A smaller landlocked–version of a sockeye salmon, Kokanee salmon have gained and maintained a foothold and a substantial following in many western states. Kokanee salmon are common in Washington, Oregon, California, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. You’ll also find the landlocked populations of sockeye salmon in the Yukon Territory and British Columbia in Canada. Smaller than the anadromous variety, landlocked Kokanee salmon generally average between 12 and 20 inches. There are two kinds of Kokanee populations-one that spawns in streams and one that spawns on gravelly shorelines in lakes.
In many places, the diminutive salmon serve a fodder for a host of predators that include lake trout and northern pike. The lake trout wouldn’t exist without the Kokanee and there’s a delicate balance between too many of one and not enough of the other.
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Kokanee can typically be found in large, cold reservoirs across the West. Unlike most Pacific salmon, adult Kokanees feed on zooplankton and aquatic organisms like freshwater shrimp. This food preference is in direct competition with juvenile lake trout and other trout species. Unlike trout species, Kokanees exhibit an aggressive feeding pattern refereed to as limnetic, which involves a vertical feeding movement to take advantage of zooplankton abundance while selectively attacking prey in dense schools. Biologists refer to this as diel feeding chronology. Kokanees can quickly change position in the water column along with the time and duration to take advantage of prey abundance and minimize predation. Anglers need to utilize their electronics to stay on top of feeding schools of Kokanee and take advantage of these feeding frenzies.
Kokanee salmon can be caught year round, but are most commonly pursued in the summer, fall and winter. Most anglers prefer to troll for Kokanees during the summer months, although vertical jigging can be productive. Even though Kokanee are feeding on tiny organisms, they will strike a variety of spoons, plastics and spinners.
Kokanees are targeted with downriggers, divers or lead core when trolling. Traditionally, Kokanee fans use strings of spinner blades, called pop cans or cowbells, to attract the miniature salmon to small spoons or squids trailing the hardware. Spreads of cleans spoons have been proven to be equally effective at target the scattered schools of Kokes in summer.
Come late summer and early fall, Kokanees begin amassing in more concentrated schools. While still taking advantage of zooplankton abundance, the maturing kokes are beginning to have procreation on their minds. The males develop an increasingly pronounced kype and take on a pinkish tinge. While many anglers still troll for them in early fall, jigging is a proven techniques for staying on active schools and triggering strikes.
Guide Robby Richardson (http://www.sportfishcolorado.com) has jigging for Kokanees down to a science. The Colorado guide starts jigging about mid-August and targets Kokanees until they begin to get increasingly less aggressive and start heading up river. Richardson uses his electronics to locate thick concentrations of salmon and then hovers over the school using his trolling motor to precisely target pint-sized Kokes.
I joined Richardson a couple falls ago to try our hand at throttling some feisty salmon. Richardson introduced me to the group anglers that would be joining us. Friends Bud McIntosh from Pueblo, Terry Hamilton and Danny Relich from Canon City had fished with Richardson many times. In just a few minutes, I felt like I’d been fishing with them for years.
Richardson fired up the big motor and we sped down the reservoir for a few minutes before he shut down, and started the kicker motor to begin hunting for fish. The Lowrance graph instantly showed pods of fish with some major hooks below them.
“Aren’t those fish?” I queried.
“Ya, but not enough to bother with,” he said. He said we’d know it when we found the mother lode. There were fish on the graph non-stop, but we soon came to a location where the salmon were 20 feet thick on the graph and showed as up a wide, orange swath. “We’ll try here,” Richardson said.
Richardson handed everyone 6’ 6” Shimano bait casting outfits, but not before checking the calibration of the reel. Richardson explained it was important to know exactly how much line we had out to target the school of salmon. “Looks like they’re down about 90 to 100 feet,” said Richardson. The idea was to jig the spoon slightly above the school of salmon. The Kokanee were more likely to come up for the bait and catching fish from the top of the school would prevent bringing them up through the entire mass and spooking others.
The regulars in the group had played this game before and quickly set about adding kernels of white shoepac corn to the treble hooks on the jigging spoons. Corn? Really? “I think the food they feed the salmon in the hatchery has a corn base,” explained Richardson as I gave him a quizzical look.
Everyone free-spooled their lines down to the 90 foot range and began a rhythmic jigging motion that lifted the lure six inches to a foot and allowed it to flutter down on a tight line. Danny Relich was using his favorite short, custom-made rod. Soon he was into a salmon. In this case, it paid to have the shortest one in the group! The salmon bulldogged hard, but Danny speed-reeled the Kokanee to the boat in a manner of seconds.
Soon everyone was into salmon. With frantic reeling and nets flying we soon realized that the resident writer was the only one who hadn’t caught a fish. Time to change that. I got a little more serious about breaking the jinx. The idea was to lift the spoon and then allow it to flutter down on a tight line, striking at any hesitation or sense of weight. To me, it was just like jigging for walleyes. On about the third drop, I felt a solid thump, but missed the fish. I dropped the lure right back down and he hit it again.
The spunky salmon bored for bottom 150 feet below. I could feel every headshake with the sensitive Shimano rod and Power Pro braided line. As the salmon neared the surface, I could see the male Kokanee was already getting the distinctive kyped jawed that indicated the salmon were getting close to spawning time. The salmon’s flank had only a faint pinkish blush. Once the salmon began it’s one-way journey up river like all semelparous fish, the side of the male would become as red as a fall maple leaf.
Most reservoirs that have Kokanees also have lake trout and it’s a tricky proposition to maintain a balance between the two. Both lake trout and Kokanees are technically non-native invasive species. Kokanees are highly valued as sport fish. Surveys have indicated that somewhere around 80% of anglers visiting western reservoirs that contain Kokanees are there to catch the miniature salmon. A smaller percentage of anglers are there to catch trout, either the giant lakers or rainbows and brown trout. The ravenous lake trout can adversely affect both salmon and trout numbers.
Lake trout in these reservoirs can reach 50 pounds and the rotund trout feed almost exclusively on Kokanees and newly planted trout. To compound the problem, lake trout less than 20 inches have an affinity for the same zooplankton and microorganisms that Kokanees feed on. Obviously, there’s a delicate balance between too many lake trout and not enough of the more desirable salmon. Leviathan northerns pike can also be found in many of the reservoirs and further impact Kokanee numbers.
While Kokanees are popular with anglers fishing open water, there’s a smaller cadre of fishermen that target Kokes through the ice. Schools of winter Kokes are made up of silvery, immature fish that shadow pods of zooplankton feeding actively even in the dead of winter. The salmon are even more concentrated in winter and the flesh of the spunky salmon is bright orange and delectable on the table.
Wherever you find winter Kokanees, they’ll be concentrated where you find zooplankton. You’ll see the schools 30 to 60 feet down over deeper water where it’s 100-120 feet deep. It’s just a matter of spotting several lines in that plankton zone to determine the best depth. The best depth varies with the current because the current carries the plankton. Often the plankton will be visible on your graph. The key is to find the plankton level and then just fish around that. Eventually, the Kokanees will show up.
It would seem like finding concentrations of Kokanees might be hit or miss in a large reservoir, but there are ways to hedge your bet. One is to use a devise known as a jigging machine. The jigging machine uses a 12-volt car battery that is attached to a windshield wiper motor and a windshield wiper arm, but instead of having a blade the arm is fitted with a pinch pad-type downrigger release. The release is used to attach and hold a string of large, reflective spinner blades. The spinner blades are lowered anywhere from 10 to 60 feet below the ice and then attached to the release. Once activated, the arm moves up and down in an arc causing the spinner blades to flash and flutter as they’re manipulated. The action simulates a feeding school of Kokanees and draws salmon into the area. Gargantuan lake trout that feed on the small salmon also are attracted to the commotion.
Even though Kokanee feed on diminutive plankton, they will strike a variety of lures. “We do really well on the kokes through the ice with a variety of small spoons,” said Richardson. “PK spoons (http://www.pklures.com) were one of our hottest lures last year for the salmon. The 1/4-ounce in pink/white was probably our best color. Chartreuse/silver was good, too.”
During the open-water season Richardson tips his spoons with shoepeg corn when jigging. For some reason, the corn is not as effective through the ice. “You can tip your lures with corn. It’ OK,” said Richardson, “but I do better with shrimp, meal worms or wax worms through the ice.” He said that Rat Finkies and other small jigs work for Kokanees, too. “I’ve done well with the Rat Finkie jigs tipped with bait fished on a dead stick,” he said. Richardson added that scent-enhanced baits, like Berkley Gulp! maggots and Northland Impulse plastics will work too, but generally not as well as live bait.
Richardson said that Kokanees through the ice bite much lighter than during the summer and fall. “Through the ice Kokanees just seem to be less aggressive,” he theorized, “Maybe it’s because the water is colder.” It might be because their prey is colder too and less aggressive. All Kokanees have to do that time of year is swim through a school of plankton with their mouths open. Either way, a delicate spring bobber, like Ice Strong titanium spring bobbers (http://www.fishicestrong.com), are required to detect the light bite of a winter Kokanee.
“You need a rod with a little backbone for setting the hook,” claimed Richardson, “but a soft, sensitive tip to detect strikes and play a fish on light line is necessary. You don’t want those real whippy rods like you’d use for ice fishing for bluegills. You’ll never hook a fish with one of those.” Rods can be from 24 to 36 inches depending whether you’re fishing in a shelter or out on the ice. “Strike indicators are a must, especially on the dead sticks,” said Richardson.
He uses a graph as well as an underwater camera while ice fishing for kokes. “We set up the camera so we can see the baits on three rods,” offered Richardson. “A lot of times you’ll see a school of five to 10 salmon just swim by and kind of ignore your baits and then one will just zoom in and smash it.” Richardson said the camera is important to determine exactly what kind of fish are around your baits and to see how they are reacting to what you’ve got on and how you’re moving it. Some days the kokes will respond to jiggling; other days a hop or they may not want it moving at all. Richardson said many days the dead sticks out-fish the rods in angler’s hands.
Salmon that Richardson catches are silvery specimens that typically weight 1 to 3 pounds and measure 14 to 16 inches, with the occasional salmon going 17 or 18 inches. A bonus is the rainbows and browns that are caught right along with the salmon.“50% of these fish are going to spawn the next fall and the other half are immature salmon that will spawn the following year,” claimed Richardson. The silvery Kokanees are spirited fighters on light tackle and superb on the table. Limits are a generous and once you find the level they’re cruising at and what they’re interested in that particular day, catching a limit isn’t too difficult.
Of course, these are salmon that are actively feeding, but even active salmon can turn up their nose wherever they please.