Fishing for Kokanee

Oncorhynchus nerka


Kokanee are the landlocked form of the Sockeye Salmon. While the Sockeye Salmon mature in the ocean and migrate into streams, Kokanee mature in lakes or reservoirs and migrate into tributaries in the fall to spawn. Kokanee were first introduced as fingerlings to California waters in 1941. The purpose of this introduction was to provide a sport fish suitable for reservoirs with water level fluctuations.

The Kokanee life cycle in California reservoirs is typically 2-3 years, with older fish occasionally observed in the sport fishery or during spawning surveys. Kokanee prefer water temperatures from 10-13° C, but can tolerate temperatures up to 15° C. Kokanee feed almost exclusively on zooplankton.

Kokanee provide a popular fishery when they fish reach a size acceptable to anglers. Kokanee can be sensitive to density-dependent effects, with compensatory reductions in size observed when natural reproduction exceeds carrying capacity (intraspecific competition) or growth is impacted due to competition with other species (interspecific competition), such as Wakasagi (Hypomesus nipponensis) and Opossum Shrimp (Mysis spp.). Currently, CDFW plants approximately 750,000 fingerling-sized Kokanee in 15 reservoirs annually. Seven other reservoirs are managed with self-sustaining Kokanee populations.

male Kokanee in full spawning colors
Male Kokanee displaying spawning coloration. CDFW photo by Gabriel Singer.


Non-spawning phase

  • Bright silver sides with dark blue to green backs
  • Occasionally have fine dark spots on back and tail fin
  • Deeply forked tail (distinguishes Kokanee from rainbow trout)
Adult kokanee caught by trolling with dodgers and lures
CDFW photo by Kyle Murphy.

Spawning phase

  • Bodies of both males and females turn bright red while the head and tail remain olive green
  • Males have a pronounced hook jaw (kype) and humped back
  • Females have relatively little change in shape
Underwater image of a pair of spawning kokanee
CDFW photo by Andrew Hughan.

Size Range

  • Average size 10-12 inches
  • Can reach sizes up to 20 inches in some reservoir conditions

Distinguishing Kokanee from Chinook Salmon

  • Kokanee have more, densely spaced gill rakers than Chinook Salmon. This gill raker morphology is why Kokanee are regarded as efficient planktivores.
comparison of Chinook Salmon and kokanee gill rakers - Kokanee have more densely packed rakers on a single gill arch
Chinook Salmon (top) and Kokanee (bottom) gill rakers. CDFW photo by Kyle Murphy.


map showing the location of Kokanee fisheries in California
Map showing the location of Kokanee waters in California.


Where to Fish

Kokanee frequent open water, thus anglers have the most success fishing from a boat. Kokanee are a schooling fish and can be found in various locations in a reservoir. Because they prefer cool water temperatures, they can be found near the water surface in early season and low light periods and will descend in depth as water temperature increases and lakes stratify during the summer months. During the few weeks in the fall before the Kokanee move into the tributaries to spawn, they will congregate in dense schools near the mouths of tributaries.

How to Fish

Anglers usually begin targeting Kokanee in the spring, with the peak fishing effort occurring during the summer months. Trolling is the most common method used. While trolling, anglers typically use downriggers, to reach the depth that Kokanee congregate. Some anglers use leadcore line or lead weights to access the various depths Kokanee are found. Due to their aggressive action when hooked, anglers will often use an ultra-light action rod. Many manufactures make rods especially for targeting Kokanee.

Popular Kokanee lures include small spinners, soft plastic tubes often called “hoochies” or “squids”, and small spoons. Kokanee will hit a variety of lure colors, but the most common colors used are pink and orange. Anglers often attach a Dodger or other flasher just ahead of the lure. The use of a dodger or flasher assists in attracting Kokanee to the lure. The most successful anglers will tip their lures with a kernel of white “shoepeg” corn. This corn is often scented to increase fish attraction.

Trolling speed can be critical to angling success. The typical trolling speed for Kokanee is between 0.8 and 1.5 mph.


See interactive map with freshwater sport fishing regulations.

1.57. LANDLOCKED SALMON. Landlocked salmon includes kokanee and landlocked Chinook Salmon.

(a) Open season: All year
(b) Daily bag limit: Five
(c) Possession limit: Ten
(d) Size limit: None

Exceptions: Bucks Lake, Pardee Lake, New Bullards Bar Reservoir, Upper Scotts Flat Reservoir, and Trinity Lake, which shall be subject to the following limits:

(a) Daily bag limit: Ten
(b) Possession limit: Twenty

Angler with silver colored adult Kokanee
Adult Kokanee caught by trolling with a downrigger. CDFW photo by Max Fish.
Angler with adult male Kokanee with spawning coloration
Adult male Kokanee in spawning form. CDFW photo by Adam Koons.


Kokanee Sport Fishery Management Goal Definitions
Fishery Type
Classification Definition Target Metric
Fast Action Sustainable harvest, maximum density and small size 2 fish/hour; average size 11" TL
Quality Moderate density, moderate size Average size 13" TL
Trophy Maximum size Average size 16" TL
Specific Management Goal by Water Body
Water Body Region Fishery Type
Trinity Lake R1 - Northern Fast Action
Whiskeytown Reservoir R1 - Northern Quality
Lake Shasta R1 - Northern Quality
Boca Reservoir R2 - North Central Quality
Bucks Lake R2 - North Central Fast Action
Bullards Bar Reservoir R2 - North Central Fast Action
Donner Lake R2 - North Central Quality
Hell Hole Reservoir R2 - North Central Quality
Little Grass Valley Reservoir R2 - North Central Quality
Lake Pardee R2 - North Central Fast Action
Stampede Reservoir R2 - North Central Quality
Union Valley Reservoir R2 - North Central Quality
Lake Tahoe R2 - North Central Quality
Lake Berryessa R3 - Bay Delta Trophy
Bass Lake R4 - Central Trophy
Lake Don Pedro R4 - Central Fast Action
Huntington Lake R4 - Central Fast Action
Lake McClure R4 - Central Fast Action
New Melones Reservoir R4 - Central Quality
Pine Flat Reservoir R4 - Central Quality
Shaver Lake R4 - Central Quality


Fisheries Branch
1010 Riverside Parkway, West Sacramento, CA 95605 |