Stampede Reservoir, situated on the Little Truckee River northeast of the city of Truckee on the east slope of the Sierra Nevada, hosts a diverse array of fish species ranging from Lahontan cutthrorat trout to smallmouth bass, but the kokanee salmon that thrive in this reservoir draw the most anglers every year.
Stampede is notable in my angling career for being the coldest place I have ever fished. In December of 2011, Ernie Marlan, Fish Sniffer staffer, and I fished with Rick Kennedy, then the owner of Tight Lines Guide Service, for mackinaw. As we drove to the reservoir after existing Interstate 80 at the Hirschdale Road exit, the temperature gauge dropped to 1 degree below zero.
It wasn’t much warmer at the lake. We launched the boat on an ice-coated ramp as the steady wind kicked up waves. The reservoir wasn’t iced over yet because of the persistent wind, but I remember the spray instantly freezing on the windshield as we went across the lake.
Fishing was tough; we hooked four mackinaws, but each one came off. Only the heated cabin prevented us from shivering in the icy cold.
On June 21, I fished the lake again at a time when northern California was faced with record heat rather than record cold. This time I fished James Netzel, who bought Tight Lines Guide Service in 2013. Netzel has been experiencing a great year season for kokanee at Stampede.
We were both glad to escape the brutal heat wave of the Sacramento area to enjoy the much more pleasant Sierra weather. The temperature at the lake was a cool 44 degrees when we launched the boat.
I first fished Stampede in 1990 when the reservoir was renowned for its huge kokanee averaging 2 pounds each. Since that time, the size of Stampede kokanee has bounced up and down, with some years producing fish in the 15 to 18 inch range and other years producing a smaller grade of fish.
This year anglers are seeing “tons of fish in the 13 to 14 inch range,” but they have to work their way through smaller fish to catch bigger ones in the 14 to 16 inch class, said Netzel. This year his biggest kokanee to date measured 16-1/2 inches long.
“We’ve had no problem catching limits of kokanee, along with one or two Lahontan cutthroat trout in the 16 to 18 inch class,” Netzel noted. “The CDFW is now planting the lake with the cutthroats instead of the rainbows.”
We got on the lake at 6:00 a.m. “I’m going to fish the area around the boat ramp because that’s where a lot of kokanee have been showing,” he noted.
He put out his Cousins Tackle kokanee rods, teamed up with Abu Garcia Ambassadeur 5500 LC reels spooled with Fins 40G 25 lb. test line tipped with Gamma 12 lb. test fluorocarbon leaders. They were rigged with Powerful Pink Radical Glow Tubes, Micro Hoochies and Paulina Peak orange and pink hoochies behind RMT and Paulina Peak dodgers. We also trolled with homemade Apex-type lures, tipped with white corn, soaked with tuna oil and garlic flavored Pro-Cure.
Netzel prefers to troll at a very slow .8 to 1 mph. He believes this slow trolling speed increases his catch rate over those anglers who troll the same lures faster.
Earlier this season, Netzel trolled down at 20 to 30 feet deep, but lately he has been trolling at 25 to 65 feet deep. He lowered the kokanee rigs down to 30 to 50 feet deep on our trip.
For the next couple of hours, we experienced fast action on kokanee while enjoying the cool mountain air.
We caught our limits of fish in the 12-1/2 to 15-1/2 inch range, including five fish in the 15 inch class. We also released a bunch of smaller fish. It was some of the best fishing I’ve ever experienced at Stampede, one of the state’s most legendary kokanee fisheries.
For whatever reason, these kokanee were particularly hard-fighting, with many making a series of wild leaps across the water before we could get them into the net.
I had last fished the lake with Netzel two years ago when it was only 19 percent of capacity. We had to launch on the dirt because the ramp was out of the water.
This time the ramp was not only in the water, but the water was so high it has inundated part of the walkway of the boat dock. We experienced wide-open fishing for kokanee to 15-1/2 inches on that trip also.
Stampede kokanee spawn successfully every fall in the Little Truckee River and tributaries, but the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) stocks the lake with around 75,00 fingerlings, when the fish are available, to supplement the natural fish population. Stampede received 74,976 kokanee fingerlings in 2013, 74,998 in 2014, 24,999 in 2015, and 60,027 in 2016.
Mackinaw trout have apparently replaced the brown trout as the apex predator in Stampede in recent years. In the 1990s, anglers would catch German browns in the 2 to 6 lb. range, along with an occasional fish 10 pounds or bigger.
The late Tracy Chimenti, a great friend and fishing buddy and the former Sierra conservation columnist for our publication, caught and released a 15 lb. brown at the lake 25 years ago. That huge fish graced our cover at the time.
Now the large numbers of browns are gone, apparently due to fishing pressure and competition with the mackinaw for kokanee and other forage.
The mackinaw can be caught year round, as long as the lake isn’t frozen over and the road to the lake isn’t snowed in. Right after ice out is a good time to catch mackinaw, as is the summer, when the fish are feeding below the schooling kokanee, and right before the lake ices over. Anglers regularly hook fish in the 8 to 15 pound range, along with some larger fish.
Over a decade ago, I hooked a 4.5 lb. mackinaw while trolling a Sockeye Slammer for kokanee at Stampede. Netzel has also reported catching mackinaws in the 3 to 6 lb. class while fishing for kokaanee near the dam.
Stampede and nearby Donner Lake have similar forage – kokanee, planted rainbows, tui chubs and crawfish – so anglers should use lure color patterns that approximate those species.
Trollers can target mackinaw with blue/chartreuse Stingfish, as well as with Flatfish, Kwikfish and other plugs. Large Koke-A-Nuts behind Sling Blades are also very effective. In the spring, anglers hook many mackinaws while trolling F18 Rapalas.
Besides kokanee, mackinaw and browns, Stampede also features a sleeper population of big smallmouth bass and a fair population of rainbows,
Chris Hammond of King’s Beach has caught beautiful wild and holdover rainbows up to 5 pounds while tossing spoons from shore at the lake in the late fall and early winter.
For more information, contact James Netzel of Tight Lines Guide Service, (888) 975-0990, www.fishtightlines.com.
Stampede Reservoir Facts
Location: Stampede Reservoir is located in the northeastern region of the Truckee Ranger District in the Tahoe National Forest. This reservoir is approximately 10 miles north of Truckee. Stampede Dam and Reservoir are situated on the Little Truckee River immediately below the mouth of Davies Creek and approximately 8 miles above the confluence of the Little Truckee and Truckee Rivers.
Size: The surface area is approximately 3,340 acres at full reservoir storage with 25 miles of shoreline.
Season: Fishing season is year-round, with ice fishing available during the winter. Gamefish species found in the reservoir include kokanee salmon, rainbow trout, brown trout, mackinaw trout and smallmouth bass.
Boating: A three-lane boat launch is available at Captain Robert’s Boat Ramp. Boat ramps are located in Logger Campground and the Emigrant Group Site. However, all of the boat ramps are out of the water at this time and you need to use a 4-wheel drive vehicle to launch a larger boat. Kayaks and small car top boats can be launched from shore.
Picnicking: Available is provided at the Stampede Vista Picnic Ground
Truckee River Operating Agreement (TROA): This agreement between the federal government, the states of Nevada and California and the Paiute Indian Tribe modifies reservoir operations at Stampede, Boca, Prosser and Martis Creek reservoirs. The TROA will enhance conditions for the threatened Lahontan cutthroat trout and endangered cui-ui; increase municipal and industrial drought protection for Truckee Meadows (Reno-Sparks metropolitan area); improve Truckee River water quality downstream fro Sparks, NV; and enhance stream flows and recreational opportunities in the Truckee River Basin.
Facility Information: Stampede Reservoir, c/o Truckee Ranger District, 10811 Stockrest Springs Road, Truckee, CA, 96161, Phone: 530-587-3558
Guide Service and Fishing Information: James Netzel of Tight Lines Guide Service, (888) 975-0990, www.fishtightlines.com, Mountain Hardware, Truckee, (530) 587-4844.