The Little Salmon of the Lakes
There’s a lot of buzz right now about kokanee in the West.
More and more fishermen are discovering—and re-discovering-- this little lake-bound salmon.
Part of the reason for its popularity is the breaking of two world records in Oregon’s Wallowa Lake in 2010. Another part of the reason is that kokanee are very obliging; find them, put the right lure in front of them, and they’ll bite.
And, of course, kokanee are excellent table fare and superlative when smoked.
While kokanee are often known as “silvers”, “silver trout” “bluebacks” or “sockeyes” depending upon the region, most people think of them as a trout.
But kokanee are landlocked sockeye salmon. In most lakes and reservoirs, they’re trout sized, say a foot to a foot-and-a-half in length. But in other lakes, they grow to salmon sizes, four pounds up to seven or so.
This is an important difference. Kokanee tend to school more than trout do, and this is especially so as fall approaches. The largest fish in the lake or reservoir will be hanging together as they group in preparation for spawning.
During the final year of their life cycle, kokanee put on the feedbag, eating and growing in preparation for the rigors of the spawn. While many kokanee leave their home lake and run up streams or rivers, not all do. Some kokanee spawn on gravel beds in the lake or reservoir where there is good water circulation.
While the exact time of this spawning movement depends upon a variety of factors, it happens in the fall. And like the other species of salmon, kokanee die once they’ve finished spawning.
So how do you catch ‘em?
There are three basic ways: trolling, jigging and baitfishing. You’ll undoubtedly find variations of each, but again, these are the methods most people use.
Fishing with bait is relatively simple. Once you’ve found a concentration of kokanee or know of hotspot, it’s simply a matter of dropping the right bait down to the fish. Kokanee are plankton feeders, so they tend to be picky about what they’ll eat and what they’ll hit but there is a wide variety of natural and artificial baits that appeal to them.
Good baits are salmon eggs, shoepeg corn and occasionally worms. Maggots are a natural, especially when tipping a lure. Cocktail shrimp also are a favorite. Adding scent is a good idea as well; krill or shrimp scent is arguably the best.
When the fish are feeding near the bottom, a sliding sinker (Lindy No-Snagg) set up is the ticket. Add some kind of float to the leader to keep the bait off the bottom. A small Thill Shy Bite float is one way to approach it, but using a walleye snell float is a bit better. Or you can do what most trout fishermen do in this situation and that is use a scented mini-marshmallow to float your offering.
Kokanee will suspend well off the bottom, though, and in those situations, either a sliding Thill float or a fixed float will keep the same baits suspended in the zone.
If it’s legal, chumming is a good way to draw a school and keep them in your area until you limit. At least one company that sells salmon eggs also sells chum made from the leftover juice and eggs. Another good chum is oatmeal that has been cooked with a colored shrimp scent.
While bait fishing has its followers, jigging is more fun. You can use the same rod and reel you used for fishing bait, but instead of waiting for the fish to come to you, you go to them.
Jigging for kokanee is a boat show. And it’s almost a given that the boat has a depthfinder. You scout for schools of fish, find them, anchor the boat (usually) and then lower your spoon, ice fly or lure to the level of the fish. Jigging spoons seem to be the predominant choice of lure, and why is a puzzle. Kokanee eat plankton; they don’t eat minnows, but they’ll smack a jigging spoon and fairly large ones at that.
Lindy has a couple of such spoons: the Viking and the Rattlin’ Flyer. Finding the right size depends upon the depth of the water you’re fishing and the amount of drift, assuming you don’t anchor. Colors vary, but as a rule of thumb, brighter colors are more likely to get bit. Tipping the spoons with corn, maggots or some kind of bait isn’t a bad idea as long as it doesn’t interfere with the action of the spoon itself.
Any one of the ice jigs will work as well—assuming there is a match of the lure and the conditions.
One jig fishery is a bit unusual. On Loon Lake, north of Spokane, Washington, and on neighboring Deer Lake, fishermen have it dialed in. Schools of kokanee feed along the bottom of the lake in certain areas, but they do it at night.
The anglers head out to the “kokanee holes” about sunset and anchor their boats at both ends to keep them absolutely stable. They then use ice jigs…but the jigs must have a glow finish and be charged. They tip the jigs with maggots and then send them to the bottom where they wait for feeding kokanee to pick up their glowing offerings.
The bite is subtle; in fact, it can be so soft that the only telltale is a slight movement of the line.
While still fishing and jigging have their proponents, trolling for kokanee is probably the most popular method of catching them.
Trolling can be an easy way to limit out the boat, but it does require that you get things right: right depth, right color, right lure (and attractor) and right bait.
These are schooling fish; as a rule of thumb, you’ll find them hanging pretty close to the same depth all over the lake. Generally, you have to present your gear at or just above where you see the kokanee on your depthfinder. Early in the season, that can be near the surface, and it’s possible to flatline a small plug or attractor/spinner combo without adding much weight.
As the season progresses, and the water warms, kokanee go deep. In some lakes, that may only be 20 feet deep, but on others, such as Washington’s big Lake Roosevelt, it can be 90 feet. The most accurate way to reach a given depth (and repeat that depth for fish after fish) is with a downrigger.
You can also use in-line weights or leadcore, but both take some of the fun out of the fight. Running a lightweight attractor--for instance an in-line flasher or large spoon converted to a flasher—followed by a small lure is the best way to get all the fight a kokanee offers.
Here’s where you can use some walleye gear. Lindy’s new Spinner Rig with custom-color Indiana blade and beads is a slam-dunk. Kokanee seem to hit this with a vengeance, and the single #1 hook does a good job of keeping the fish on the hook. Shorten the leader to keep it close to the attractor—roughly 18 inches, but shorter can be better at times.
Other spinner rigs work as well, and they can have blades as small as a pea to as large as nickel.
Another option is to troll a small plug behind the downrigger ball. Pick one that works well at the speed kokanee seem to prefer: 1.2 to 2.0 mph. Remember, though, as with any advice, this is a guideline. On some lakes, the fish only respond to faster speeds, and in some cases, speed doesn’t matter at all.
Colors, as noted before, are important, and what the fish want may change not only from day to day but also from hour to hour, based on available light, the depth the fish are using, the color of your dog’s hair or some other weird variable. Play with colors, lures and speeds until you find the right combination. When the action dies, begin again.
If you really want to experiment, pick up a selection of crappie tubes and tie a few, small leaders with double octopus hooks or a red treble. Slide on a glass bead or two and then thread the tube over the leader. Put a spinner blade ahead of it or use it behind a dodger that provides action to the tube. Try different color combinations until you get fish.
Bait is important, or at least scent is. Most trolling lures catch more fish if they’re tipped with some kind of scent. Shoepeg (white) corn kernels are the icon of kokanee fishermen, and it’s available in many supermarkets. You can spice these with some of the scent or dye products on the market as well; look for shrimp or krill scent. Paste baits work well, as do naturals: short sections of worms, small pieces of shrimp, or maggots.
It’s worth saying once again: keep changing until you find a combination of lure and bait that the fish want. At times they can be picky and change preferences hourly.
As the fish move up or down in the water column, the combinations also can change, which makes sense, after all. Light penetration changes with the depth of the water, and with the change in light comes a change in the appearance (and sometimes visibility) of the lure.
While this sounds confusing, it needn’t be. The biggest secret in catching kokanee is to go fishing for them. The more time you have your line wet, the better chances you have to catch ‘em. Once you locate the fish, it’s usually fairly simple to get them dialed in.
By: Lindy Team