You could call it a kokanee craze. Fishing for kokanee salmon has exploded in popularity.
And here in Washington state, we’re lucky to have some of the best kokanee lakes in America right at our doorstep.
Kokanee are actually a landlocked form of sockeye salmon, known for fighting above their weight class while sharing the sockeye’s supreme reputation for table fare.
They’re native to a handful of lakes in Washington, but have also been stocked in dozens of lakes across the state by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW).
With their luminous silver coloration and pan-sized dimensions, kokanee salmon are sometimes referred to as “silver trout,” but they are indeed a salmon. Most folks just call them kokanee, or “kokes” for short.
Kokanee typically measure 10 to 14 inches and weigh about a pound. But in some Washington lakes it’s possible to catch them up to 20 inches and weighing up to 3 pounds.
Their preferred habitat is deep, cold water lakes and reservoirs.
Kokanee Fishing Tips
There aren’t usually many opportunities to catch kokanee from shore. Their preference for deep open waters means you typically need a boat to have a good shot at reliably catching them.
Kokanee often suspend anywhere from 10 to 100 feet below the surface, often in parts of a lake that are several hundred feet deep. They’re most likely to come closer to the surface in spring and fall.
Most anglers employ trolling to find them, using downriggers or weight to get their baits and lures down to the appropriate depth.
In lakes where multiple lines are allowed, it’s smart to run two lines at different depths to increase your odds.
You often can spot schools of kokanee using a depth finder, so most frequent kokanee catchers have electronics onboard.
Kokanee feed primarily on plankton. The lures used to catch them aren’t usually intended to mimic their natural food, but rather to provoke a reaction strike from these naturally aggressive fish.
Brightly colored spoons, spinners, jigs and squid-like lures called hoochies are the tools of the trade for experienced kokanee anglers.
Many anglers also add a flasher or dodger to their line to add some extra attraction while trolling.
Using a rod with a flexible tip is important because kokanee have very soft mouths, and can easily be damaged when hooked.
Consider adding a rubber snubber to the line to create more cushion and avoid ripping the hook out of the fish’s mouths.
No matter what lure you use, it’s universally agreed that the best way to tempt kokanee is to add a kernel of shoepeg corn (or sometimes other small tidbit of bait) to the hook.
Many anglers dye corn and add scent to make it even more appealing. Shrimp and krill scents are favorites, and bright colors like red, orange and hot pink are often the most effective.
Jigging can also be very productive for putting kokanee into the boat quickly, if you know what you’re doing, and a few anglers tempt them still-fishing with bait.
If you’d like to dive deeper into these deep-running freshwater salmon, read Kokanee Fishing: Simple How-To Tips and Techniques.
The prime fishing season on most of these Washington kokanee lakes is May through July, but there are spots that offer some pretty good early season or late summer angling as well.
What follows are our carefully curated selection of the very best kokanee lakes in Washington.
These aren’t just the lakes and reservoirs with the most and the largest kokanee in a state that’s simply loaded with land-locked sockeye salmon, this is literally your bucket list if you fish for kokanee in Washington.
After that, at the bottom of this article, check out additional kokanee lakes that might be close to home and at times can offer good fishing for these tasty and spirited game fish.
There may be no other lake in Washington that more consistently produces big kokanee salmon than Lake Chelan.
Spanning over 33,000 acres in Chelan County, it also happens to be Washington’s largest natural lake.
Lake Chelan is a very long, fairly narrow lake that measures over 50 miles end-to-end.
It’s also deep. Shockingly deep, in fact. At 1,486 feet, lake Chelan is the third-deepest lake in America, even deeper than the great lakes.
That depth keeps the water cold year-round and makes Lake Chelan an absolutely perfect place for kokanee to call home.
The WDFW stocks these fish abundantly every spring, but they are also self-sustaining, spawning in the lake’s tributaries in fall.
The best kokanee fishing on Lake Chelan is typically from mid-April through the end of June, but some of the biggest fish tend to be caught a bit later in the summer.
Expect a boatload of fish in the 10 to 12 inch range, with a few in the 16 to 18 inch class.
During the peak spring and summer season, anglers often troll depths around 50 feet at 0.8 to 1.5 mph using squid-style lures like Mack’s Mini Cha Cha Squidder behind a dodger. Hot pink and orange tend to be top-producing colors.
There are a lot of great kokanee spots on Lake Chelan, and the best areas can change from day to day. Areas off Minneapolis Beach and Rocky Point can be very productive, along the face of Mill Bay and the Yacht Club area.
The fishing slows down in the fall as the weather gets colder and the largest class of fish prepares to spawn.
But unlike a lot of lakes, Lake Chelan actually has a decent year-round kokanee fishery. Anglers willing to brave the cold often catch them 100 feet down over 400 feet of water in the dead of winter.
In winter, try the area between the Narrows and Twenty-Five Mile Creek, and work your way downlake as the weather turns toward spring.
Lake Chelan also is famous for big lake trout and offers cutthroat trout, smallmouth bass, burbot and other game fish as well.
More: Lake Chelan Fishing
Lake Roosevelt has earned a reputation for kicking out big kokes.
It’s probably the most likely place in Washington to catch kokanee salmon that cross the elusive 20-inch mark. The 6.25-pound state record was caught here in 2003.
Like any kokanee lake, the fishing can vary drastically from one year to the next. But lake Roosevelt is more consistent than most for both numbers and size.
On good years, 16- to 18-inch kokanee are average. But even on a so-called “bad year,” it’s not hard to catch your limit of 12- to 14-inch fish.
Lake Roosevelt is more properly known as Franklin D. Roosevelt Lake. It’s an enormous impoundment on the Columbia River, stretching 150 miles from Grand Coulee Dam into Canada.
The four or five-mile stretch of the lake just above the dam is where you’ll often find the best concentrations of kokanee.
Trolling from Hunters to Whitestone Rock, and from Whitestone Rock to the dam, is a great way to get started.
Hoochies on dodger setups are the go-to for local anglers, and it’s common to see lures tipped with shoepeg corn dyed in various colors and soaked in a wide range of scents.
Start at about 0.6 mph and slowly speed up your trolling until you start getting bites.
It can also be a lot of fun to switch to jigging once you locate a solid school of kokanee.
Fishing straight down with jigging spoons like a ½-ounce Gibbs Minnow or Bomber Slab can be one of the most enjoyable ways to fish because you really get to feel the bites.
Depths vary, so be prepared to change it up.
Kokanee at Lake Roosevelt tend to hold a little shallower than in many lakes, often within 10 to 20 feet of the surface, especially in spring.
There’s a solid late winter/early spring koke season here too. In winter you may need to focus your efforts a little deeper. Cold season bites often come at around 40 to 50 feet over 200 feet of water.
Lake Roosevelt is home to many of Washington’s favorite gamefish, including chunky triploid rainbow trout, big walleye, numerous smallmouth bass and tasty burbot, among plenty of others.
More: Lake Roosevelt Fishing
American Lake near Tacoma is the largest lake in Pierce County. It’s about an hour from Seattle and 30 minutes from Olympia, making it a convenient day trip for many anglers.
Most importantly, there are a lot of kokanee here.
In past seasons, WDFW has stocked as many as 400,000 kokanee fingerlings in American Lake. Most years, anglers have a shot at some good-sized fish.
At 1,091 acres, American Lake gets busy on summer weekends. Your best bet is to visit on a weekday.
Better still, fish early in the morning. When the bite is really on, the best action is early in the day.
The northern half of the lake is deepest, and most of the kokanee action is concentrated there. There’s often some great fishing in deep water north shore Silcox Island.
There’s a public boat ramp on the northern shore of American Lake, and a lot of anglers find success trolling just off the boat ramp in around 80 feet of water.
June is the prime month here, and kokanee tend to be 30 or 40 feet down, sometimes shallower early in the day.
Wedding ring spinners are popular trolling lures, and hoochies can work well too.
There are 5- to 10-pound rainbow trout here too, and one might surprise you by grabbing your lure.
Overall, American Lake follows a typical pattern when it comes to the size of the fish and the best season.
Visit in May or June if you’re looking to fill your cooler with pan-sized kokanee.
If you’re out after 18-inch brutes but don’t mind slower days, wait until August and plan to fish deeper.
Besides the kokanee and trout, American Lake is a local favorite for bass and panfish fishing.
More: American Lake Fishing
Banks Lake is another expansive impoundment in the Columbia River’s massive hydroelectric and irrigation project, located just south of Grand Coulee Dam.
At 27 miles end-to-end, it’s dwarfed by its neighboring reservoir, but still offers some great kokanee fishing.
Banks Lake is perhaps best known for walleye fishing, and for its abundant population of lake whitefish, among other game fish. But there’s a great under-the-radar kokanee fishery here as well.
The kokanee population at Banks Lake is fueled largely by abundant stocking from WDFW. Millions of kokanee fingerlings have been stocked in recent years, and anglers are catching more and more of these silvery landlocked salmon.
Typical kokanee here run around 12 inches, with some well into the teens. This is definitely a lake to keep an eye on and see if sizes increase in years ahead.
Finding kokanee can be tricky here, but persistence pays off.
Trolling deep drop-offs, especially around the islands, tends to be the way to go. Schools of fish seem to move around a lot, and you may need to cover some water.
Summer is the best time to be on Banks Lake chasing kokanee. The lake also freezes most winters, making it a popular ice fishing destination for a variety of fish.
More: Banks Lake Fishing
Yale Lake & Lake Merwin
Two neighboring reservoirs along the North Fork Lewis River, Yale Lake and Lake Merwin both offer excellent fishing opportunities. At both lakes, kokanee are the star attraction.
Yale Lake encompasses just over 3,600 acres, and its kokanee population is largely self-sustaining, with large numbers of fish that spawn in the lake’s tributaries.
It’s common to find kokanee bunching up around creek mouths as summer turns to fall.
Lake Merwin is a little larger at over 3,800 acres, and has been heavily stocked with kokanee by WDFW. (Merwin also is one of the select number of lakes in Washington planted with tiger muskies.)
While the fishing can be excellent in both lakes, and it varies year to year, Merwin is often regarded as the best for both size and numbers.
Overall, the two lakes present similar fishing conditions, and tactics that work on one lake will generally work on the other.
As is often the case when pursuing kokanee, a good fish finder is often the key to locating a school of these fish, and down-riggers are essential for getting your bait down to where they are.
Depths from 15 to 40 feet are productive early in the season, but you may need to set your sites as deep as 60 feet in summer.
Wedding ring lures are popular here, and as always it pays to tip your hook with a kernel of shoepeg corn.
The average size kokanee in Lake Merwin is around 13 to 15 inches. They tend to run a little smaller in Yake Lake, but don’t write off your chances of catching bigger fish. 18-inch kokes are possible in both lakes.
Multiple public boat ramps are available at both lakes.
Fluctuations in water level can make access challenging at times, and you can get up-to-date lake level information from PacifiCorp, the company that operates the dams.
Spanning 4,900 acres in Whatcom County, Lake Whatcom is one of the great kokanee fishing spots in Northwest Washington.
Kokanee salmon are native to Lake Whatcom (and also to neighboring Lake Samish, a solid kokanee lake that narrowly missed making the cut for this list; see below for additional kokanee fisheries including Lake Samish).
Native populations at Lake Whatcom have also been enhanced by major stocking operations.
The fish hatchery on Lake Whatcom actually raises kokanee salmon for release in lakes all over the state, and they’ve planted fingerlings in Lake Whatcom numbering in the millions.
A lot of those fish end up in the bellies of Lake Whatcom’s largemouth and smallmouth bass—it’s also an excellent bass fishing lake—but plenty grow up to reach catchable size.
Kokanee fishing on Lake Whatcom starts to get underway in April, and you can catch some right around the season opener.
The kokanee fishing gets better and better as the summer wears on, with great fishing in June and July.
Trolling over deep water with hoochies can yield lots of 12- to 14-inch kokanee in summer.
These fish also attempt to spawn naturally, taking on a reddish tint much like ocean-run sockeye salmon, and migrating up its many tributaries in fall.
Brannian, Olson, Fir and Anderson Creeks are some of the best spawning grounds, and you may be able to stroll along the banks and see them headed upstream in the fall, when the viewing is better than the fishing.
Of course, it’s always a good idea to release spawning kokanee if you catch them; and many rivers and creeks in Washington close to fishing after October 31.
More: Lake Whatcom Fishing
Offering a somewhat underrated kokanee fishery close to home for Puget Sound residents, Lake Stevens is a 1,000-acre lake in Snohomish County.
WDFW has stocked kokanee here in abundance in years past, and there is now a huge kokanee population here.
Of course, as with many lakes, the kokanee fishing can be frustratingly cyclical. Some years, 16-inch kokes are par for the course. Other years, you’re lucky to catch one over 12 inches.
Still, it’s rare to see anglers who know much about kokanee fishing go home empty handed during peak season.
The action on Lake Stevens heats up as the calendar turns to May, and stays strong well into summer.
The best time to be on the water is in the morning.
Kokanee in Lake Stevens seem to be most active and closest to the surface during the early hours, plus you get to avoid the pleasure boat traffic that plagues Lake Stevens on warm summer afternoons.
The lake essentially has one main basin, and finding kokanee is the greatest hurdle here. Your best bet is along the lake’s western shore, where the bottom drops steeply from 20 to well over 100 feet.
Kokanee may be within 10 to 30 feet of the surface in spring and early summer, but they tend to drop down deeper during the dog days of July and August.
Try tolling at about 1.4 to 1.6 mph, and dial it down if the fish seem to prefer a slower presentation.
Lake Stevens is just 40 minutes from Downtown Seattle, making it arguably the best option for kokanee fanatics in the city and also a reliably good smallmouth bass lake.
Lake Sammamish, just outside Seattle, was historically one of the area’s go-to kokanee lakes, but kokanee fishing here has been closed in recent years following a major population collapse. (It still offers lots of other types of fishing though.)
More: Lake Stevens Fishing
Kachess Lake & Keechelus Lake
It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful fishing destination than neighboring Kachess and Keechelus Lakes.
Surrounded by the rugged tree-covered slopes of the Cascade Range, these two large reservoirs—along with their third neighbor, Cle Elum Lake—are simply breathtaking.
Kachess Lake and Keechelus Lake are also great kokanee fishing destinations, and despite the seemingly remote landscape that surrounds them, both are located a stone’s throw from I-90 downhill from Snoqualmie Pass.
Kachess Lake is the larger of the two, covering an area of 4,377 acres. The smaller Keechelus Lake to the west spans 2,408 acres. But both are deep and cold, and reward anglers who troll for kokanee.
The state stocks both Kachess and Keechelus lakes with generous numbers of kokanee salmon, totaling hundreds of thousands of fish most years.
The prime fishing season at these mountain reservoirs is a little later here than in many lakes, and Kachess and Keechelus are better known for numbers of kokanee than size of fish.
You can catch a lot of 8- to 12-inch kokanee in June and July, with size generally increasing as the season progresses. There’s a 10-fish limit on kokanee in both lakes.
Kachess Lake has also been stocked with cutthroat trout. Bull trout are also present in both lakes, but must be released immediately if caught.
Kachess Lake and Keechelus lake are both located within Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest. The forest service provides campgrounds, boat launch facilities and shoreline hiking trails around both lakes.
Eastern Washington offers fewer kokanee waters than the western and central parts of the state, but anglers in the Spokane area have a few options. Loon Lake is arguably the best.
About 45 minutes from Spokane, Loon Lake offers 1,086 acres of water, and is a mixed warm and cold-water fishery that once gave up Washington’s state record lake trout (Mackinaw). These days, the lake is better known for kokanee.
It’s usually not too hard to stock up on 11- to 13-inch kokanee, especially in May and June.
The deepest water in Loon Lake is in the southeastern end of the lake, and this is generally the best area to troll for kokanee.
Night fishing is allowed on Loon Lake, and fishing for kokanee after dark is popular among local anglers, many of whom jig with glow-in-the-dark jigs tipped with maggots.
Oftentimes the best bite is right around sunset.
Loon Lake is open seasonally, from the 4th Saturday in April until October 31st. Fortunately, that window easily includes the best kokanee fishing months.
Spokane area anglers should also keep an eye on Chapman Lake. It’s a historically great kokanee spot that’s been closed to boats in recent years due to lack of access, but the WDFW is working toward opening a boat launch on the lake.
More Washington Kokanee Fishing
The following lakes that we cover in some depth elsewhere on our website also have kokanee, and they at times can provide anywhere from fair to very good fishing for these pan-sized salmon (as well as excellent angling for other game fish).
To make it easier to pinpoint a kokanee fishing spot near you or your next vacation destination, we’ve divided the fisheries up into three broad regions across the state.
Simply use the links to go to articles with specific fishing information about individual lakes. (Most of the top-tier lakes we’ve already told you about above also have links to more in-depth articles.)
Alder Lake (also shared with Thurston and Lewis Counties)
Clear Lake (Eatonville)
San Juan County
Clear Lake (Yelm)