Top-Lining Early-Season Kokanee with Gary Miralles by Larry Ellis
Gary Miralles really knows how to milk a fishing rod.
I know this for a fact because I saw him do it while fishing with him in a kokanee tournament at Green Peter Reservoir back in 2009. While other anglers are scratching to find their first fish, Gary’s either limited out or is only one potential derby-winning fish away from limiting out.
The guy’s literally a walking koke machine.
He’s also a hoot to be with on a boat. On that particular trip, we found out that we had a few things in common, besides fishing that is.
For starters, we both used to play music professionally. When he found that out, he immediately started doing the “Miralles two-step,” shuffling around the boat singing, “Put the lime in the Koke-A-Nut” (the Koke-A-Nut being one of his more familiar kokanee lures). I mean, the dude’s totally filled with a never-ending supply of positive energy. And he’s like that–all–day–long. He even invented two new lures while figuring out how to get the kokes to go on-the-bite.
So here’s basically how Miralles rolls.
He knows exactly where his lures should be and why they should be there. So if one of the boat rods hasn’t been bit in 20 minutes, there’s a rock-solid reason as to why it hasn’t been tripped.
On these occasions, you can bet that Gary will either be changing lures, shifting gears toward a different color or putting on a different scented piece of shoepeg corn that he marinates in one of his Pro-Cure liquid scents.
You also have the same power to know where your lures should be and why they should be there as well. After finally attaining that knowledge, you can proceed to haul in kokanee hand over fist.
Fortunately, in a recent interview, the koke master decided to unleash some of his most guarded secrets behind fishing for kokanee in May and early June.
When Miralles gets serious about catching kokanee, he pulls up stakes in his hometown of Bella Vista, California and heads for the higher elevation lakes in Oregon, where ice-out has just occurred or is just about to occur.
The timeline for deploying early season shallow water trolling techniques is usually from the first or second week of May through mid-June, or until the lake has experienced turnover.
WATER TEMPERATURE IS KEY
Remember this if you’re going to remember anything at all about fishing for kokanee. A kokanee is a landlocked sockeye salmon. Nothing more—nothing less. It doesn’t matter whether they’re in a saltwater or a freshwater environment.
Their instincts are still the same whether they’re in the Pacific Ocean or in your backyard pond. Just like any salmon, they always bite the best during a specific range of water temperatures.
“The target temperature for kokanee is right around 50 degrees,”
...says Gary Miralles. “What you’ll find in the higher elevation lakes like Wallowa, Paulina, East Lake, and to some extent Odell, Crescent and Wickiup Reservoir, is that in May, the fish are going to be in relatively shallow water that time of year and they’re going to be up around the surface. So as soon as I get to a lake, what I immediately focus on is the water temperature on the surface. If that water temperature in anywhere from 50-degrees up to the low fifties, I figure that those fish are going to be right up on the surface or near the surface because it’s the ideal temperature for them. So very early in the season, if you find them bunched up deep, they’re not biting. You still want to find the fish that are up in that warmer water up in the surface.”
Gary took the words right out of my mouth.
On so many occasions when fishing Odell on opening day, the fish wouldn’t bite. It usually takes a few weeks after opening day before these kokanee become active, at which point you can catch them on the surface just by throwing jigs.
But during the aforementioned times, if you really searched out the lake, you very well could find some warmer surface water, and if you do, you’ll find biting kokanee.
“It might be easy to locate your inactive fish, but it’s not so easy when you’re fishing shallow,” he says. “At 15 feet, a 20-degree cone is only going to give you a 6-foot circle. So those active fish aren’t going to be anywhere under your boat. When the front of your boat goes over ‘em, they’ll be out from underneath you and you’ll never see them on your fish finder. So you have to trust that the fish will be feeding in those warmer shallower surface areas because you’ll never see them on your meter.”
Thank you Gary for that nugget of wisdom. You have changed my early season tactics from this day forth.
“Here’s what I tell everyone in my seminars,” says Miralles. “If you get on the water and you look on your screen and you don’t see fish anywhere, and the water temperature is hovering around the fifties, you can just about guarantee that those fish are on the surface. So like I said, focus on water temperature and you’ll almost always find your fish.”
Now on the other hand, when the water temperature does warm up to 50 degrees in Shelter Cove at Odell Lake, you can pick up as many kokanee as you can by casting jigs on the surface. Again, water temperature is key when looking for early season kokanee.
LOOK FOR THE SHALLOWS, FLATS AND SHELVES
If Miralles comes upon a lake that is relatively cool, where the water temperature will be in the low- to mid-forty degree range, the fish will be lethargic and not bite at all.
The first thing he will look for then are the shallow areas and the flats.
“If the water temperature is in the forties, I will go to the shallowest sections of the lake,” says Miralles. “In Wickiup Reservoir for instance, the reservoir has a lot of shelves and you’ll often find your fish in 10 feet of water. And if you’re in a lake like Crescent Lake, you’ll have to go to the far end of the lake because it’s shallow back in there and that’s where you’ll find your fish. And of course in Wallowa Lake you’ve got the shoreline along the road that goes out to the lake where it’s relatively shallow.”
It’s worth noting that the present I.G.F.A. world record kokanee, a 9-pound 10-ounce monster was caught in less than 10 feet of water by Ron Campbell on June 13, 2010, which qualifies for being an early-season kokanee given that it usually takes Wallowa longer than other lakes to thaw and experience turnover. He was also trolling one of Miralles’ Sling Blade Dodgers with a Tequila Sunrise-colored Pee Wee Hoochie trailing behind it.
Then there was Al Vose, one of Wallowa’s most consistent big-kokanee slayers, who informed me of one week where he caught a 9.05 pounder, a 7 1/2, several fish in the 4 1/2- to 5 1/2-pound range, and a whole bunch of 3 pounders. The significance here is that Al caught most of those fish in May and the 9.05 pound monster was caught in early June, which is close enough to May to get my blood boiling. The other commonality was that he was also using one of Gary’s Sling Blade Dodgers and was fishing fairly shallow as well.
RIGHT AFTER ICE OUT
…is generally speaking the best time to hit any lake, especially the areas where the sun is hitting the water first thing in the morning and stays there the longest throughout the day, because fish are flocking to these areas for food, sunlight and warmth. Sometimes this occurs in April, but if ice out occurs later than usual, it will often hold off an extra week or two for May, giving you a chance to have some of the best fishing you’ve ever experienced.
As for kokanee, they may not be attracted to the sunlight as the sun positions itself at high noon; they’ll most likely be sounding during that time. However, at first legal light, when it’s as dark as it can be, and especially if the lake has taken longer than usual to thaw out, these first sunlit areas are the first locations where you’ll want to focus on. So doing a little homework and knowing where the sun hits the water first can often be your ticket to Kokanee City.
“If you get on a lake in the early season, especially right after a lake starts thawing, obviously you’ll want to go to those shallow areas where the most sun hits it, because those are the first areas to thaw out and it will actually be your warmest water too, and that’s where you’re almost always going to find your fish,” tips Miralles.
TOP LINING TECHNIQUES RULE
Since you’ll be fishing fairly shallow early in the season when the water is cold, Miralles advocates using a specific technique when trolling for kokanee.
“What you have to do in those cold-water situations is use what we basically call top-line techniques,” notes Miralles. “The key is to get your gear back behind the boat a greater distance. Generally and quite often, I’m going to fish 200 feet behind the boat with my top lines, and then I’ll go maybe 100 to 150 feet behind the boat on my downriggers. And the reason why I run my top lines 200 feet behind the boat is because the boat has an effect on the fish as it moves over them when you’re fishing shallow, and the fish will tend to move away from the boat. So by getting your lines further back, it allows the fish to move back into position on your lines.”
It also allows you to be able to manipulate the boat so you can drag the lures over to a different area than the direction where your boat was originally traveling. This is one of Miralles’ top-secret techniques when working points.
The 9lb 10oz World Record Kokanee caught on Wallowa Lake by Ron Campbell
If he knows that trout or kokanee are hanging out in the flats along the front of a point, moving the boat directly over a shallow point will more than likely spook the fish away from the point. Instead, he parallels one side of a point, staying at least 30 feet away from the bank. Then when his boat is about 150 feet past the end of the point, he will double back, paralleling the other side of the point. This causes the lure to cross the shallow flats alongside the main point without the fish being spooked by the boat.
“I’ll also generally run my downriggers even when I’m fishing shallow when I’m top lining, just because I can get my lures down accurately that way and fish at other shallow-water depths,” tips Miralles.
This is one of the only times when Miralles will use flashers on his top lines, which will generally consist of a chain of number 4 willow leaf or Colorado blades leading to a spinner or a Cripplure.
“On my downriggers, I’ll probably use a Sling Blade in combination with a Koke-A-Nut or a 1 1/2-inch Pee Wee Hoochie, or maybe even a Wiggle Hoochie,” he adds.
Early in the year, Miralles also does better using smaller-profile baits such as small spinners and the smaller pink Koke-A-Nuts, and sometimes he will cut the hair on the back of the Koke-A-Nut to shorten the lure even more.
THE 2-ROD ENDORSEMENT/STAMP
Having a license for running a second rod can really pay off when working topwater techniques. You can now run multiple rods at different depths to make sure that you cover the entire surface, and by the surface, we’re talking from 6 inches down to 10 feet.
“I’m usually running two top lines 200 feet in back of the boat on the surface and I stagger the downrigger lines. I’ll have one line about 5 feet deep about 150 feet back running off of one downrigger and then another line 10 feet deep about 150 feet back off of the other downrigger,” advises Miralles. “You want to stagger your lines so they won’t tangle.”
So if there is only one person in the boat, the angler should run one top-line about 200 feet in the back of the boat on the surface, and another line 5-feet deep off of a downrigger.
With two people on the boat, you can run two top lines and then stagger your two downriggers at different depths as previously mentioned.
“Also, when you’re top lining for kokanee, I like to use a little stiffer rod, and I usually will use graphite on the surface, mainly because you have so much line in back,” advises Miralles. “You also need a faster tip action so that when the fish hits it, that stretch on your mono pulls down and it’s going to set the hook better than a glass rod will.”
Miralles also highly advises using line-counter reels when top lining lures 200 feet in back of the boat so that you’ll always maintain the same consistent length from the lure to your rod.
“Now on the downriggers, I’ll always use my glass and my softer kokanee rods.”
Miralles’ kokanee rods have much more give when it comes to fighting the soft mouth of a kokanee. The parabolic bend of the rod acts just like a rubber snubber, and believe me, you lose a lot less fish when using these sticks.
Miralles’ new kokanee rods are made of three different materials that act in unison. It has a semi stout butt with a parabolic action, and the tip is literally so soft, you can pull the rod tip all the way down to the middle of blank without it breaking. It’s just an incredible kokanee stick.
“This rod has an action softer than a snubber,” says Miralles. “In the process of making this stick, they blew up a lot of rods in the process of finding the right materials, but when they finally finished with it, I fished that prototype and I caught at least 20 kokanee and never lost one fish. I knew this rod was my dream kokanee rod. The tip is as small as an ink cartridge of a ball point pen.”
MOVE WITH THE SCHOOL
“Once you locate fish and start catching fish, you want to stay in those areas and work those areas really heavily and catch as many fish as you can,” advises Miralles. “So you’ll always want to move with the schools.”
If you look at a kokanee’s eyes, they are larger than most fish, so they have larger and highly light-sensitive pupils. So if it’s a warm, clear day, as the sun starts rising, the fish might start sounding.
“So what you might find is that early in the morning you’ll be picking up your fish right on the surface, but once the sun gets straight up, you’re going to find that the fish are going to drop down,” notes Miralles. “You may get them as deep as 15 or 20 feet. So if you start missing fish later in the day, and the sun’s been up and it’s a warm day, I generally recommend focusing on going down a little deeper until you get back into the fish.”
“1.2 to 1.5 miles an hour is a pretty common trolling speed for kokanee,” says Miralles. “But if the water temperatures are a little colder, you’ll want to troll a little slower. In some cases, I’ve had to slow my trolling speed down to 1 mile an hour before I start hitting fish.”
…is easy. Gary usually runs 10-pound test monofilament for his main line and then runs an 8-inch piece of 8-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon for his leader. 10-pound P-Line CXX is a great choice for mainline because it breaks at a much greater tensile strength than 10 pounds.
And just in case you want to copy the exact rig that Ron Campbell used when he caught that I.G.F.A. world-record kokanee, here’s what he used.
Ron was using 10-pound test high contrast fluorescent green P-Line for his main line. To that, he connected a Sling Blade Dodger. Running off of his dodger was 15 inches of 10-pound test clear fluorocarbon leading to one of Miralles’ Pee Wee Hoochies in the color Tequila Sunrise. That setup is to this day one of the hottest go-to rigs on any lake in the kokanee arena.
Miralles also recommends using short leaders, generally 1 1/2 to 2 times the length of your dodger, especially if you’re using hoochie-type lures like the Koke-A-Nut that do not have an action of their own. The short leader allows the dodger to impart a jerking action to the hoochie. In fact, most of the time you can’t run your leaders too short.
However, should the surface water temperature drop between 48 and 49 degrees, he advises lengthening the leader slightly so that the less-aggressive kokanee will tend to strike the less-active lure at their leisure. But only lengthen the leader to no more than 3 times the length of the dodger.
THE IMPORTANCE OF TIPPING YOUR HOOKS
“There are several reasons why a fish hits a lure,” explains Miralles. “One, of course, is vibration, second is its appearance and flash, and third of course is the scent, with scent probably being one of the strongest of their senses. So we use corn primarily, and we only use shoepeg corn—very important!
So what I use is shoepeg corn and I use individual containers soaked in various Pro-Cure oils, not the gels but the oils.
What I like to do is mix my corn in about four different containers. The scents that I like to use are Kokanee Special, which is an anise-based scent. But I’ll use a lot of garlic scents and I’ll also use krill, and the krill will turn your corn a pink color. Predator will do the same thing but it’s not an oil. Last year we experimented with Bloody Tuna, and surprisingly, we did really well with it.”
So you won’t catch Gary without at least four containers of corn soaked in various Pro-Cure oils. And he pegs each hook with at least one kernel.
However at Wallowa Lake, the big thing there is to tip your hooks with live maggots. That’s what the big boys want, and the trophy hunters do love their maggots when tipping their hooks for kokanee.
“One other scent that really works well is called “Carp Spit”, he jokes. “I don’t really know why it’s called that, but it’s really a producer. But the one thing you always want to do is to keep these scents cool. You don’t want to keep it out in the sun.”
The importance here is to make sure and tip every hook with at least one or two kernels of corn. No corn—no koke bites. And make sure to carry lots of white shoepeg corn, not those big yellow kernels.
THE KEY COLORS
…of your lures are going to have the same coloration as the food they eat, which is basically zooplankton-type coloration.
“You’re going to find plankton where that ideal temperature is, and the kokanee will be feeding on it. A prime example of what I’ve learned on plankton is that we have zooplankton up in Shasta Lake right on the Pitt Arm. That is the only arm on our lake where the water comes out of the farmlands of Fall River.
“It brings in a lot of nutrients into the arm of the lake. And in the spring, it’s the ideal environment for the development of the plankton. It actually gets so massive that it looks like ropes of blood. This stuff is literally just balled up reproducing on these nutrients, and every kind of species you can imagine just swims around eating it.
“That’s why I use lures that look like the plankton. It’s kind of a copperish or kind of an orangish color, so everything I fish with is kind of an orangish color, the Cripplures, the Hum Dingers, and I like to use the Spinner Hoochies because they also create a lot of vibration. You can literally watch these fish swimming with their mouths wide open and eating it.”
Remember this when you find that ideal water temperature and especially where you might find plankton in the thermocline that can be located on your fishfinder.
Plankton’s the same color in most every lake. So use a lot of copperish/orange and almost blood-red patterns contrasted against a yellow background, like the Spinner Hoochie or the Pee Wee Hoochie in Tequila Sunrise. That’s why those colors produce so well in these lakes.
Now that you’ve received the basics for knowing where to fish for kokanee and the reason behind using them, you’ve got a rock-solid foundation for catching the tastiest fish that swims. It’s great feeling autonomous with the power of not having to ask every Dick and Jane how and where they caught their kokanee, when you can do the very same thing, if not better on your own.
- written by Larry Ellis