LAKE CHELAN KOKANEE - Dave Vedder & Brad Wagner

LAKE CHELAN KOKANEE - Dave Vedder & Brad Wagner

In summer I usually use dropper weights and occasionally no weight at all. Another deadly system is lead line, which I know is one of your favorites. The absence of the downrigger gives the flasher and lure a much more sensuous, tantalizing movement. Many times a lead line will out fish everything else. 


Tucker Ashmore shows off a fat Lake Chelan kokanee. Kokanee fishing can be a great way to introduce kids to fishing. The action is typically fast and the fish are great table fare.


Lake Chelan is a beacon luring kokanee anglers from all over the Northwest. It reliably provides excellent kokanee fishing with generous limits. And while Chelan can be a slam dunk for anyone even remotely familiar with kokanee fishing, it can be maddening difficult other times. I have lived in the area for a bit more than a year now and know that there are many things I don’t yet know about Chelan’s kokanee. But I do know someone who knows the fishery intimately. So when Nick said he wanted a primer on Lake Chelan kokanee, I knew I needed to call my good friend Brad Wagner, owner of Bobber down Guide Service.

What follows is a four beer interview that took place in my kitchen.

Dave: Brad let’s start by talking about how the kokanee move around in Lake Chelan. This article is scheduled for March/April, so let’s begin with where we find them in March and work our way around the calendar.

Brad: In February and March they are definitely going to be up lake around the Yacht Club, or that general area. We often have to fish them as deep as 200 feet in late winter. We try to find shallower fish, but we have to fish where they are hold-ing. The water by the Yacht Club is fairly shallow by Lake Chelan standards, but as you head up lake toward Mitchel Creek it rapidly gets deeper.

Dave: We all know that as spring returns the fish tend to move down toward the south end of the lake. When does that typically happen?

Brad: When the water level in the lake begins to rise the kokanee food gets pushed toward the south end of the lake. The kokanee will follow the feed. By late April Kokanee will be found all the way to the East end of the lake. Usually by April/May we start fishing by Lakeside, Rocky Point, Manson Bay, Blue Roof, Red Roof and that whole area. They will usually stay in the south end all the way to July. As spring progresses they will tend to school up, sometimes in 200 feet of water, sometimes as shallow as 40 feet. Once you find the schools, stay in the area and keep working through them.





Dave: Do your tactics change as the seasons change?

Brad: Definitely; In the winter I troll slower, 1.1 to 1.3 MPH. And I tend to go with bigger presentations. You know Free Drifter trolling flies, or Rocky Mountain Tackle squids and spinners, Mac’s Lures smiley blades and Money Maker shaker wings. I also use plenty of scents like Super Dipping Sauce, Kokanee flavor. As the water warms up I will go to smaller presentations, more spinners and I increase my trolling speed to 1.4 to 1.6 MPH

Dave: As we get into summer where will we find the fish?

Brad: On my hook. In my box. (Laughing uncontrollably!)

Dave: Okay other than on your hook where might we find the kokanee in mid-summer and how might we change our tactics to target them?

Brad: For one they are often much shallower. Many times we flat line them. We seldom need to fish deeper than 45 feet.

Dave: Okay let’s talk about tactics for shallow kokanee. Can we get rid of those darn downriggers?

Brad: Oh yeah. In summer I usually use dropper weights and occasionally no weight at all. Another deadly system is lead line, which I know is one of your favorites. The absence of the downrigger gives the flasher and lure a much more sensuous, tantalizing movement. Many times a lead line will out fish everything else.  One thing to remember is that when the fish are really shallow you may not mark them on your fish finder. As the boat moves over the fish, they move away and they never show on your fish finder. Do you remember that time at Palmer Lake when all the fish we saw on the depth finder were at 40 feet, and we couldn’t get a bite, then one of us got bit as we were putting it out? We switched to flat line and clobbered them. Never did see any near the surface on the depth finder.





Dave: How do you rig your gear when you want to use dropper weights?

Brad: It’s super easy. I just use a slider and attach the weight to it. Anywhere from 3/8- to 2-ounce cannon balls. Let that slip down to a swivel and attach your flasher and terminal lures as we always do. You do need to be sure the slider is all the way down to the swivel. If you aren’t careful, the weight will slide back toward the boat and you can get a big belly in your line. That will cause missed strikes and a lot of frustration. The key is to let your line out sloooowly.


Nanette Zella Kit Ashmore is rightly proud of this super nice Lake Chelan kokanee.


Dave: Do you believe that if you ran one set of gear on the downrigger at 20 feet and a second set on dropper weights at 20 feet, the result would be any different?

Brad: Oh for sure! I will fish the droppers anytime I can. Because your gear moves up, sideways and all over the place. Kokanee are notorious followers. They may follow your gear for hundreds of feet. But when it drops, rises or flutters differently, it can trigger a strike, which is why we seldom troll far in a straight line.

Dave: What are your thoughts on leaded line?

Brad: I know YOU like it a lot. I like leaded line. It’s absolutely deadly. For whatever reason it almost always out fishes downriggers and dropper weights. It’s tough with leaded line because you need a large arbor reel, and once a guide packs five downrigger rods and five dropper rods, space become an issue. But I’m all about the leaded line, especially in May and June. It’s often magic.

Dave: Let’s talk about the fall, September, October, November.

Brad: It’s tough then—the fish are transitioning toward the upper end of the lake and preparing to spawn. They are usually scattered all over the lake and the schools start breaking up. Not all the fish migrate. There are always a handful of fish everywhere. The recent spawners are not available, but there are fish there. You just have keep looking. But it can be difficult.






Dave: Okay let’s cover tackle beginning with rod and reel and ending with whatever you like for terminal gear.

Brad: Right now my favorite rods are Ninja Velocity and the new Samurai rods, and they are very reasonably priced. Any soft rod in the 7’ foot to 9’ foot range will do. Stay away from graphite as they tend to break with continuous use in a downrigger. I recommend fiberglass or blended rods. For reels I have always used Shimano Takota 300lc’s but recently I have started using the Daiwa Accudepth line counters. Your choice of reel isn’t as important as using a good bait casting reel with a line counter. For line I will run 30-pound test braid. I like Berkley Stealth Braid or J Braid by Daiwa. I use braid because sometimes we fish as deep as 200 feet and mono just has too much stretch. I attach about 75 feet of 12-pound test fluorocarbon to that and then my terminal gear.

Dave: Let’s talk about dodgers. Do you have a preference and do you change up in different part of the season.

Brad: I really like the Rocky Mountain tackle dodgers and the Mack’s Lure ones too. I always have a preference. But it often changes. If I think I know what they want, say from the previous day, that’s what I start with. But if not, I start with four different dodgers or flashers and will switch them all to the same set up if one is working a lot better than the other. I do really like the gold and silver combo. (Like the ones I loaned you more than a year ago and still don’t have back!) But one day it’s a killer the next day it’s not. But there are definitely sizes profiles and colors they prefer.

I like the 5.5 Rocky Mountain Tackle dodgers, as my go to setup. I fish darker colors when fishing deep and lighter colors when fishing shallow. I like tons of UV on the dodge. I love Moonjelly tape. I like lots of contrast in my kokanee lures. Rocky Mountain Super Squids and Assassins early in the season and move toward smaller presentations like Mini Plankton squids and smaller Assassin spinners as the season progresses.

There is so much great kokanee gear out there today. Back in the day we used to make a lot of our own design. But today you can find almost any size, color or shape lure you might want. 

Dave: Let’s talk about terminal gear. Essentially you can choose between a spinner type lure, like the classic Wedding Ring, and the hoochie type lures, but that line is now getting blurred with some of the newer lures. So let’s talk about leader length.

Brad: If I’m running a spinner/lure combo I start with an 18-inch leader. With just a hoochie type lure I go with a leader of about 12 inches. But I will change leader length if I think I need to. Basically leader length needs to be appropriate for the size dodger, your trolling speed, and weight of lure. The trick is to have the lure gently swing back and forth. If it’s not undulating, fancy word for looking bad ass and fishy, it won’t get bit. I’m looking for a swimming motion. If it’s whipping back a forth rapidly it won’t get bit. But there are times when you see a school and all four rods go off. Other days they won’t touch anything. That’s when I start adjusting my leader lengths.





Dave: I have been to your house so I know the answer to this. (Brad has an entire wall stacked with cases of Fire Brine and Fire Corn). But what is your favorite bait.

Brad: Yeah, pretty much Pautzke Fire Corn. I usually begin the day with two different colors to see which they prefer that day. 

Dave: What about scents?

Brad: Yeah, I almost always use scents. My go to is Super Dipping Sauce. Kokanee flavor, which is a heavy Anise scent. 

Dave: Do you apply the scents the night before or in the boat?

Brad: Usually in the boat. I don’t want too much scent, and if you mix the corn and scent the night before, you are stuck with only that one scent, and maybe they don’t want that one today. And I will change scents and corn until I get them, or until you beg me to go in!

Dave: Do you ever fish with pig headed old guys who just use plain white shoe peg corn? (That would be me!)

Brad: Chuckles, I do, but they never catch anything! Just kidding. They will for sure eat the unscented corn. Sometimes they seem to prefer it. That’s the thing, sometimes when people aren’t getting bit they keep adding stuff and adding stuff when what they may want to do is just go back to plain old shoe peg corn.

Dave: Have you tried baits other than corn?

Brad: Oh for sure. Maggots are great, both the Berkley Power Maggots and the real ones. You can get the real ones at some local tackle shops. But of course the key is you need to keep them between you lip and gum if you want to be one of the cool kids. (Laughing) You don’t want to do that if you have big gaps between your teeth.

Dave: When you want to tie your own gear what hooks do you like?

Brad: I like the wide gap finesse hook size 2 or 4 or Gamakatsu drop shot hooks. I tie double hook rigs about one inch apart.

Dave: Are there any last words of wisdom you can share with Lake Chelan Kokanee anglers?

Brad: The main thing is just having fun. Chelan is great fishery, but not just because of the fish. It’s an absolutely pristine lake with some of the clearest water you will ever see. And there are lots of other things to do, such as winery tours, hiking, biking and shopping. Bring the whole family and stay for a few days.

As far as the fishing I start up lake in the winter, as far up as 25 Mile Creek Campground or even further and ending up on the town side of the lake In May and June. Start fishing deep in winter and very shallow by summer. Move around until you find fish and use your electronics. If I don’t get bit in 45 minutes I move around until I find the fish. With a generous 10 fish limit its fun for kids and pros alike.





I feel Brad has given you all the info you need to do well on Lake Chelan for Kokanee. If you want to learn firsthand from one of the top rods on Lake Chelan book a day with Brad or one of the other guides listed below:

Brad Wagner Bobber Down Guide Service (509) 670-3095;

Sam Baird Slamin Salmon Guide Service; (509) 679-0483;

Stu Hurd; Hurd’s Guide Service; (509) 679-1304





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1 comment

Interesting steelhead blog, thanks! I have many pleasant memories of fishing with Frank in the Western coastal streams and the Rockies. I even rode with Frank in that old blue jet boat shown in the photo on the Columbia and Deschutes! Great memories! Frank, e-mail me at if you see this post, to re-connect. Tight lines!

Larry Tullis

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