Effective Kokanee Techniques by Kent Cannon
There are a total of 206+ lakes spread out over nine Western States that contain Kokanee.
A beautiful day for kokanee fishing on Green Peter Reservoir
Being prolific breeders Kokanee present a unique opportunity for fishermen with limits of up to 25 fish per day not including the by-catch of trout and other species.
Tie that with the leaping, thrashing fight of a fish gone wild and you have a combination that creates the passionate fishermen commonly known as kokeheads or kokaholics.
Once hooked, kokanee are known for aerial displays; leaping, wild runs, rolling and thrashing about in an effort to gain freedom. Kokanee also have a reputation for having a soft mouth although, in my experience, their mouth is not as soft as their absolute dedication to getting free and when the bite is on, constant action is the name of the game!
There are three common methods of catching this dynamic silver torpedo:
#1; is jigging, which is effective in the early spring and in the fall at pre-spawn.
#2; is still fishing with bait which is effective in the spring when the fish move in shallow after being semi-dormant over the winter.
#3; trolling which requires specialized equipment but is the most effective over the longest period of time from spring through the fall and into the early winter.
Jigging: Early in the spring, the fish move to areas where the food supply is the most abundant. In the spring, the fish move into the shallows to take advantage of freshwater shrimp, mayflies, damselflies and Chironomids. In the fall, the fish start to school up in the deeper areas off creeks and rivers where there is an abundance of cool oxygenated water and the resulting plankton to feed on.
Jigging can be effective from a variety of locations including docks, bridges, boats, and even from the bank. Jigging is probably the simplest method to catch kokanee because the equipment is minimal and because the fish are schooled up and either feeding heavily and/or highly aggressive.
Spinning reels with a medium/fast action rod work best for jigging and still bait fishing. Use braid for these techniques because there is little or no line stretch when setting the hook.
For example, if you were jigging with mono at 60’ and you had a line stretch of 10%, it would mean that the line would stretch six feet before the hook moves. There is rarely enough time from the strike to raise your rod up six feet for a hook set! For vertical jigging, tie on about three feet of stiff fluorocarbon leader. The leader needs to be stiff (not limp) or as the line falls, the braid can pass the jig and get tangled.
The fewer tangles and problems the more time you are in the strike zone!
Horizontal Jigging: This is extremely effective when the fish have moved into the shallows and are tightly grouped. It is a lot of fun and a great way to get kids interested in fishing. Target the shallow areas off points, shallow protected bays, and areas with grass where you can expect to find bug hatches.
Cast your jig or lure then count to three after the jig hits the water; retrieve a short distance; let it sink etc… The fish will usually strike on the fall. Gradually increase your count with each cast until you find the depth of the fish then continue to target that depth. Spoons such as the Krocodile, Acme Kastmaster, Wigston’s Tasmanian Devil, in assorted colors all work very well.
Jigging vertically: Vertical jigging is effective in the early spring/winter when fish are schooled up and in the fall when the fish are grouped up pre-spawn. You can locate the fish by either using your fishfinder or just heading out to where the boats are in a group.
Anchor up both front and rear to keep from swinging around in the wind.
Lower your jig to depth with consistent pulls of the line until you reach the fish. If you don’t know the correct depth, lower in stages until you find fish. Once you have the right depth, mark your line with a piece of tape so you can quickly get back down to the strike zone after landing a fish. Raising the rod two to three feet and letting it fall, fluttering the rod tip up and down, swimming the jig back and forth will all work. Crippled herring, Buzz Bombs, and colored grubs on a lead head jig, are all effective for this type of jigging.
Still fishing bait for kokanee: This method can lead to the quickest limits of all of the techniques covered here. Still fishing is done in much the same fashion as jigging, without the jigging. You use the same rod, reel and line. Put a jig on your leader that is heavy enough for the depth that you will be fishing (deeper=heavier, shallow=lighter). Heavy enough that your line will quickly get down to the target zone but not so heavy it inhibits your ability to see slight movement at your rod tip.
Two jigs fitted for still bait fishing.
The idea of bait fishing is to add the attraction of bait and scent to your presentation.
Some like to put the bait right on the treble hooks of a jig when bait fishing. I remove the hooks from the jig and install a heavy leader in place of the original hook with a treble hook six to eight inches below the jig body. Position your bait a few feet above the school and wait patiently for a slight bobbing action at your rod tip. A Slight jiggle at the rod tip indicates a strike. Set the hook with a quick upward lift.
Trolling: Trolling is my first choice of the way to spend a day. When trolling, you can actually relax somewhat and let the boat and equipment do the work. Trolling is effective from early spring through late fall and even in the winter when the ice is off.
During the heat of summer when the fish are spread out over the lake, trolling is about the only way to catch Kokanee. When surface temperatures are excessive, the fish will be found at the thermocline which is that line where the warmer water and the cooler lake water meet. The depth of this line varies with the temperature of the upper water column and can be found from 25’ all of the way down to 65’ or more depending on the geographical location.
To be effective at trolling for kokanee you need to be able to consistently target this layer in the water column and to do this requires the use of downriggers with the exception of early spring when long lining is very effective.
With downriggers, you can target fish with little between you, and the fish but an ultra-light rod or as I like to call it, fishing naked (not to be confused with fishing in the nude). Thanks to the technology of downriggers, you can now fish without the heavy lead weights, stiff pole, bulky reel and lead core line.
The fish finder is probably the single most important tool, slightly in front of downriggers.
Given the choice of having the best electronics or the fanciest boat, I would go with the electronics almost every time. Being able to locate and catch fish is my primary reason for owning a boat.
A nice Wallowa Lake Kokanee
Downrigger rods for kokanee should be medium/soft; providing as much cushion as possible to help overcome the stress of pulling against a soft-mouthed fish loaded up by the forward motion of the boat.
There are quite a few rods available specifically for kokanee by almost all of the major rod manufacturers at a very reasonable cost. I have several, and all of them have their fine points.
My personal favorite at this time is made by Vance’s Tackle. The rod has the softness required to cushion the strike and enough backbone to land larger fish like lake trout.
Trolling reels: The only good reels, in this case, are level winds.
No matter how many times you let out and reel in your line, you will never experience line twist with a level wind reel. On the other hand, a spinning reel will, if the reel has a 5/1 retrieval rate, give you five twists in your line for every one crank of the handle which leads to tangles and less time with your line in the water. The two things to look for in a trolling reel are, a high retrieval rate, and a line-out clicker.
A high retrieval rate is important when fishing deep to take up the slack left in the line as it is released from the downrigger. The faster the slack is retrieved the less chance for the fish to throw the hook. The clicker makes it easy when dropping the downrigger ball. Engage the line out clicker, release the bail, then drop the line to depth. The slight tension of the line out clicker keeps the reel from free spooling. Good reels feature between two and six stainless ball bearings; the more bearings the better the reel. That does not mean go out and break the bank, just buy the best you can afford.
The preferred trolling line for kokanee is 8 lb. test monofilament.
Typical Trolling Reel, dodger and spinner
Mono has the tendency to stretch under pressure which in this case means forgiveness. This line will help land by-catch (the occasional giant Mack or Brown trout). Coupled with a good rod, you will bring more fish to the boat using quality mono than you will with braid. When I first started trolling seriously for kokanee I used my steelhead rods with braid because I didn’t have the cash to invest in rigs strictly for kokanee. Once I made the switch to softer rods and mono; my catch rate increased over 20%! I still like braid, because of the sensitivity, but mono will bring more fish to the boat.
Terminal gear for kokanee has evolved considerably in the last twenty years.
With the more common use of downriggers, a host of new products have come onto the market, one of the most significant of which is dodgers. Dodgers are a single blade with one or two bends designed to create flash (which attracts fish) and vibration.
Top lft: Koke-A-Nut, Top Right: R&K Micro Hoochie
Dodgers come in multiple sizes, shapes and colors.
Depending on the speed at which you troll, you will need to choose a dodger designed for that speed. Less bend allows faster speeds without spinning while more bend gives better action at slow speeds.
My recommendation is to have a selection of offerings by various manufacturers because each has strong points in different situations. Crystal Basin, Shasta Tackle, Vance’s, Sep’s and Mack’s all offer a different type of dodger that fit specific conditions.
For lures that have no action of their own, run the lure eight to twelve inches behind the dodger.
The fluttering of the dodger will give the lure action as it swings back and forth. A few examples of lures that have no action of their own are: Vance’s Kokanee Bugs, Shasta Tackle’s Koke-A-Nut and Crystal Basin’s Hoochies, and Mack’s Wedding Ring. All of these are extremely effective when run closely behind a dodger.
When running a spoon behind a dodger, run between 18 – 30 inches of leader from the dodger to the spoon. Some good spoon choices are: Pro-troll’s Kokanee Killer, Hot Spot’s Apex, Vance’s Tackle Sockeye Slammer, and Shasta Tackle’s Cripplure. Glow colors and UV are the go-to preference!
My most effective bait for trolling is shoepeg corn (where legal).
I marinate my corn the evening before and let it sit in the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator until needed.
Shoepeg corn in assorted scents: natural, blue UV, Green UV and Red UV.
Once on the water, keep the bait in the cooler!
Some of my go-to scents are: ProCure Krill oil, garlic, anise, crawfish, squid, and Carp spit. Pautzke’s and Mikes put out some quality scents as well.
The key here is to make your bait up in baggies and write the formula on the bag with a felt pen. Play with mixing scents until you come up with a mixture that works well for you. In areas where corn is not legal, try using bay shrimp which can be marinated as well.
- written by Kent Cannon