Donner Lake Fishing: Big Trout & Kokanee

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Donner Lake is a hidden gem high in the Sierras. Lake trout, kokanee salmon, rainbows and browns are all eager to put your rod to the test, and then some.

Fishing this lake can be a real treat for anyone looking to catch a limit of Mackinaws. Macks up to 25 pounds are reported with some regularity, and with the beautiful scenery around this stunning blue lake, what more could you ask?

The lake is just off Interstate 80 on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, so it’s easy to get to, but it feels like it’s forever away from the hectic pace of everyday life.

Wildlife is everywhere here. Bald eagles, deer, elk, foxes and all types of little critters call Donner Lake home. It really is a hidden paradise.

The best part of it is that you can sit in the middle of it on your boat while you reel in 20-pound lake trout and stringers of kokanee all day. 

There are might just be an elusive Lahontan cutthroat trout or two swimming around out there if you can find them. That’s the rumor, though most reports leave those off the list.

Cutthroats have been planted in the past, so it potentially holds a few but not enough to focus your angling on them, so we’ll stick with the other trout and the kokanee. 

Donner Lake has a few regulations that apply, so be sure to check them out before you hit the water. As always, be sure of any changes to the rules by checking with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Mackinaw Fishing

Mackinaw, or lake trout, are the big boys of the trout family. Technically on the char branch of the trout and salmon family tree, macks are more closely related to brook trout than rainbows. That said, they are big, tasty, and great fun to catch. 

There are plenty of mackinaw here, although Donner Lake fishery managers request that any lakers over 10 pounds be released to help grow its population of trophies even more.

It’s not a rule, just a request. Plus, larger mackinaw have stored more mercury, so who wants to eat an old, mercury-filled big fish?

Donner Lake has plenty of mackinaw trout swimming its depths, so if you know what you’re doing, you should be able to bring one or two up to your net. Many anglers come to Donner specifically to target the lakers, as they tend to be bigger than those found in Lake Tahoe.

The best strategy for catching the lake trout is to troll. The best bite happens once water temperature hits 50 degrees. That generally happens in April, though it can take until June in colder years. 

Early spring will find them in 50 to 60 feet of water, spread out across the lake. They tend to school up by size.

Keep your eyes glued to your fish finder, and once you find your target, give them a go. After you catch a few, if you’re trophy hunting and all you catch are a few 3- to 5-pound fish, move on.

Big mackinaw don’t hang out with smaller fish. They eat smaller fish. That tends to strain the relationship.

In fact, more Lahontan cutthroat are “caught” by anglers cleaning macks and find the smaller trout in their stomachs than are caught by fishing (or so it seems).

Late spring and early summer mark go time. The water temps should be perfect.

Drop some AC plugs and fish deep around China Cove. Another great tactic is to spot fish. Tag them on your finder and fish that spot.

Bring a minnow trap and use those. Drop them to the proper depth and prepare to have an action-packed morning.

Early summer might find you fishing in 70 feet of water, though by the end of summer, you might be in 100 feet. It depends on water temps and levels, so you’ll have to do some searching (or asking) before you find the perfect depth.

Fall marks the beginning of the lake trout spawn. Mackinaw can be caught trolling with lures tipped with minnows or using minnows jigged straight down. Typical fishing depths range from 70-110 feet this time of year. (Note that only specific baitfish caught in the lake itself are allowed for bait.)

Winter can produce bigger fish, though typically fewer in number. Mackinaw bite like most other fish in the winter. They get lethargic and take it easy in the cold water. Bigger fish might bite because you just made them mad.

Spend the time at the marina to ask questions and get the current lay of the lake, and you should have a great day out. Just keep in mind that lake trout don’t like bright light, so noon on a sunny day isn’t as likely to be very productive.

We’re sure you can see why we include Donner Lake in our run-down of the best lake trout (mackinaw) fishing lakes in California.

Donner Lake Kokanee 

Kokanee fishing at Donner Lake is always at least good. Sometimes it moves into the excellent range. The deciding factor weighs heavily on the previous winter.

If it was a harsh season, the plankton don’t have as warm of water to reproduce. Warmer winters lead to more significant plankton production. The more plankton in the water equals bigger kokanee.

These tasty land-locked sockeye salmon are planted every year at Donner Lake to support the kokanee fishery. The usual number is around 50,000.

While there might not be the prolific numbers found at a handful of top California lakes, including Stampede Reservoir north of Lake Tahoe, they make up for it in size.

Donner’s third-year fish can get up to 20 inches, which is a giant kokanee by any measure.

Spring and summer are the prime time for kokes here. Start out with a trolling setup in 25 to 50 feet of water, depending on where you’re marking the schools.

Rig up some Pink & Purple Kokanee Bugs behind a pink/copper Vance Dodger. Locals prefer copper dodgers on overcast days.

If the pink colors aren’t doing the trick, pull out the chartreuse. Some days these feisty fish go crazy for chartreuse. 

Later in the summer, they prepare for the spawn. Throughout the late summer and early fall, hoochies, spoons and spinners tipped with white corn work well, though the catch starts shifting toward the next year’s smaller-sized fish as the season wears on.

Donner Lake merits an honorable mention among the best kokanee fishing lakes in California.

Rainbow Trout Fishing

Rainbows are fun anywhere you can find them. That holds especially true at Donner Lake.

If it weren’t for the rainbows, shore anglers would have a tough time here. The CDFW plants rainbows at different times throughout the year, and this provides shore anglers a decent chance for some decent-sized catches.

The spring and fall offer the best opportunities from the shore, particularly along the northern shore of the lake. The best spots are east of the boat ramp.

Set up early with some PowerBait, worms or lures. Kastmasters, Roostertails, and other small spoons and spinners work well. Tie on a rainbow Krocodile, and you might bring in a brown or a rainbow.

When the mackinaw get hungry in the late spring, it might be possible to get a few from this area when catching ‘bows. They occasionally cruise this area, snatching up smaller rainbows for an easy dinner.

Also take some time at the fishing pier, and you might do well. It’s not very big, and it fills up quickly, so get there early.

Anglers in boats often turn to trolling for rainbows, often with a set of attractors in front of a Wedding Ring lure, a nightcrawler, or other offering.

Trolling lures for rainbows may also lead to catching other types of game fish, including kokanee.

Fly fishing can be effective at Donner Lake as well, especially for insect-loving rainbows.

If the lake ices over, rainbows are the primary target. PowerBait or ice jigs will work well, and Donner Lake is among the best ice fishing lakes in California, thanks to its high elevation, year-round fishing season, and ample trout to catch.

If it’s rainbows you want, check out the best rainbow trout fishing lakes in California.

Brown Trout Fishing

Browns aren’t quite as prevalent as the rainbows on the lake, but they are out there. Sometimes they top 10 pounds.

Target browns either from shore or from a boat. Rooster Tails in rainbow, pink, or chartreuse work well here.

The fishing pier is an excellent spot to start your day from early spring through late fall. This is an ideal spot for the ‘bows as well. One cast might bring in an 18-inch rainbow, and the next could be a nice brown.

Winter ice can be an okay time for browns, though they tend to be more sluggish than the rainbows are. The inlets around the lake can be pretty good areas to target in the springtime. Take your time, and you’ll find them. 

Fish the drop-offs around the lake from a boat, and you should have luck year-round. Nightcrawlers, Kastmasters in silver, rainbow and copper/gold should work very well.

Check out our listing of the best brown trout fishing lakes and streams in California.

Catch More Trout

Learn the ins and outs of catching these fish in our free guide, Trout Fishing: How-To Techniques and Tips.

Planning Your Trip

Donner Lake is a quick 20-minute drive from nearby Lake Tahoe, although lots of its anglers are coming in from the west.

It’s located in Nevada County, California, about 1½ hours northeast of Sacramento, though it’s still near plenty of stores, restaurants, and hotels in the town of Truckee and along U.S. 80. If you leave something behind, you can pick it up around here.

If you’re in the area for a while, there are lots of other fishing adventures to be found, including nearby Boca Reservoir, Truckee River and the aforementioned Stampede Reservoir.

There are so many activities to keep the family entertained in the area that it’ll be difficult to get them to want to go home! Unless that is, you take them for a fact-filled trip through Donner Memorial State Park right before bedtime.

You shouldn’t have any problem getting the okay to head home once they learn about the ill-fated Donner Party. 

Hiking, mountain biking, water sports and sightseeing are all available for those who want to participate. Make Donner Lake a vacation destination. You won’t regret it. The fish might, though.

Boat and Shore Access

Donner Lake has multiple boat launches, some of which are open in the off-season. Access is easy, and the Donner Lake Marina has all the gas, gear and grub you could think of for a day out on the lake.

Shore fishing access is a bit more limited due to the surrounding forest. The north shore has the most access, particularly east of the West End Boat Launch.

Search out the public fishing pier as well. It has excellent access, and the rainbows often stack up near it.

Where to Stay

There are plenty of campgrounds and RV spots around the lake or nearby forests. Hotels are close by, and there are several resorts and cabin rentals available. Tahoe is a short drive down the mountain, providing many more lodging options. 

There are also restaurants ranging from snack bars to high-end places, depending on your mood. Fast food and pizza are readily available as well. Most campsites offer grills, so cook up those fish you caught and enjoy a night under the stars. 

Donner Lake offers everything you need for the perfect fishing getaway. You, a six-pack, and a fishing rod. Sounds pretty epic.