were out in force enjoying their day on the lake. The prime time for weekend fishing is dawn until mid morning. Yes, the flies did work. We landed seven kokanee and one rainbow trout in a brief time on the lake.

When we got home I filleted the kokanee salmon, brined them and they were in the smoker on Monday. If you like to eat salmon and don’t want to go all the way to the coast, we have an abundant supply in our lakes within an hour’s drive. If you don’t have your own boat, give Shaun a call (530-802-4484) and he will be happy to take you out and send you home with fresh salmon. You can also find him on the web.

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

Shaun Rainsbarger (Shaun's Guide service) ready to net Colin Peirce's first fish.
Photo by Denis Peirce
Colin Peirce with his catch.
Photo by Denis Peirce
Six kokanee, the day's catch.
Photo by Denis Peirce
Kokanee caught on a hot pink fly.
Photo by Denis Peirce

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