They’re one of the most omni-present fish species in the Oregon Cascades and in Washington lakes. Yet they can be a difficult fish to catch.
We’re talking about the ubiquitous kokanee, otherwise known as land-locked sockeye salmon.
Many people grow up thinking that fishing for them is an exercise in futility, much like hunting the California grunion. I mean, everybody knows that grunion do exist, but when pushed against the wall, most people have never actually seen one, although they have tried on numerous occasions to hunt for them under the most-optimum conditions.
It’s the same thing with kokanee. To some people, it’s like hunting a hummingbird. Evasive and fleet of feather. You know that they’re there one minute because someone either just said that they were there, or you may just have spotted a ghost-like apparition out of the corner of your eye. But the next minute, they’re just gone.
So did you actually see one, or was it just a phantom?
One of the most successful kokanee fishermen in the Pacific Northwest admits that kokanee were almost impossible to catch at first, although growing up, he, his father and his grandfather caught trout like they were going out of style.
“When my dad and I first got into kokanee fishing about a million years ago, we were up at Paulina Lake with my grandpa and we had no idea what we were doing,” explains Jeremy Jahn. “Well, there was a group of people off to the side of us who were limiting out every day, and we couldn’t buy a fish. So my grandpa went over to them and talked to them, and then bought that exact setup. We started catching limits right off the bat.”
Now, although he doesn’t like to admit it, if Jeremy catches a trout, back in the lake it goes. He devotes all of his time into catching kokanee and teaching other people how to catch kokanee.
In fact, his long-lining kokanee trolling rig is tailor-made for the person who is just getting into kokanee fishing, and he has given up all of his trade secrets because of his love of kokanee fishing. I asked him one day why he so freely gives away the tips that he worked so hard to earn, dues that he paid which made him one of the most-revered kokanee men of the decade.
“I’m actually making up for all the times I was fishing with my dad when I was younger,” he affectionately jokes. “I mean he didn’t tell anybody anything. We used to put dummy lures out on the dash, you know, things that were not working. And we never used cleaning stations. People would ask us how the fishing is and we’d say ‘It’s horrible’. My dad was pretty top secret on all of that.”
Now, Jeremy does everything he can in promoting how to fish for kokanee.
“It isn’t like you’re competing against 10,000 people for a small amount of fish,” as he likened kokanee fishing to competing against bass fishermen. “You can be at a lake with a million fish in it, and there’s no way you’re going to catch all of the fish out of the lake. And basically, the more fish you catch, the healthier the population’s going to get.”
In fact, although the largemouth bass is without a doubt the most popular freshwater sport fish in America, Jeremy and his colleagues are working on making kokanee number two. And you can eat these fish without feeling any guilt.
While he admits that he isn’t a jigger, trolling is his kung fu, and it is strong! He likes the way the rod goes off in its holder. And then there’s the bite—the incredible, edible kokanee bite, the bite that lures fishermen into its clutches until every molecule of your being screams “Kokanee or bust!”
Jeremy’s two main methods for trolling for kokanee are using downriggers and an old-school technique called long lining.
Longlining can be defined by two different definitions by two different types of fishermen.
Take the brown trout fishing populace for example. These guys will set out their plugs at distances of 300 feet or greater from the boat while constantly ripping their plugs for that big brown explosion of fury.
That’s one type of long lining.
Then there’s Jeremy’s definition. The well-tempered longliner. The one that constantly puts kokanee in your boat day in and day out.
Jeremy’s long lining kokanee rig is perfect for fishermen who are new to the sport and who don’t own boats with downriggers.
Jeremy’s long lining kokanee rig is simple to tie up and can be used with just about any kind of 8- to 9-foot medium-action trolling rod with a fast tip.
“You want enough butt to be able to reel in the sinker and the lake troll, but a nice soft tip so you can see the action of the lake troll making movement on the rod,” advises Jeremy. “And you definitely want a graphite rod for long lining. I always tell people don’t go out and get a specialty rod just for long lining. Use something that you already have, like a steelhead rod.”
Jahn’s preference is Lamiglas graphite rods with a medium action and a fast tip.
On his long lining rod is attached a baitcasting reel loaded with 40-pound braid.
“The braid doesn’t have any stretch, so it actually gives my lake trolls more action,” notes Jahn.
So on the end of his mainline, he attaches a small Dual Lock snap, which then attaches directly to his banana sinker.
“The rudder on the Cousin Carl has a hole in the bottom of it where you can attach a weight, but I do not use that hole for a sinker because it deadens the action of the lake troll and the lure,” explains Jahn.
“So I like to use banana sinkers and I’ll put a split ring on the end of the bead chain and then attach a snap swivel to the split ring, which I then attach directly to the rudder of the Cousin Carl.”
The Cousin Carl lake troll is by far his favorite lake troll set up.
At the end of the Cousin Carl, Jahn attaches a 3/16-inch hot orange rubber snubber made by Mack’s Lures. The rubber snubber allows the kokanee to strike his spinners without having their delicate mouths ripped open.
On the end of the rubber snubber, Jahn always runs a 28-inch leader of 15-pound monofilament to his lures, no matter what kind of lure he is using; the reason being—you don’t have to retie your lures as often, and kokanee are not leader shy.
“I prefer lures that have spinner blades on them,” stresses Jahn. “For instance, the Wedding Rings work fantastic. One of the lures that I make is called the Bellringer. What I do for those lures is get the smallest blade that’s on a Cousin Carl and have it coated with either silver or 24-carat gold. It’s an explosively-effective lure!”
Remember that you will not be using a dodger with these long lining setups. Dodgers are used primarily for downrigger fishing, and most of the time, Jahn prefers to use an 8-inch leader coming from a dodger to a lure that his no action of its own, which includes spinners.
But this is long lining, and it is one cool way of loading up on the kokanee, especially if you’re like that aforementioned hummingbird hunter who has never caught a koke in his life.
“It’s one of the most effective ways of fishing,” says Jahn. “And for people who don’t have high-end electronics or downriggers, and might go fishing once or twice a year, long lining can be really effective. Two guys at the Odell Lake derby two years ago came up to me and said, ‘We’re never buying downriggers; this is so much fun. We probably caught 75 fish with your stuff and we were releasing fish!’”
On the end of his lures, he always runs a kernel or two of white shoepeg corn.
He admits that kokanee will eat worms as well, but says, “so do trout, and if it’s not a kokanee, it goes back in the water if it’s in my boat. So if you want to be specific for kokanee, you’ll definitely want to use corn.”
Jeremy always carries a variety of banana sinkers on his boat ranging from 1/4 to 6 ounces, but doesn’t like using sinkers that weigh more than 2 ounces.
“If I need 6 ounces to get down, then I just go to my downriggers,” says Jahn. “But a lot of people I know use as much as 6 ounces to get their gang trolls down deep.”
That being said, there is a reason why he uses no more than 2 ounces of lead.
“Those fish will move a long way to come up and hit gear,” notes Jahn. “I’ve been at the lake before using 2 ounces of weight and 60 feet back. I might be lucky if I’m 25-feet down. And all the fish I’m marking are deep—between 60 to 90 feet, and I’m still catching fish. So they will come out of the woodwork if they see something that’s irritating them to get it out of their territory.”
Almost always, Jahn is running his gear 60 feet behind the boat, and he adjusts the depth of his lake trolls by using the weight of his sinker.
You also should consider getting a two-rod endorsement stamp, because if you’re fishing one person to a boat, you can mix up your gear a little bit to hone in on what the kokanee are favoring on that particular day. If you have two people on board, that’s four rods you’ll have in the water, and in utilizing this manner of fishing, you can mix up different depths to dial in the exact rigging they prefer.
“And when you’re long lining it’s really, really important to do 30-degree turns,” emphasizes Jahn.
A 30-degree turn has a dramatic effect on how a lure acts in the water column, especially when long lining.
The idea is to troll through a school and then make a 30-degree turn in one direction. As soon as the line that went to the side straightens out, make a 30-degree turn in the opposite direction.
When you make your 30-degree turn, the tackle on the inside corner will slow down and drop, and then the tackle on the outside corner will speed up and raise in the water column. It is this stop-and-drop or speed-up-and-lift action that is your ticket to Koke City.
“Kokanee have a tendency of following your gear for long periods of time when you’re trolling, and I’ve got underwater photography showing it,” explains Jahn.
“So as soon as you make a 30-degree turn, you’ve got a lure that’s either slowing down in their face, or you’ll have something speeding up and going away from them. It’s this erratic action that might be just enough to trigger a bite when the fishing is slow.”
So when the fishing is red hot, by all means, troll straight.
But if the bite is leaning a little on the slow side, try this 30-degree turning method and watch your hookups soar. Just make sure that you count your kokanee before you bring them to the dock!
- written by Larry Ellis