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All About Kokanee by Jason Brooks

It seems with several salmon runs on the decline and steelhead seasons being challenged in courts as well as by warming oceans that anglers are trying to figure out what else there is to fish for. Some are taking to bass and walleye while others are breaking out the trout gear. But salmon anglers know salmon fishing and that is probably why one of the most popular fisheries is for kokanee.

The landlocked salmon is targeted much like their larger ocean-bound cousins and this makes it a natural transition for the angler.

kokanee fishing sockeye fish troll jig trolling

The smaller species of sockeye, the kokanee, is a fish that most anglers think they know all about since they target the larger species.

Though they are the same genetically there are several differences in the fish as well as their habitat that anglers need to take into account. Most kokanee lakes are stocked with fish supplemented from hatcheries. The strain is often either not known, mixed or in rare instances a pure strain from the body of water that the fish live in. But since hatcheries have been introducing fish into lakes this means the process of natural selection isn’t a factor. What I mean by this is that if a strain of kokanee are small and they are spawned in a hatchery then the offspring will tend to be small. Same goes for a larger strain.

Some lakes are known for big kokanee, such as Wallowa Lake in Oregon, Lake Roosevelt in Washington and Flaming Gorge in Wyoming. There is more to big fish than just genetics but they do play a big part of the equation.

When you have a good combination of food, survival, and genetics then you get big fish. Some anglers think density plays a part in it all and to some extent it does. Mostly when it comes to food sources. Just like any other ecosystem, there needs to be enough food to grow and when there is a lot of competition then the fish are not eating as many calories and therefore don’t grow to their full potential. However, the kokanee is primarily a zooplankton eater and in reality most lakes will support enough plankton to feed the fish.

My hometown lake, Lake Chelan, had a few years where the kokanee where reaching giant proportions and then all of a sudden the fish creels revealed smaller kokanee. So, what happened? Some think the lake has too many kokanee in it, but in reality the lake is so large that this is virtually impossible. Instead it is highly likely that the genetics of larger fish simply were replaced with a more natural sized strain.

Each Labor Day weekend when I was young we would go to the Twenty-Five Mile Creek Campground and watch the native kokanee spawn. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife had installed a series of runs filled with gravel and made for ideal spawning habitat. Thousands of kokanee would be in the creek with their red bodies and green heads. Most were around twelve inches long. This is the native strain and they were of natural size through natural selection. But in August we would venture to the far end of the lake and fish the mouth of the Stehekin River where the kokanee were stacked up and waiting to go upstream and spawn. These fish are much larger—some over twenty inches—and they spawned in a larger river and the natural selection of this strain produced a larger fish. It is hard for a fish larger than twelve inches to spawn in a small creek such as Twenty-Five Mile Creek but in the Stehekin the larger fish were stronger and the smolts flushed in early spring to the safety of the lake.

So, the size of the fish might just be due to the ability to spawn, or in hatchery supported lakes it might come down to which fish are being selected to raise.

There aren’t too many studies to support either theory, of food source or spawning source, but either way the fish vary from body of water and that means you might need to vary your fishing tactics. What might work on one lake doesn’t mean it will work on another lake, or even time of year or from season to season depending on if the lake is supplemented with fish or if a natural spawn was good or bad.

Kokanee are a “landlocked” sockeye salmon but don’t confuse this with “lake locked.”

kokanee fishing sockeye fish troll jig trolling

The fish is very unique and much like their true ocean running sockeye cousins, both strains can and do spawn in lakes. The lake needs to be cold and have a gravel shoreline where the waves will flush over the redds. Lake Oysoyoos in British Columbia has both lake and stream spawning fish. Lake Coeur d’Alene in Idaho is known for its shoreline spawning kokanee. So the lake doesn’t have to have a stream or river for the fish to spawn but by having an additional source it increases the survivability of the fish.

We fish for them in lakes and the best lakes have an inlet and outlet of streams or rivers that allow for a natural spawning of the fish and also allows us to narrow down where to start looking for them.

In early spring you might fish where the streams enter and warm the water that has been iced over all winter. In the summer it is the deeper part of the lake where the fish tend to live, well below the surface where eagles, ospreys and other airborne predators live. But in other lakes where the threat comes from deeper waters, again, such as Lake Chelan where the Mackinaw thrive on eating kokanee you might find a summer’s day fishing the top half of the lake.

When August arrives and the fish start to head to the spawning grounds then you too should move to the sources that feed the lake. The fish tend to congregate near the inlet water sources, much like how ocean salmon head towards rivers. But there are no tides to wait for here, instead there are fall rainstorms or just the need to get upstream and spawn.

In lakes were both sockeye return and kokanee live, such as Lake Sammamish in Washington State, studies have been done to determine if they are truly different species, sub-species or the same species. Genetically they are the same but it is obvious there are differences. Size is the first noticeable variance with most kokanee averaging 9-12 inches and sockeye much larger. Another difference is that they won’t spawn together. It is unknown why or how these differences came to be but the kokanee is not the exact same as a sockeye even if genetically they are identical. It comes back to the size of the fish, and though some strains still carry the ocean size abilities most kokanee are between 9 and 12 inches and won’t get any bigger no matter the food sources. 

The kokanee itself is primarily native to the Pacific Northwest with a few strains that are found in Russia and Japan.

A very unique part of the kokanee world is that there is such a variance of strains that are unique to the region that they were formed in. Most were sockeye that returned to a lake which was eventually cut-off from the river that led to the ocean. The fish adapted and became a “kokanee” and this is why there are so many differences in the size and runs of fish in the lakes.

Because they are a popular fish, taste good, and can survive in cold water lakes the fish have been introduced in other states that don’t have rivers reaching the Pacific Ocean where sockeye live such as New York, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana and even central Canada.

Since the fish are primarily plankton eaters it seems there is no bait that they would bite. But kokanee do eat other things including small aquatic bugs, freshwater shrimp and other things.

kokanee fishing sockeye fish troll jig trolling

For some reason kokanee have a “sweet tooth” of sorts. Shoepeg corn for some reason always accompanies the kokanee angler. The oil from the corn is sweet and so are cured shrimp that is also a popular bait. So is anise which is known for its sweet and licorice like odor. Krill are small shrimp-like creatures and sockeye will feed on them in the ocean.

Surprisingly the kokanee, which have never been in the ocean, will also be attracted to krill. Kokanee are a predator of sorts, much like all of the other salmon species and blood attracts them. This is why “old school” kokanee anglers often used nightcrawlers to tip the hooks along with a kernel or two of white shoepeg corn.

With modern science intertwined with bait and lure companies we can offer a variety of scents and additives to our fishing arsenal. Pro-Cure, a company out of Salem, Oregon and near the famed kokanee lakes of Oregon and Washington has done some extensive product development for the kokanee angler.

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Their scents and additives have been tested by professional anglers, guides, and “average Joes” throughout the Northwest and Canada. The Pro-Cure Wizard Killer Kokanee Korn Magic is probably one of the most universal corn cures for the kokanee angler. Along with Bloody Tuna Anise, Kokanee Special, Nightcrawler, and the list goes on and on with Pro-Cure’s line-up of attractants. Though each lake might be different there is enough similarities to know you can load up a variety of these products and catch some fish.

Another Northwest company that has done extensive research on kokanee fishing is Mack’s Lure out of Wenatchee, Washington. Within a few hour’s drive of Lake Chelan (where marketing director Bob Loomis grew up) and Lake Roosevelt, this company has a long line of lures to catch kokanee. A few years ago Mack’s Lure acquired Shasta Tackle, which is well known to the Wallowa Lake anglers in Oregon and those that fish northern California.

kokanee fishing sockeye fish troll jig trolling bob loomis

The amount of kokanee knowledge with this company is beyond comprehension when it comes to product development. The Double Whammy lure is a variation of the well-known Wedding Ring Spinner with a double hook set-up downsized for the soft mouth of kokanee and a Mylar “Smile Blade” replacing the metal Colorado blade versions for trout. This allows you to troll as super slow speeds.

The Koke-a-Nut is a lure that Mack’s obtained from the Shasta Tackle acquisition and is well known to catch big kokanee. When it comes to looking for resources then look to the companies that have a history of product research specifically for kokanee. Though they are similar to the ocean going cousins we can see that they vary enough that you need to change up the gear to fit the fish.

To find kokanee in a lake you must understand that they are very light sensitive.

Water clarity, temperature, and depth will help you determine where the fish are living. They are also a “cold water” fish and like the water to be around 50 degree Fahrenheit.

This means locating the thermocline in the lake to find the fish. Cold water sinks in warm weather but when the air temperature keeps the surface cold you have an affect known as “lake turnover.” Unstable air and water temperatures cause a “churning affect” when warm water wants to rise and cold water sinks. A turnover occurs each spring and fall when the weather is unstable.

The water stabilizes during winter and summer when the temperature is constant. So this means that finding fish in the spring and fall might be harder to do than in summer and winter, when the lake’s thermocline is more defined.

Once you find kokanee then remember they are a schooling fish, just like their ocean cousins. The old adage “never leave fish to find fish” is a good rule to live by when it comes to kokanee fishing.

If you start catching them then stay put and keep doing what you were doing. Until you find the fish you are searching for them.

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It is best to stagger rods and even use different lures, colors, and scents. One thing that is constant when it comes to kokanee fishing is speed.

Since the fish are usually found at the thermocline they are active feeders and willing to chase down a lure. But this is done at a slow speed, mostly because the fish have soft mouths and if you catch one going to fast you simply pull the hooks out.

Most anglers like to fish for kokanee around 1 to 1.7 mph.

This means you need to use gear that can be fished slow. Thinking back to the companies that do extensive testing specifically for kokanee, this is why it is import to use their products. Some dodgers and flashers need a certain speed to work, while others can be slowed down. The Flash-Lite “pop gear,” again by Mack’s Lure is made of Mylar wings and can be fished down to ½ mph or up to 3 mph (or more). It is a versatile attractor for both kokanee and trout fishing. Same goes for the Double D dodger and the Sling Blade dodgers, both by Mack’s as they can be trolled at slow speeds and give a big “kick out” to the lure trailing behind. It is best to use short and stiff leaders to amplify the action of the dodger.

kokanee fishing sockeye fish troll jig trolling

The fishing rod is probably one of the most important fishing tools the kokanee angler can obtain. They are very specific to the fish, as again, the landlocked sockeye fight much like their ocean cousins with high water jumps, tugs, and thrashing as they near the boat. With the soft mouth, small jaw bone and strong fight most fish are lost just before landing them. This is where the “kokanee” rod make the difference. Long and limber they are a large spring of sort that don’t allow any slack in the line which helps keep the fish hooked. Yet they are soft enough to allow the fish to thrash and jump but not come free.  A long and limber rod is needed and a long handled net should accompany this fishing tool. Being able to reach out and net the fish is a must. You will notice once you get close to netting the fish it will try and make a few last escapes. When it comes to landing a kokanee it is best to reach out as the angler is pulling it in and scoop the fish before it gets too close to the boat. 

Kokanee fishing is a lot of fun and fills the niche for the salmon angler.

Unlike waiting for a certain run of fish to show or a portion of the ocean to open, most kokanee lakes can be fished year around, if open by regulations, and offer some great eating fish.

kokanee fishing sockeye fish troll jig trolling

When lakes freeze over you can drill a hole through the ice and sit in a chair and catch a salmon. The same lake can offer the kokanee angler an opportunity to catch a fish in the spring, summer and fall. Though fall is the hardest time of year since the mature fish will be heading to the spawning grounds, either a stream or a gravel shoreline. Either way knowing everything you can about the fish will help you catch more of them.

- written by Jason Brooks


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