Setting off from the dock and watching the crystal-clear water of Lake Chelan slide effortlessly by as you head out for some incredible kokanee salmon fishing is on many people’s bucket lists.
If it’s not on your list, you may want to rethink that.
With over 50 miles of clear water and the deepest spot of 1486 feet, kokanee and lake trout flourish here, making Lake Chelan one of the Pacific Northwest’s best cold-water fishing spots.
That extraordinary depth makes Lake Chelan the third-deepest lake in the nation.
Find the time to cast a line in this lake, and you’re bound to bring in a beautiful trout, landlocked salmon, smallmouth bass, burbot or one of the other species found here.
The lake hosts several kokanee tournaments each year, which draws attention to the abundance of these great-fighting, great-eating freshwater salmon.
Lake Chelan is also a great all-around vacation destination for the family. Everything from swimming to wine tasting is available, along with miles of beautiful scenery.
Salmon Fishing Lake Chelan
Lake Chelan is enormous, deep and full of fish.
The big question is where? What patterns do the salmon follow?
Here are some tips for targeting them.
If you find yourself searching for a place to find some great or even epic kokanee fishing, Lake Chelan is the place for you.
Kokes are abundant here and taste delicious. These landlocked sockeye salmon can make for a fantastic day of fishing.
Since kokanee live in deeper water, shore fishing isn’t going to be very successful.
Trolling at between .8 and 1.5 mph with downriggers is your best bet. Once you find them on your electronics, adjust your troll speed accordingly until you get bites.
Kokanee have a very soft mouth, which requires a more delicate hook set than bass or burbot or other game fish.
Because of that soft mouth, try using a rod with very soft action. A stiffer action rod is going to cause you to lose fish.
One of the worst feelings in all of fishing is when your prize fish leaps from the water, and you watch your hook come free with a headshake: fish one, angler zero.
The typical setup for kokanee is an 8- to 10-pound mainline with a 14- to 18-inch leader of 6-pound test.
We suggest you use a reel with a counter for your rods that aren’t on the downriggers.
It’s easy to misjudge the depth after a catch, potentially shutting down your day. A line counter gets you right back into action.
Tie a dodger with an 18-inch leader to a Mini Cha Cha or a Wedding Ring with fire corn.
Anglers report good luck with the natural and yellow fire corn colors and mixed results with the orange and red colors.
Trolling around the lake aimlessly may bring a few to the net, but let’s focus on what areas are most productive. Lake Chelan is over 50 miles long, so finding the right places to target can be challenging.
Here we’ll break down the areas by time of year.
Late winter and early spring are great times to target the Narrows north to Twenty-Five Mile Creek.
Follow kokanee south as they move toward the town of Chelan and the surrounding waters. Kokanee tend to then leave this area, and the bite shuts down, around the end of June.
June finds kokanee moving up the lake, headed for Stehekin for the pre-spawn near primary spawning tributaries.
You’ll find good concentrations around Lakeside, out in the deeper water off Minneapolis Beach, and off Rocky Point. You can head up to the Yacht Club and almost be guaranteed at least a few.
August has the potential for decent kokanee fishing, but with the spawn coming, they are already starting to change.
As late summer continues, kokanee meat becomes mushy and loses its flavor. If the kokanee have lost much of their silvery color, it’s best to leave them till next season.
Read up on our favorite kokanee-fishing techniques and tips.
For salmon fans, there also are Chinook to be found in the lake.
One of the most common ways they are caught is incidentally, often by anglers targeting lake trout and kokanee.
Chinook were initially stocked in 1974 and have been planted in high numbers at times in the past.
Unlike kokanee, you aren’t likely to catch lots of Chinook here, but the ones you do catch are sometimes in the 10- to 12-pound range. And even some Chinook to the 20-pound range are caught now and then.
The Lake Chelan salmon mostly eat the lakes numerous freshwater shrimp.
With their appetite, they’ve managed to lower the number of shrimp in the lake to the level that kokanee aren’t as stressed, as both shrimp and kokanee eat common foods.
Due to the food they eat, Chinook here don’t hang out around schools of baitfish as they often do in other places.
Often the best way to catch them is covering plenty of water, and that typically means you’ll need to troll for them.
The best Chinook salmon fishing times tend to be morning and evening. That’s when the shrimp move within 60 to 80 feet of the surface.
The shrimp are light-sensitive, so low-light situations are prime for shallower fishing. In the bright afternoon, you’ll need to go deep.
Trolling at depths of 200 or even 300 feet can be super tricky, but there have been anglers reporting Chinook catches as deep as 325 feet.
That’s deep enough that you would need to use unique tactics, like equipping a bell to your rod tip.
With that much line out, the bite might be light enough that it doesn’t spring the downrigger, leaving you without a fish.
But with the bell, you’ll get an alert, and then you can set the hook hard to pop it free from the downrigger.
Try trolling with a plug-cut herring or with herring strips set up with flashers. These salmon will also steal your bait, so be prepared to re-bait often.
Trout Fishing Lake Chelan
Lake Chelan also has its fair share of trout.
Several recent state records have been set here for Mackinaw (lake trout), with the current state record holder of 35.63 pounds.
Cutthroat trout fishing can be good to excellent here as well. A day spent near the docks can bring full limits to anglers searching for cutthroat.
As noted, lakers can grow even bigger than the Chinook.
With the depth variances, plus abundant shrimp and fish to eat in Lake Chelan, they can grow massive.
For most of the year, target them just off the bottom in anywhere from 125 to 200 feet of water.
Trolling for lake trout early in the morning is your best bet to land a big fish.
Target the area known as the Bar, out from the Mill Bay Boat Launch, at around 170 feet deep, trolling at speeds between 1.2 and 1.5 mph.
Use a Needlefish Squid tipped with a piece of northern pikeminnow meat.
Another great option is to use glowing lures to draw more attention. You may find the bigger fish that way.
Manson Bay also can be productive in the evenings.
Keep your bait within 5 to 10 feet of the bottom. That will range from approximately 120 feet by Wapato Point and closer to 275 feet in the middle of the bay.
Lakers aren’t super aggressive biters. You’ll want to keep your eye on the rod tip to catch the bite.
Mackinaws aren’t going to be holding in cover, so there isn’t a concern about them running into snags.
Try to bring them up without being too aggressive. You can lose them if you’re too aggressive with the rod.
Note that the state has issued a fish consumption advisory for the lake trout only, recommending that women and children limit their consumption somewhat of this species due to toxins that tend to build up in their flesh.
Cutthroat trout are regularly planted in the lake and can provide some pretty fast action.
Cutthroat trout also can be caught in shallower water and at times closer to shore than the other dominant cold-water species at Lake Chelan, and can even be caught around the docks.
Cutthroats are more common further north in the lake, including larger fish that will put a nice bend in your rod.
Around 70,000 or 80,000 cutties are planted each year, with holdovers growing big. The northern end by Stehekin holds big numbers and fantastic fishing. It’s not uncommon to catch 5-pound or larger cutthroats in this area.
Moving down the lake, you will have good luck closer to shore by the Yacht Club and along the shoreline in the Narrows.
Standard trout lures and baits work well. Worms, spinners including Rooster Tails, and other lures will all catch fish.
Flies fished with fly fishing gear or slowly trolled by conventional anglers also will score with these insect-loving trout.
Cutthroat trout must have a hatchery-clipped fin to keep at Lake Chelan.
Rainbow trout aren’t currently being stocked at Lake Chelan, as they have at times in the past (including triploid rainbow trout).
Due to that, their numbers aren’t as high as the cutthroat trout these days, but they may still wind up in your catch as you target trout, kokanee or other fish here.
Standard trout fishing approaches work well for rainbows.
They are more common on the south end and can be targeted from a boat or shore.
As mentioned, the ‘bows aren’t as prevalent as the cutties, but there are some good-sized fish in there.
There are several places to try, like the southern end of Riverfront Park and along the shore near the Caravel Resort.
Work lures and spinners tipped with salmon eggs straight out from shore, and you’re bound to connect with rainbow or cutthroat trout.
Trolling through the southern end may bring some rainbows to the net, along with the possibility for some kokanee.
If you fish here long enough, maybe you’ll prove that bull trout still live in Lake Chelan.
Reading U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reports, they may no longer live in the lake, despite having been a major fishery in the early days.
According to the biologists, at best they’re rare.
There may potentially be a few brook trout in the lake and its tributaries, and divers reporting seeing native bull trout may have seen a similar-looking non-native brookies.
Westslope cutthroat and rainbow trout are the dominant native species in the area these days.
As is the case across most of Washington, bull trout are protected and cannot be targeted, but if they are in the lake, they potentially could be caught incidentally while fishing for other species.
You must immediately release bull trout unharmed, so definitely know how to identify trout species.
How to Catch Trout
Need to bone up on catching one of America’s favorite game fish? A good place to start is our free guide to Trout Fishing: How-To Techniques and Tips.
Bass Fishing Lake Chelan
Lake Chelan is a deep, cold water lake with little cover in the way of fallen trees that largemouth bass prefer, although WDFW mentions largemouths as among the fish species here.
But smallmouth bass are found primarily along the more accessible southern half of the lake and can turn a boring fishing trip for kids into the best fishing of their young lives.
Smallies are prevalent along the southern end of the lake, within reach of the communities of Chelan and Manson.
Rocky shorelines and structures are going to hold several big bass.
Note that the bass here at times can also be found in deeper and even in open water, sometimes schooled up at depths of 30 to 40 feet above much deeper bottoms.
Try the shoreline along Minneapolis Beach and down to Lakeside for some prime water.
There are bass tournament qualifiers held in the area, but at times the number of vacationers on the water can cause serious problems in targeting these fish.
Early May through late July are the prime months for targeting Lake Chelan smallmouth bass.
Standard approaches should work, though you may need to alter your technique slightly to get down deep enough when the bass move down in the water column.
Bass fishing is fun and reasonably easy when you know how to catch them. Find plenty of bass fishing techniques and tips in our how-to article.
Burbot Fishing Lake Chelan
Burbot are in here, and one of them potentially may set the next record.
They hang out on the bottom, often quite deep, and are suckers for a slow jig presentation.
Using a jig head with a plastic grub tipped with a worm or piece of fresh fish (such as sucker meat) should get a good bite.
Drop your offering to the bottom, reel in a foot or two, and slowly jig until you feel a burbot your bait.
Using a medium action rod with 10- to 12-pound braided line should set you up for success.
Burbot ain’t pretty, but they are considered by many to be incredible table fare. Both traits are why people call them “freshwater lings.”
Find all the best burbot fishing lakes in Washington.
Planning Your Trip
Lake Chelan offers every convenience you could think of in a destination fishery.
From resorts to water parks for the kids, there is something here for everyone. Waterskiing and SUP boarding are great ways to spend a day at the lake (after fishing, of course.) Sightseeing is simply stunning.
There are also vineyards with wine tasting and tours available. Several restaurants are in the area, as are grocery stores and anything else you may need.
Where is Lake Chelan?
Located in north-central Washington, Lake Chelan is a clear, cold, glacier-fed natural lake that was enlarged with a dam. Its waters run very deep.
Getting to the developed southern end of the lake is very roughly a three-hour drive, more or less, from either Seattle or Spokane. It’s under an hour driving north from Wenatchee.
Getting to Stehekin at the other end of the lake is another matter. If you don’t have your own fast boat, a couple of ferries make the trip. Flying or hiking are less-common ways to get to this unique Washington setting.
The drive to Lake Chelan from Seattle will take you through the Cascades and is incredibly scenic, with some great small towns to check out on the way.
There are several smaller lakes along the way as well, including high mountain fishing spots. Search our state-wide listing (by counties and regions) for some ideas.
Bank and Boat Access
There are several boat launches around the huge lake.
Shore access is somewhat limited, with the southwest side being the most accessible.
Try Lake Chelan State Park, the Memorial just up the road from the park, and Party Point.
You might even be able to get deep enough at the Memorial to possibly get a few kokanee. The water gets to over 100 feet deep just offshore.
Boats will be more effective for kokanee and many other types of fishing here, with some exception for cutthroat trout and smallmouth bass.
Boat launches are located around much of the southern half of the lake.
Chelan has several, and as you go north, you can launch at the state parks on the west side and the public ramps in Manson.
There are also several boat rental services where you can rent everything from a houseboat to a fishing kayak.
Where to Stay at Lake Chelan
Lake Chelan does not lack in accommodations.
There are hotels, resorts, RV parks and campgrounds surrounding many parts of the lake, especially those served by roads but also in the Stehekin area.
There is also boat-in camping in some areas.
If you are planning on staying around Lake Chelan, you may want to book in advance. The lake is a popular vacation spot during the summer, so things book up pretty fast during the prime tourism seasons.
Lake Chelan can provide you with a fantastic fishing trip if you plan it out.
There are also several guides and outfitters in the area if you’d like some expert local help in getting onto the fish.
It can be challenging to find the biggest fish, such as the Chinook and lake trout, and local guides can help boost your odds of catching a trophy on your bucket list fishing trip.