The demand for quality kokanee fishing has reached a new level in Washington State. As fewer salmon and steelhead return to Puget Sound tributaries, more anglers are embracing the thrill of catching kokanee.
Kokanee salmon are a landlocked sockeye salmon which are heavily stocked in Washington lakes and reservoirs. What the kokanee salmon lacks in size, it makes up for in its ability to fight and phenomenal taste.
Every year anglers take to the water in search of prime kokanee fishing. With an average size of 10-12 inches in most lakes, the occasional 14 incher accompanies shouts of glee and high fives.
Not every lake has what it takes to consistently pump out above average sized kokanee. However, there are a handful of lakes known to relinquish exceptionally large fish to the kokanee diehards among us. 14 inch fish are the norm and 16 inch plus kokanee are possible.
Here’s a quick look at the 6 best lakes known for big kokanee in Washington State:
1. Lake Roosevelt
2. Conconully Lake
3. Lake Chelan
4. Lake Merwin
5. American Lake
6. Lake Stevens
Warning! A journey to one of these top producing lakes could cause severe kokanee fishing addictions.
1. Lake Roosevelt
Lake Roosevelt, Washington State’s largest lake, stretches some 151 miles and covers over 77,000 acres. The lake is an impoundment of the Columbia River starting at the Grand Coulee Dam in remote north central Washington and crosses the border into Canada.
Not only is Roosevelt the largest lake, it also has some of the finest fishing for big fish.
Kokanee rank high on the list for anglers who visit Roosevelt and for good reason. The pristine, nutrient rich waters in the semi-arid landscape seem to supersize the kokanee here. 18 inch koks are the average and 3 to 4 pounders are a daily occurrence. The state record kokanee came from Lake Roosevelt in 2003 and was a chunky, 6.25 pounds. It’s just a matter of time before a new record is caught and it could be you.
Winter is the time to fish for these giant kokanee. Most of the forage base for winter kokanee in Roosevelt hangs out in the upper portion of the water column and that’s where kokanee feed. You’ll seldom run your gear below 20 feet. That also means you’ll need to incorporate different tactics to avoid spooking shallow swimming kokanee as you troll.
Long line trolling with planner boards that get your gear away from the boat is a productive technique. It’s not uncommon to have your line back 100 to 150 feet. When fishing with downriggers, let out 100 feet behind the boat before dropping it down 15 to 20 feet.
Lake Roosevelt kokanee are taken using a variety of trolling lures and dodgers. The hot ticket lure and color changes from day to day so bring a selection. Regardless of the trolling rig you use, always add a couple kernels of scented shoe peg corn on the hook. Want to learn more about trolling for kokanee? Take a look at our popular guide on kokanee trolling setups to learn everything you need to know.
Tracking down schools of kokanee can be a challenge on such a big reservoir but there are a few spots that hold fish during the winter season. The Spring Canyon and Keller Ferry launches put you in range of a few productive holes. From Spring Canyon, head towards the dam and start trolling once you’re over 100 feet of water near steep shorelines. Or run up the reservoir from Spring Canyon to Swawilla Basin.
From Keller Ferry, cruise around the corner down to Camel Bluff and troll along the steep slope. Another spot to try, particularly later in the season, is the Sanpoil River arm. The shoreline areas along the mouth of the Sanpoil yields good numbers of big fish every year.
Lodging during winter is a bit scarce but decent hotels are located in the nearby town of Grand Coulee. Several campgrounds are available as well.
2. Conconully Lake
This overlooked gem has not been on most kokanee angler’s radar, especially those looking for fish with a bit more heft to them. This 292 acre lake sits in a narrow, picturesque canyon and has started producing whopper sized kokanee in recent years.
Most fish average 10 to 13 inches but 14 to 16 inch fish are starting to become more common. Not to mention, there is always a chance to hook into a nice hold-over rainbow trout as you troll the water.
Like most smaller kokanee lakes, Conconully Lake experiences cycles of fluctuating kokanee sizes and the lake seems to be in a bit of an up-swing now. Nearby Palmer Lake was once a top tier kokanee fishery for jumbo sized fish, but it experienced a massive die-off in 2016. Extensive stocking efforts should start to pay off in the 2020 and 2021 season. Until then, Conconully Lake fills the void.
Early spring through June are the best times to hook into larger koks on this lake. Schools of fish often run deep so downriggers are the most efficient way to put your bait in front of fish. A popular and productive spot to troll for kokanee and trout is near the elbow of the lake to the east. Both shorelines hold kokanee that suspend over deep water.
Camping and lodging are available at Conconully State Park and in a few local places in town. A good boat launch with limited parking is available.
3. Lake Chelan
Expansive mountain views, cold clear water and 33,000 acres spanning 50 miles into rugged wilderness makes up Lake Chelan. This lake is more than just a picture perfect landscape, it’s kokanee heaven.
Anglers from across the state flock to Chelan every spring to claim their share of these tasty fish. In the last few years, they have reached impressive sizes. Some even pushed 17 inches. Healthy limits of fish are taken every day March through June when the kokanee bite peaks.
You can expect to catch plenty of 10 to 12 inch fish with a compliment of 14 to 15 inch kokanee on a regular basis. In recent years, dedicated anglers have learned that Lake Chelan supports good kokanee fishing through fall and winter as well.
The plunging depths (up to 1500’ deep) of Lake Chelan means that chasing kokanee most of the year requires downriggers. Trolling depths of 110 to 150 feet is what it takes to reach most schools of fish. Depending on the time of year and location, kokanee may move shallower so pay attention to your fish finder.
Fishing in such deep water means you’ll also encounter lake trout which can reach huge proportions and upwards of 30 pounds. A few landlocked chinook are available too but it’s a rare treat.
The lower basin of the lake sees the most fishing pressure. Areas around Wapato Point and Rocky Point consistently hold a fair amount of fish throughout the season. Keep in mind that on such a large lake, finding kokanee is a bit like playing hide and seek. Try asking a few locals for some pointers to narrow down your search.
Lodging is easy to find year-round in the town of Chelan as well as at numerous resorts and campgrounds that dot the shoreline. The Lake Chelan State Park boat launch on the south shore and Old Mill Park across the lake offer good access to the heart of kokanee habitat.
4. Lake Merwin
The lowest in a trio of reservoirs on the Lewis River in southwest Washington, Lake Merwin has long been known as a top destination for kokanee. Lined by dense forests of fir, this remote reservoir is as beautiful as the fishing is good.
March through May is generally the best time for catching plump kokanee that average 12 to 14 inches. However, Merwin relinquishes 16 inch kokanee just enough to keep you coming back for more.
Fishing holds up well even into fall and winter but like any reservoir, the quality of fishing is dictated by the water level and amount of draw down. You can contact PacifiCorp for flow information at 1-800-547-1501.
PacifiCorp also maintains the Speelyai Park boat ramp and Cresap Bay launch. Both launches are located on the east end of Lake Merwin. Most of the fishing pressure is focused within a mile of these boat launches which means large areas of this 3,800 acre lake is vastly under fished.
At 190 feet deep, Merwin Lake kokanee move deep as the weather warms and water temperatures rise. Your best bet is to reach them at depths of 40 to 60 feet with a downrigger. Winter and early spring brings fish closer to the surface and fishing for suspended fish over deep pockets is possible without a downrigger. Fishing for kokanee without a downrigger is easy and you can learn all about how to troll without downriggers from our recent article.
Camping is available at the Cresap Bay Recreation area. The closest hotel accommodations are situated 20 miles to the west in Woodland near Interstate 5.
5. American Lake
This 1,100 acre lake has some of the best fishing in the South Sound. American Lake draws a fair number of anglers every season to its productive waters for slab kokanee.
Kokanee up to 18 inches are not unheard of and frequently reach weights of 2 pounds which yields some thick filets. Most fish are in the 12 to 14 inch range though. The action heats up in mid-summer and into early fall. Both trolling and still fishing for kokanee is successful.
A WDFW boat ramp on the south shore of the lake provides easy access for boaters. Beware of crowds on busy summer weekends. Early morning, before play boats hit the water, is the best time to fish for kokanee. Weekdays see significantly fewer boats to the relief of most anglers.
Good trolling can be had along the north shore near the VA hospital or near the upper bay where water depths reach 90 plus feet. Many anglers are pleasantly surprised by incidental catches of big, girthy rainbows that often reach 5 to 10 pounds in the fertile waters of American Lake.
American Lake is only a short 30 minute drive from Olympia and Tacoma if the traffic cooperates and an hour from Seattle.
6. Lake Stevens
Just to the east of Everett sits the woefully under fished Lake Stevens. At 1,100 acres, it offers an excellent fishery for both cold and warm water fish but the quality kokanee fishing is starting to be recognized by the masses.
Gobs of 10 to 12 inch kokanee keep most coolers in the boat full. For the angler who puts in the time, kokanee pushing 2 pounds are a real possibility. The best bite starts in mid-May and pushes through summer. Winter fishing in western Washington is an isolated affair but is remarkably good for those who can brave the rainy conditions.
Summer sun draws packs of play boats that limit peaceful fishing times to the early morning and late evening hours.
Lake Stevens basically has one main basin with depths to 150 feet. Finding kokanee is a bit of a treasure hunt since they roam in schools around the entire lake. A good place to start is along the west bank where the water plunges quickly. Fish the contours anywhere you mark fish and quick limits will follow.
A good WDFW boat launch is located on the east side of the lake. You can also launch at Willard Wyatt Park located on the west shore. The park also has a fishing pier which gives shore bound anglers decent access to schools of kokanee.
Other Washington State kokanee lakes
Without a doubt, there are several more lakes around Washington that pump out big kokanee but you can expect them to be closely guarded secrets. You may someday stumble upon a kokanee lake in its prime that produces jumbo versions of these mini salmon.
Until then, whet your appetite on some of these other lakes where the kokanee might be small but huge numbers of them make for fast action and delectable table fair.
Here are other Washington State lakes with excellent fishing for kokanee that average 10 to 12 inches in size:
- Yale Reservoir (Cowlitz County)
- Angle Lake (King County)
- Lake Meridian (King County)
- Lake Cushman (Mason County)
- Mason Lake (Mason County)
- Clear Lake (Pierce County)
- Summit Lake (Thurston County)
- Ward Lake (Thurston County)
- Lake Whatcom (Whatcom County)
- Lake Samish (Whatcom County)
- Deep Lake (Stevens County)
- Loon Lake (Stevens County)
- Alta Lake (Okanogan County)
- Patterson Lake (Okanogan County)
- Sullivan Lake (Pend Oreille County)
- Chapman Lake (Spokane County)
- Rimrock Lake (Yakima County)