Bellying Up To Bullards Bar Kokanee

The following is courtesy of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife:

Trolling for kokanee on Bullards Bar Reservoir is a great summer option when the Sacramento Valley is too hot. The foothills can be a little cooler and the fishing is often productive. (MARK FONG)

By Mark Fong

If you are an angler in the Sacramento Valley, then you know about the region’s version of the dog days of summer.
The heat is on, the bass are deep and won’t bite, the trout plants are over until the fall and this year, the Sacramento/Feather Rivers salmon season is closed. So what is a diehard angler to do? Kokanee, of course.

For a lot of us, the kokanee, or landlocked sockeye salmon, is the fish of summer. They are fun to catch and make excellent table fare. That’s why I was really excited to make the trip to Bullards Bar Reservoir, known for its excellent kokanee fishing, for a morning of trolling with my fishing buddies Ian Rigler and Dan Valdez, the proprietor of Draggin’ Flies by Dan.


It was still dark when we met Dan and his canine fishing partner, Fin, at the Dark Day boat ramp. After launching Dan’s boat, we headed up the North Yuba River towards Frenchy Point. It was breezy with the inversion wind blowing out of the canyon, making the morning very comfortable, a far cry from the forecasted temp of 95 degrees for later in the day.

Dan stopped the boat near a steep point and we soon had our lines in the water. Each trolling rod was rigged with a different fly and dodger combination and it did not take long for the first rod to go off. I quickly removed the rod from the holder and popped the line free from the downrigger release. After a short fight, the feisty kokanee – Bullards Bar fish usually range between 11 and 14 inches long – was close enough to the boat so that Dan could drop the net and scoop it up. I quickly unhooked the fish and Ian placed it in the bag.

I rebaited the fly with corn and let the line back out behind the boat. Dan clipped the line to the downrigger ball and carefully lowered the weight back down the water column.

And so it went throughout the morning.


We had consistent action, but found the fishing to be challenging. The kokes were definitely scattered. We would catch one here and two there, but we never found a big group of fish schooled up.

Kokanee have very soft mouths and are notorious for coming unbuttoned. Despite our best efforts to carefully reel the fish to the boat and to minimize the amount of flopping on the surface, we lost a fair amount of fish to the dreaded long-distance release.


There are many key factors to successful kokanee trolling, but the top three are depth, speed and lure color. That morning, we found the best action at a depth of 30 to 45 feet and with a trolling speed of 1.2 to 1.4 mph.

But a funny thing happened in relation to color. The morning before Dan left the house, he tied up a pink and blue Wedding Ring- style spinner, which ended up being the most productive fly of the day. The kokanee were super finicky and showed a distinct preference for the pink and blue flasher/fly combination. Once Dan made this determination, we switched out other rods to the hot color.

Valdez makes his own flies and dodgers, and on this day the hot color that tempted fish was a pink and blue Wedding Ring-style spinner. (MARK FONG)


On his Draggin’ Flies With Dan Facebook page (see the sidebar on the previous page for more information), Valdez ends all of his posts with the catch phrase “Just Sayin’.” One moment on our trip certainly was Just Sayin’ worthy.

It came when an osprey swooped down from high above and grabbed my hooked-up kokanee off the surface of the water. The bird flew off with it while the fish was still attached to my line! For a brief moment, it was like I was flying a kite.

As quickly as it happened, the hooks pulled loose and the osprey flew off with my fish. I was left with empty hooks and no fish, but a great story nonetheless.

Fin the dog is kokanee troller Dan Valdez’s constant fishing companion. (DAN VALDEZ)


As nice as the weather was in the morning, around the noon hour, the wind died, the temperature became uncomfortably hot and the pleasure boats and Jet Skis began to show out in force. We decided to call it a day and ended up with a nice cooler of fish for the table and some great memories. I can’t wait to go again.

Perhaps we’ll catch more fish, especially the ones the osprey can’t get to first. Just sayin’. CS

Sidebar: He’s Hooked On Flies

Ian Rigler (left) and Valdez with a nice stringer full of Bullards Bar kokes. (MARK FONG)I

Dan Valdez has always been a fishy guy. The transplanted Southern California native cut his teeth fishing the piers and jetties around his home in Orange County’s Santa Ana.

“My dad started me young; I was maybe 3 years old when he would take the family down to the pier in Newport Beach,” Valdez says. “A job brought me (north) to Chico and I fell in love with the area. I started exploring and fishing the rivers, and it wasn’t long before I had my own jet boat, and after a while I started guiding on the river.”

Valdez guided on the Sacramento and Feather Rivers from the mid-1980s to the mid- 90s, but when the salmon fishery started to decline, he stopped guiding and changed his focus to lake fishing, primarily for trout, with a smattering of landlocked salmon as well. Along the way he learned how to tie shad flies, which were available at a local fly shop. It would be an important piece of foreshadowing for things to come.

A few years back, Valdez was reintroduced to kokanee fishing. “It had been 20 years since I last fished for kokanee, but I started going with friends and pretty soon got addicted to it,” he says. “I was using a lot of hoochies, and one day I had the idea that I could probably tie up a fly version. That’s kinda how this whole Draggin’ Flies thing got started.”

That was seven years or so ago. Today, Valdez is as busy as he chooses to be. He hand-ties every leader and every fly.

“I was making flies for myself and catching a lot of fish with them. Pretty soon the guys I was fishing with started asking if I wanted to share them, and then more and more people began asking if they could buy them,” he adds. “After a while I started building my own dodgers and people wanted those too.”

Customers can select from his catalog of proven patterns, or he can customize an order to their specifications. Last year he tied just shy of 4,000 flies. His flies and dodgers are available direct or through a selected number of dealers in the Northern California area.

If you would like to contact Dan or purchase his flies and dodgers, you can contact him through his Facebook Page at Draggin’ Flies by Dan. -MF