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California Kokes

California Kokes

Your Golden State guide to the Top 10 kokanee salmon lakes for 2004.

By Bill Lentz

Freshwater sockeye salmon, known as kokanee, are popular for their fighting ability, especially on light tackle, and are considered to be one of the best-tasting freshwater fish.

Here's a list of California's 10 best kokanee lakes listed in order of when they can (and should) begin to be fished from early spring to fall.

This huge impoundment is in the coastal foothills east of the world famous Napa Valley. Being at an elevation of only 450 feet, it is the first lake out of this Top 10 list to turn over and begin warming each spring. Kokanee fishing can begin in March at Berryessa and should be in full gear (possible limits) by mid April. Look for kokes to be 10 to 30 feet deep then.

Kokanee weighing up to 2 pounds (considered trophy size) can be caught by June. Kokes here fall for a variety of lures (tipped with white corn, of course), including spinners in greens and oranges run behind small dodgers.

Kristen Lentz used an orange/green French Ticklure to catch two kokanee (left), and a No. 1 Needlefish in fire tiger attracted the pair of chinook salmon. All were caught at Lake Berryessa. Photo by Bill Lentz

My wife and I found kokes on the east side of the big island near the center of the lake in 2003. The most productive lure for us was a French Ticklure in orange and green with a gold blade. Other productive trolling areas are near the dam, Markeley Cove and Skier's Cove.

A free public boat ramp and a 120-site campground (Spanish Flat) is off Knoxville Road from Highway 128.


Located in the lower Sierra foothills near Ione, Pardee is a small impoundment that grows kokes averaging 14 to 16 inches and 1.75 pounds the last few years. Lake officials are trying to grow them to into the 2-pound range.

Beginning in early April, Pardee begins producing limit or near-limit fishing, with most kokanee found at the 30-foot level. Look to the dam, mouth of the Mokelumne River, and up in the arm itself for the silvery fish. Use spinners in white or green, with nickel or gold blades, or small spoons in red behind chrome dodgers. A white Ticklure has been productive at Pardee.

From Highway 49, take Stony Creek Road to the recreation entrance. From Highway 12 east take Paloma Road to Pardee Dam Road, then left at Stony Creek. Fishing and launch fees apply. Campsites are inside the recreation entrance. Call for reservations.


Whiskeytown Reservoir, near Redding, grew the largest kokanee in the state in 2003 and should hold trophy fish in 2004. By May of last year, fish had reached 17 inches and 2 pounds, and by the end of July they were up to 22 inches and 3 1/2 pounds. Pink is the hot lure color, and make sure your reel has a good drag and is filled with 6- to 8-pound-test. Concentrate your trolling near the dam and near the Highway 299 bridge.


New Melones Reservoir will have 2-pound kokes by July that should be down 45 to 65 feet. Although many types of lures will work, I've done best with spinners, running them without dodgers on ultralight gear. Try the point on the south side of the spillway and the east side of Rose Island.


Stampede Reservoir should have kokes to 2 pounds by June that should be at 30 to 40 feet. Gary Coe used a pink Kok-a-nut behind tandem sling blades and trolled fast for the silvery torpedoes there in 2003. If possible, fish during the week here to beat the crowds. Arrive at the boat ramp early on the weekends.


Lake Tahoe grew the California record kokanee, a 4-pound, 13-ounce fish. Tackle shop rumors abound of secretive fishermen catching kokes to 3 pounds in recent years. (I'd be secretive too!) Fish here from late August through September for the largest kokes. Good spots include the mouth of the Truckee River and Meeks Bay. -- Bill Lentz


First filled in 1983, Melones is the newest impoundment in the Sierra foothills and has become a prolific fishery for lots of big kokanee. South of Angels Camp off Highway 49, the lake offers great habitat for these prized sockeye.

By July, kokanee to 18 inches and weighing more than 2 pounds are common there, and are caught on a variety of kokanee lures, including Hoochies (a small squid imitation) and kokanee bugs. I've had great success using Ticklures in pinks and oranges by themselves or in combination with green. Most lures are run behind small dodgers in various colors.

Look for limits by the end of April and kokes to be from 18 to 30 feet deep then. By July they may be down 40 to 60 feet. Productive areas include Rose Island, the dam, the spillway (separate from the dam), and up the Stanislaus River arm.

A free public boat ramp and numerous campsites can be found by exiting Highway 49 at Tuttletown.

This large foothill impoundment, only half-hour east of Modesto, has kokes that average 2 pounds by July. Howevespinner tipped with white corn. The most productive areas are near the dam and out into the main body of the lake. Early in the season trolling up in the Tuolumne River arm near the Highway 49 bridge should be worthwhile.

Public boat ramps are near the Highway 49 bridge and by the dam. From Highway 132, follow Bonds Flat Road to ther, Don Pedro used to grow the largest kokes in the state (3 to 4 pounds), so its excellent kokanee habitat should allow for bigger fish once again.

In 2004 near limits should be had by the end of April on a variety of popular kokanee lures, including the old stand-by Wedding Ring dam. Camping is available at Blue Oaks Campg

round on the south side of the dam.

Southwest of Lake Shasta off Highway 299, Whiskeytown's fish averaged 20 inches long and weighed more than 3 pounds in July 2003.

Limits of these broad-shouldered fish should be attainable by the first week of May. Look for fish to be from 10 to 30 feet deep then. Productive spots include the dam area, under the Highway 299 bridge and in front of the Oak Bottom boat ramp. A variety of koke lures work well here as long as they're pink.

Kokanee Power's Ken Hopper catches limits sing a pink Hoochie behind a gold Vance's dodger.

My wife and I limited there last May on fish that averaged 2 pounds. We used the French Ticklure in pink, pink/green and pink/copper. We also caught them on fire tiger Needlefish, pink Kokanee Kandy and pink Hoochies, all trailed behind chrome dodgers.

Take Highway 299 west from I-5 in Redding. There are public ramps off Whiskey Creek Road and at Brandy Creek; launch for a fee at Oak Bottom. All lake users must pay a daily-use fee at Whiskeytown. Campgrounds are at Brandy Creek and Oak Bottom; call 800-365-2267 for reservations.

Stampede has been a popular fishing lake now for decades, and anglers from all over the state come to troll its water for big trout and kokanee. On the east side of the Sierra Nevada near Truckee at 5,400 feet, Stampede offers a great opportunity to escape the summertime heat.

Fish averaging 16 inches and weighing 2 pounds can usually be caught by mid May on Wedding Ring spinners and Kokanee King spoons.

Rick Kennedy of Tight Lines Guide Service says his No. 1 setup is a black and yellow Ted's Bug behind a Sep's watermelon dodger. Sam Lage of Sambo Tackle & Custom Rods in Concord reported limits using white Ticklures there last June.

Look for kokes to be down 10 and 30 feet in the Sage Hen and Davies arms in May, and schools around the main body as the season progresses.

Take the Hirschdale Road exit from I-80 and turn left to the dam on Dog Valley Road. Continue over the dam to the campground and boat ramp.

Beautiful Bucks Lake located in the Plumas National Forest at 5,000 feet is the smallest lake listed here but probably has the highest kokanee density. Thirty- to 40-fish days can be had at Bucks on kokes ranging from 13 to 15 inches.

Most all of the popular koke lures work well here. However, lures in various shades of green seem to be preferred by the small salmon over other colors. Try the chartreuse (green) Wedding Ring spinner, and spoons such as Needlefish and Kokanee Kings in frog patterns.

Limits can be had by June but wait until July and August for heavier fish. Kokanee should be at 10 to 30 feet deep in June in the Bucks Creek arm and the mouth of Mill Creek.

Bucks is a great weekend (or week-long) camping destination. Take Highway 70 through Oroville and into the scenic Feather River canyon and to Quincy; turn right on Bucks Lake Road to access the boat ramp. Campgrounds are on the west side of the lake and at Mill Creek.

In the foothills northeast of Marysville, Bullards is another high-density kokanee lake with easy limits common to most koke anglers.

Fish up to 15 inches are usually caught by the end of July on a wide variety of lures (with or without attractors) in pink, orange, and white fluorescents. You'll catch kokes here if you tip your offering with white corn and put it in the fish zone.

Although limits are possible by the end of April, fish Bullards in July to early August for concentrations of the largest kokes of the season. Fish at this time of year will be down 30 to 70 feet. Kokanee are found near the dam, the Little Oregon Creek finger, Mill Creek cove, and up in the North Yuba River arm.

From Marysville take Highway 20 to Marysville Road or take Highway 49 through Grass Valley/Nevada City and turn left on Marysville Road. A free public ramp is at the end of Dark Day Road. You'll find a campground off Marysville Road.


Kokanee were introduced to California as forage to enhance trout fisheries. While their protein resulted in larger and faster-growing trout in those lakes, it also produced an entirely new sport fishery.


Unlike trout, kokanee can be caught all summer in hot temperatures without any loss in meat quality. In fact, meat quality usually peaks at the end of summer or by the time they start to turn their characteristic red spawning sheen. (Kokanee is a word in a Native American language that means "red fish.")


In California most kokanee live to 3 years of age before spawning and dying. In rare cases these salmonids live four years.


Kokanee are in more than a dozen California lakes, thanks to organizations Kokanee Power and Project Kokanee, which raise money and team up with the California Department of Fish and Game to plant millions of kokanee fingerlings each year. -- Bill Lentz


Northeast of Fresno and above 5,000 feet in the Sierra National Forest, scenic Shaver Lake produced kokanee to15 inches in 2003.

Kokanee Power Angler Of The Year Gary Coe and his wife, Nancy, did well there last year using Shasta Tackle's pink Kok-a-nut trailed behind a sling blade dodger. Coe says another productive lure for him there was an Uncle Larry's Blue Tiger spinner. He says green, pink and even blue lures work well early in the season.

Look for Shaver to produce limits by June, but wait until July and August for larger fish. Look to the north end of the lake by the dam, out in front of the boat ramp and the east end of the lake early in the season. Coe says to look for kokanee 20 to 40 feet deep in June, and 50 to 70 feet by August.

From Fresno take Highway 41 north to Highway 168 east. Campsites are available at Camp Edison. Travel thr

ough the campground to find a free public boat ramp.

Reports from Tahoe guides indicate that Tahoe kokes usually average 14 to 15 inches by August. However, in 1995 reports had kokes up to 24 inches and I've heard rumors of recent catches weighing 3 pounds.

As with other lakes of gin-clear water, lures in differing shades of green are productive. Try Wedding Rings or Uncle Larry's spinners in chartreuse, and green spoons such as Needlefish, Sockeye Slammers and Apex. Go with chrome or green dodgers.

By August kokes are usually schooled up outside of Taylor and Tallac Creeks in the south end of the lake. Look for kokes to run 30 to 90 feet deep. Only 4-stroke motors are allowed on Tahoe.

The nearest public boat ramp is at Cave Rock, Nev., on Highway 50. Call ahead for camping reservations at Camp Richardson off Highway 89 (south shore).

Down in the Rubicon River canyon in the El Dorado National Forest, Hell Hole Reservoir is a coldwater lake that should kick out limits by the end of June. Fish it in August/September for larger fish up to 15 inches. Look for fish to be down only 30 to 40 feet then.

Greens lures are best here. Try spoons and spinners in chartreuse. Kokanee here seem to prefer lures with a lot of action, making small Flatfish and Apex's work well also. I caught limits of kokes there in August 2003 using No. 1 fire tiger Needlefish behind chrome dodgers. The dam area, north side of the lake (near Cottonwood Creek), and the narrows are good trolling spots.

From I-80 take the Forresthill exit to Foresthill Road Drive over the dam at French Meadows Reservoir and continue to Hell Hole. From Georgetown take Wentworth Springs Road (it's paved now) and make a right on Hell Hole Road 5 miles pass Stumpy Meadows. Continue down to a camping area and free public boat ramp.

For more information on kokanee lures mentioned in this article, contact the following manufacturers:

French Ticklure kokanee and trout spinner, 530-409-9720, or send $24 for a dozen assorted colors to Cat Creek Productions, P.O. Box 107, Greenwood, CA 95635; Uncle Larry's Spinners, P.O. Box 601923, Sacramento, CA 95860, 916-482-0433; Sep's Pro Fishing, P.O. Box 5356, Vacaville, CA 95696-5356, 707-449-8413; Shasta Tackle Company, P.O. Box 488, Bella Vista, CA 96008, 916-275-2278; Vance's Tackle, P.O. Box 4045, Citrus Heights, CA 95611-4045, 916-725-2383; and Sambo Tackle & Custom Rods, 2228 Concord Blvd., Concord, CA 94520, 925-689-1534.

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